Time Travel and the Black Death: Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book (1992) is Connie Willis’s second novel and the book where she got everything right. I read it when it was first published, and I bought a U.K. paperback as soon as one was available and I’ve been re-reading it frequently ever since, often at Christmas, as it’s set at Christmas.

This is a story about infectious diseases, history and caritas. It is set in two epidemics in two time periods, an influenza epidemic in 2054 and the Black Death in 1348, and the two stories alternate, the future time worrying about Kivrin, the student trapped in the wrong part of the past, while Kivrin back in 1348 is trying to cope and learn and help. The plot ratchets, going forward in both time periods in turn, until they come together again at the end. The characters all work, what happens to them hurts, and the whole thing is utterly unputdownable even after multiple re-reads. I expect to be coming back to this book and enjoying it for my whole life. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, and I am now going to discuss it in detail, with spoilers, beyond the cut.

I have heard Doomsday Book called a tragedy, especially in opposition to To Say Nothing of the Dog, which really is a comedy. Shakespeare’s plays get divided into comedies, tragedies, histories and “problems,” and Doomsday Book is a history, or possibly a problem. It has sad moments and funny moments, and certainly a lot of people die, but our protagonists survive and are successful. It has a eucatastrophic ending that is perfectly satisfying. You would think that a book with two epidemics would be a “man against nature” story, but while certainly the influenza and the Black Death can be seen as antagonists in a plot sense, the actual story here is “man learns lesson.”

One of the ways Willis makes the whole book work is the way that the influenza epidemic in the future section starts immediately while the revelation of mistake and the horrors of the Black Death come after Kivrin, and the reader, has had time to understand and care about the people in the past. Along with Kivrin, we learn them as real and with their own concerns — Rosemond’s worrying engagement to a much older man, Gawyn’s fatal love for Eliwys, Imeyne’s petty snobbery and constant carping. We see their kindness to Kivrin and we see the details of their lives before they start to die. And then we endure their deaths with Kivrin. One of the most effective parts of the book is where Kivrin starts to count deaths — she knows the Black Death killed “a third to a half” of Europe, and she thinks it will kill a third, or at most half, of the village. That kind of statistical thinking has no place in reality, and Willis wants us to be sure that this is reality. Statistics and probabilities are relentlessly mocked throughout the book. The lesson Kivrin learns is that history is real, what “a third to a half of Europe” really means, and that everyone through all of time is a person.

I used the Latin word “caritas” above when I was saying what the book was about. I used it instead of either of its usual translations, “charity” and “love”, because both of them have specific meanings in English that aren’t what Willis is interested in here. “Charity” in English has come to mean giving money to organizations that do good so exclusively that any other meanings are hard to reach. As for “love,” while we do talk about kinds of love other than romance, we mean romance so often that we need to distinguish them as “mother love” or whatever. It’s interesting that Willis here avoids romance completely and shows mother love in a very negative light, while showing us pretty much every other form of loving human relationship.

Kivrin is everyman, er, everygirl. She’s a very typical Willis character: she’s geeky and plucky and hardworking and unromantic. She’s determind to get to the past, and she’s delighted with it once she recovers from her influenza. Kivrin thinks about the people around her in the past, and when she thinks of the future she has left, she thinks of her teachers. She also thinks about God. She doesn’t think about a romantic partner, and she doesn’t think about her parents, though she must have some, or have had some. She never thinks of her childhood, even when dealing with children. She exists as Medieval Student only. But she’s very easy to identify with, we see her in first person in her reports as well as in third person. 

Through Kivrin we are shown loving friendship and that most unusual love, the love of an adult for somebody else’s children. This is all through Doomsday Book, and yet how rare it is in the whole of the rest of literature! Kivrin loves Rosemond and Agnes, Mr Dunworthy loves Kivrin and Colin. There’s no hint of romance, or even the usual kind of parental substitution, nor are the children little angels — they are deftly characterised and real. Agnes whines and Rosemond puts on airs and Colin sucks gobstoppers and evades authority. Yet unloveable as they are, the older characters love them, and the reader also comes to care for them.

Mary Ahrens, one of the best characters in the novel, loves Colin who is her great-nephew. How often do we see aunts, let along great aunts, and how often do we see them when they’re not being played for laughs? She’s exactly the kind of character we so rarely see in fiction — an older woman, unmarried, professional, with connections to her family, with close friends. She dies, of course. Mary Ahrens is a doctor, and as well as loving her great-nephew and her friends she also loves humanity and lays down her life caring for them in the epidemic. In this she’s contrasted directly with Kivrin, who survives with everyone dying around her — Mary dies, while saving almost everyone.

They are both, in their own way, shown to be saintly. Father Roche, who saw Kivrin arrive from the future, specifically believes she is a saint sent by God to help them — and he gets what he thinks is confirmation when he asks for her confession when she is feverish and she tells him she has not sinned. From the text’s point of view, it’s by no means sure that he’s wrong. Kivrin is very human and fallible, and yet she is saintlike and what she does is more than many people would do, or did do. Yet if God has sent her, through the mistake of feverish Badri and the folds of time, he has sent her to do no more than help people die with dignity and learn a lesson. Through Mary’s work in the future and Kivrin’s in the past we may see the operation of Grace and of God’s love — and for those who believe in Christianity this may work better. It leaves me with teeth gritting questions about theodicy.

It’s probably worth noting in this context that everyone in this book in both time periods attends church. I didn’t notice this as unusual at first, because it is Christmas, which is one of the few times British people might go to church, but it’s quite clear if you pay attention that Dunworthy, Kivrin, Mary and the other modern characters are regular churchgoers. Badri Chaudhuri, the time travel technician who is the first to fall sick with influenza, is explicitly identified as “Church of England.” There has obviously been a religious revival and people have started going to church in the U.K. as they do in the U.S. — it would be plausible for any one of them to be a churchgoer, very strange for them all to be. But social change happens; a hundred years ago they’d have all gone to church—who can say about sixty years from when the book was written?

