Considering that it was, as Melvyn Bragg rightly puts it, ‘the biggest popular uprising ever experienced in England’, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 hasn’t proved particularly attractive to writers of historical fiction. Pierce Egan, better known for his essays on boxing, wrote an interminable novel called Wat Tyler in 1841, and Robert Southey produced a dramatic poem of the same title which he later disavowed. William Morris took another hero of the revolt, the itinerant preacher John Ball, as his inspiration for a time-travelling socialist fantasy; and that’s about it.
Historians and political thinkers in the centuries after the revolt have often tried to redress the balance of the unrelentingly hostile monastic chronicles that first told the story of 1381. Bragg is firmly in that revisionist tradition, if a current that has been flowing one way for about 600 years can still be thought of as revisionist. Though he is too good a novelist to paint his villains in exclusively primary colours, the likes of the boy-king Richard II, his insufferably vain mother Joan and various councillors, by turns pusillanimous and vengeful, are all deeply unsympathetic. We first meet Joan, for example, itemising her jewels, while Richard is a stuttering fop, whose one act of courage merely inspires him to an orgy of violent retribution.
Bragg’s heroes are the strong, noble Walter Tyler (Bragg eschews ‘Wat’, much as those who write about Thomas Paine have reclaimed his first name from opponents who dismiss him as ‘Tom’) and the inspirational John Ball. Bragg has made Tyler a veteran of the French wars (Egan did the same), an admirer of the King’s dead father, the Black Prince, for whom he fought, and a self-possessed leader by example. Ball, meanwhile, is much as those hostile chroniclers portrayed him, but the sermons and views they found abhorrent are presented as worthy responses to intolerable conditions.
The extreme contrasts between court and country, governors and governed, is well drawn, but until the novel’s most dramatic episodes, as the rebels reach London and confront Richard and his advisers, there is a strange flatness about it. This may partly be because Bragg the historian keeps shouldering aside Bragg the novelist: long Whiggish disquisitions on Magna Carta, or the rising role of English as compared to French, puncture the drama. When the rebels begin sweeping through towns on the way to the capital, Bragg’s descriptions retreat into a distancing passive voice, and there is little sense of the extraordinary risk they were taking and how that might have affected their actions.
Once the drama reaches its climax, however, at the gates of London, and then in the unique confrontation between king and commoner that sealed Tyler’s fate, Bragg hits his stride. If this means that Richard becomes even more dislikeable than he was in reality, then that is the novelist’s prerogative. Now Is the Time sets out to recover one of the most dramatic episodes in English history, and, ultimately, it succeeds.
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