Fiction allows for the portrayal of a kind of absorption in the processes and materials of a historical period that is unusual in nonfiction. It can give a powerful sense of how time actually passed for people. Vermeer’s chaotic domestic routine as a painter was splendidly imagined by Tracy Chevalier in Girl with a Pearl Earring, for example. But the technical innovators of the Dutch Golden Age – the telescopists, the astronomers, the surveyors and engineers – are yet to be celebrated in this way. Sadly, nobody has written the story of Simon Stevin, who built a sand-yacht that could outrun a galloping horse as it whipped along the Dutch strand, or of Cornelis Drebbel, who demonstrated a submarine for King James I that mysteriously managed to stay underwater with its crew for several hours in the River Thames.
However, Stella Tillyard has performed this service on behalf of the Dutch hydraulic engineers who came to England during the seventeenth century and so altered large tracts of the English countryside near where I live. The hero of her fiction, Jan Brunt, is a protégé of the real Cornelis Vermuyden, who masterminded the colossal project of draining the fens. (Brunt is the overseeing engineer; the actual digging is done by Irish prisoners of war.) Tillyard describes technical facets of the project with a light touch, and counterbalances this with a sense of the delicate ecology of that unique environment before it was so radically reshaped – an economy as well as an ecology since it includes the reedsmen and water dwellers who will be displaced by the works. This tension resonates gently with our knowledge of peoples and habitats under threat of destruction today in one of a number of surprising – but ultimately convincing – modern echoes. Other such twists of fate lie in wait for Brunt and the English marsh-girl he falls for.