A Parcel of Patterns by Jill Paton Walsh

A Parcel of PatternsJill Paton Walsh is the author of Hengest’s Tale, set in Viking times and accurate enough to please Tolkien. Her talent is for telling a first-person account of a tragedy set in the past. Her use of historical details is deft and evocative. She had a way of making simple things count, of sketching quotidian details into a circumstance so that they make sense. You cannot read The Emperor’s Winding Sheet without having a good idea of the situation and events of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Her stories move briskly, and even though the main plot is usually provided for by research, she contrives multiple satisfying sub-plots that bring home details and pathos. Her love and understanding of humans in their different situations is her great historian’s strength. There is always a lot of feeling in a story that she tells, because she knows how to send the rain which fills the brooks and streams, which feed the rivers, which all run into the sea.

This is a book in which a plague runs it course. We watch it arrive unannounced, then they have to isolate because the only way to stop it is to eliminate contagion, they have hope it will diminish in the winter but it trickles on, in spring there is waxing then waning, bringing hope, but then the plague reaches its high tide. Walsh knows how to evoke, and she evokes the harrowing and pitiful moments with a measured, steady, unadorned account. She really knows how to accumulate feeling, how to build up shared memories between the narrator and the reader, how to use the pace of her story to wring the most out of the fewest words.

A Parcel of Patterns is set in 1665, in a village of Derbyshire at the moment when the Clarendon laws had driven the old Puritan pastor from the village church and his replacement arrived. Part of the skill with which Walsh exploits that situation gives the reader an experience of the religious conflict through the eyes of a villager. The plague arrives in a parcel containing patterns for a dress which is to be a more fashionable and exuberant dress than is customary, one the old pastor would have found tending toward vanity. The dress is for the new pastor’s wife. I think Walsh means this book as a kind of indictment of God for human suffering: as the story progresses, among the differences that emerges between the old and new clergymen is one concerning providence. The doctrine of Divine providence is the one point of theology in which the narrator becomes most involved.

It is the one thing that does not satisfy about the book. The parcel of patterns never really achieves its symbolic potential. It is a bit Barthian in the inscrutability it attributes to the Lord’s patterns of operation, and the emblem remains inert. I find it ironic that the point at which she errs is when she departs from her own pattern to be anachronistic.

It is a disappointment, and a pretty critical one, among all the successes of the story. It is a good story nevertheless: it does keep one in sympathy with the narrator, and suspense, the theological point is nearly carried out, done mostly well and not brutally, the human interest is strong, the historical details come alive, and her characters and their choices are convincing.

It is also much more poignant to read of those experiences when still in the coronavirus lockdown when all the uncertainty of the moment and no sense of the extent of the damage to come makes one sensitive the the villager’s plight. It really works in the favor of such a story to have strong resonances in one’s experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s