The camera of historical fiction almost always looks over the shoulder of those who themselves stood on the shoulders of giants. The protagonists are often kings and queens, lords and ladies and knights. Occasionally, if we are very lucky, we get to see historical fiction that follows the little people: the peasants, the freemen, the villeins and serfs. Bernard Cornwell is one author who does this well (see Azincourt as one, perhaps not even particularly notable, example). Valerie Anand also does this with The Proud Villeins, an excellent, sweeping tale of several generations of villeins who grapple with a family myth that they could have had freedom.
Beginning just prior to William of Normandy’s invasion in 1066, Anand introduces us to Ivon de Clairpont, a Norman knight held prisoner on a remote Danish settlement in Northumbria. Ivon chafes at his new status as a thrall, particularly because it means any children he produces will themselves be thralls. After failing to escape, however, he eventually comes to terms with his status, marries, and has more children—but he never stops talking about how he deserves to be free. This story of his survives the tellings and retellings and is passed down with each generation, subtly influencing the lives of his descendants.
From the proud Norman Ivon, Anand shifts forward to his grandson, also an Ivon, nicknamed “Oddeyes” for the different-coloured eyes he inherited from his grandfather. During his childhood, Ivon witnesses Norman knights massacreing nearly everyone in his home in the settlement. This kindles a hatred for Norman knights that causes him to reject his heritage, even when opportunities arise where it might result in his freedom. After a brief stint as a novice at a monastery, Ivon winds up on a farm outside Norwich, where he becomes a potter and sets his family on the path to being villeins in perpuity.
Once again, Anand skips forward two generations to the feisty Margaret, who has her heart set on marrying a local sweetheart. Her mother doesn’t approve, though, and sets up considerable barriers. In the back of their minds, there eternally lurks the story that Margaret’s grandfather, Ivon Oddeyes, once passed up a chance for their freedom. Time and again, Anand returns to that motif, examining how the different generations value (or don’t) the idea of not being bound to the land they work. It’s a strange concept for those of us in the present day to comprehend—just as, Anand points out, Margaret and her contemporaries would find the notion that there might someday not be villeins at all rather laughable.
As with many multi-generational books, The Proud Villeins’ strength is also its weakness. By jumping from protagonist to protagonist, Anand risks alienating the reader by asking them to get to know the new protagonist each time. Just as I began caring about Ivon and became invested in his life, she skipped ahead twenty years and presented Ivon’s grandson as the new protagonist. Same thing happens with the transition from Oddeyes to Margaret. I can’t really fault Anand for this, because there is no question that it’s the coverage of these generations that makes the book so successful. However, it does make for a somewhat different reading experience from what I tend to enjoy.
By following multiple generations, Anand tracks the changing attitudes towards freedom. For Ivon, it is a right by blood. For Oddeyes, it is a sore and prickly wound complicated by his self-hatred. For Margaret, it is an ache and a sore reminder of her doomed love. Anand builds upon each successive story, creating a more satisfying overall narrative. Each character has traits of their forbears, but they are all interesting, dynamic individuals in their own right. Each one faces their own challenges depending on their genders, upbringing, and livelihoods.
In addition to its satisfying structure, The Proud Villeins benefits from Anand’s strong prose. She does not make the mistake of over-explaining the time period. Most exposition is through conversation, and it mostly concerns current events—a very realistic topic for any age, particularly one where news must travel via word-of-mouth. Very little of it concerns the quotidian aspects of life, and Anand seldom deigns to take the reader aside and lecture them on how people lived in the twelfth century. Instead, she goes the stronger route, showing us how people lived even as she tells the story. As a result, despite its length, this book seldom made me bored or uninterested in reading.
I quite enjoyed the exposure to the life of twelfth-century villeins. As I said in the introduction, so much historical fiction revolves around nobility, famous persons, or the major military events of the past. By focusing on very normal activities for the time, Anand provides a powerful glimpse at how different people’s lives were. And she also shows, through these three generations that she tracks, how much life in rural England changes from the time of William the Conquerer to the accession of King Henry II. But she does it from the point of view of the common person, providing a much more interesting and down-to-earth perspecitve on the tumultuous times. Everyone knows the king’s name (and the other king’s name) … but most of the villeins couldn’t care less who happens to rule, as long as they are healthy and well-fed.
Likewise, Anand does a good job demonstrating how the majority of the Norman overlords regard their English villeins as something subhuman—even the kindest Norman lords, by dint of their upbringing, have trouble seeing any English peasant in a more favourable light. Anand depicts injustices in ways that make us empathize with the villein victims; however, she doesn’t inject anachronistic ideals into the story. Even her protagonists who desire freedom are very much mired in twelfth-century mindsets about how that freedom might legitimately be obtained. The end result: a very strong, very deep vision of twelfth-century England with characters who are well-drawn and complex.
As a feat of storytelling, The Proud Villeins is both impressive and enjoyable. It doesn’t have much in the way of pure action or thrill. The multi-generational aspect to the story can be frustrating, on occasion, for how it abbreviates our time with each protagonist. Yet it illustrates how much life for villeins changes in just a few decades, giving a peasant’s perspective on one of the most major transitions in English history. If you are looking for intense portrayals of key battles or an intimate exploration of the life of nobility … keep looking. But if you want to see how the ordinary people lived, breathed, and toiled, look no further.