Our other central character, the protagonist of the future strand, is Mr Dunworthy. He never gets a first name. He’s a don, a history professor, unmarried and not in any romantic relationships. He has close friends, he has students, he has colleagues, and he cares for history and time travel more than anything. He doesn’t want Kivrin to go into the fourteenth century because it’s too dangerous, and he worries about her constantly — with good cause, as it turns out. We see his love for his friends, for his students, and his relationship with Kivrin is specifically compared on several occasions to God and Jesus — clearly she is an alter ego. And Kivrin prays to him when feverish. He’s an older man who takes in a waif — Colin — who is harassed by bureaucracy, though he has an able secretary who takes care of everything — Finch — and who sets everything right in the end, at least for the characters who are still alive. He appears in a number of other Willis novels in the Oxford Time Travel universe.

If Kivrin’s an everyman with whom the reader is intended to identify, Dunworthy is very much a specific himself, paternal, worried, impatient with incompetence, as kind as he can be in the circumstances, which are perpetually too much for him. Everything in the book is seen through either Kivrin or Dunworthy.

We have parental figures, in Dunworthy and Mary, but real parents are represented by Colin’s neglectful mother and William Gaddson’s overprotective one. Colin’s mother, Mary’s niece Deirdre, has sent him away at Christmas, which is the one time in Britain when everyone is with their family — there’s no Thanksgiving to dilute that the way there is in the U.S.. Deirdre has sent him away so she can be with her “new live-in,” a romantic partner. Colin waits for the gifts she is sending, he clearly wants them as proof of her love, but Mary casually mentions that last time (this is not the first time he has been sent to Mary for Christmas) the gifts didn’t arrive until Epiphany, twelve days late. She doesn’t come for Mary’s funeral, which Colin has to cope with alone, because Dunworthy is sick. She doesn’t retrieve Colin afterwards even when quarantine is lifted. She’s a horrible mother.

Mrs Gaddson is at the other extreme, an almost Dickensian caricature, absolutely appalling and larger than life, the overprotective mother from hell who reads gloomy bits of the bible to patients in the hospital. She’s come to Oxford not to help but to make everything worse — though that’s unfair. It isn’t malice (you rarely meet real malice in Willis), it’s her own nature. Her son only wants to get away from her. She’s an even worse mother than the neglectful Deirdre.

In 1348, Imeyne cares so little for her daughter-in-law and grandchildren that she summons not only Sir Blouet and his family, but a plague-stricken priest who infects them all. Even without that she’s constantly carping at them. Eliwys loves her children, but she’s helpless to help them even from every day hurts — and she has the palest characterisation of all the family.

While mother love fares badly, romance fares even worse. William Gaddson is our only example of romantic love. Half the girls in Oxford are in love with him and planning to marry him, and this is a kind of running joke. William is always turning up with useful girls — girl technicians and nurses, whatever Dunworthy requires. They don’t know about each other, and never find out, he’s clearly so used to deceiving his mother that deceiving half the girls in Oxford is childsplay. Apart from William and his changing parade of women, all we have for romantic love is Gawyn, pining for Eliwys, and her using that love to send him to fetch her husband. He never returns. Sir Blouet’s engagement to Rosemond — who is thirteen to his forty — is horrible, and both Rosemond and Kivrin see it as horrible.

We have here a community of celibate academics. This isn’t a requirement — Oxford dons have been allowed to marry for quite some time. Even female dons could marry well before 1992 — and in any case, we don’t see any female dons except the visiting American archaeologist, Lupe Montoya. We just have a group of people who happen to be academics and happen to be celibate.

In 1348, the priest Father Roche does need to be celibate, and is, and is shown as ideal — talking to God the way Kivrin talks into her “corder,” dealing well with everyone, although he has no education, thinking well of everyone. He’s the saintliest character in the book, and he dies, and perhaps God did send Kivrin to him to help him in his last days.

What we’re shown positively and from many directions all through the book is caritas, disinterested love, love of humanity, of friends and other people’s children. Roche shows caritas, Mary does, Kivrin learns it.

I talked about the themes that run through Willis’s work. History, yes, lots here, and the reality of people in history is foregrounded. Telephones, oh yes, and missed messages and messages gone astray. Colin waiting for the post to bring presents, Dunworthy trying to call Basingame, trying to call Andrews, Montoya trying to call Basingame and Dunworthy, the bellringers, the nurse writing down what Badri says in his delirium. And again, there are no real antagonists in this book. Gilchrist and Latimer, who have opened up the medieval period while the head of department is away, and who rush Kivrin through, are wrong, but not malicious. Imeyne with her suspicion of Kivrin is definitely a force for tension. But there’s no violence here and no villains, the antagonists are nature (the plagues), ignorance, and miscommunication. Even Gilchrist’s shutting down the net isn’t the disaster it seems at first—Badri has made a back-up.

Bells are a motif, from the mechanical carrillon playing to shoppers in the streets to the visiting bellringers and the peal they want to ring, and then the bells tolling for the dead.

It’s easy to point out things that are wrong with Doomsday Book, from the lack of call-waiting (or even answering machines) in 2054 to the snow-ploughed road in 1348. Indeed, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. The thing is that these things don’t matter, because the book has, as Roberts himself acknowledges, “real emotional heft” and they’re just nitpicking. It’s just as easy to point to details she gets right — the language being completely incomprehensible at first, despite having studied it, Colin taking aspirin into the past because he knows it’s been around forever.

Her themes and her plot come together here to make a vastly readable and most unusual book.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo nominated and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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