Robyn Cadwallader in conversation with Catherine Milne

It’s some time since I last attended an author event, not because there haven’t been any but because they’ve clashed with other commitments. I mean, why do organisations choose the same day of the week for events, like, say, Thursdays? Why don’t they get together and agree to share them across all the week days? (Hmm, then they’d only clash with something else, so let’s just recognise that life is busy, that we have too many options, and move on …)

Robyn Cadwallader, The book of coloursAnyhoo … it so happened that our regular Thursday activity was off this week, as was our occasional one that bumps the regular one, so we were free to attend the In Conversation event with local author Robyn Cadwallader. You have met Cadwallader here before: I’ve reviewed her debut novel, The anchoress, and have reported on another event with her when she conversed with Irma Gold. Now, with her second novel, Book of colours, having been published, she’s doing the rounds again, as authors do.

Book of colours is also historical fiction set in mediaeval England, but in the 1320s, some 70 years after The anchoress. Introducing Cadwallader, HarperCollins publisher Catherine Milne commented that in contrast to The anchoress’ small, cramped setting, Book of colours encompasses the world, or, at least, London and Paternoster Row. Its subject is the creation of illuminated books, in particular those little books of hours owned by women; its characters include Mathilda who commissions such a book, and its creators, John Dancaster, his wife Gemma, and a man called Will. (I think that’s right; I haven’t read the book yet.)

The conversation focused on two broad (and obvious) issues – the research and the book itself. So let’s start with the research …

Exploring a gap, a fault-line

Milne began by asking Cadwallader to read from her book, something she did a few times throughout the hour. Milne and Cadwallader then discussed the period. It was a turbulent, often violent, time for London, for England in fact. There’d been famine, the inept King Edward II was on the throne, and tension was rising (though it would be another 60 years before the Peasants’ Revolt).

Howard Psalter and Hours (British Library, Arundel 83 I), 1310-20. Public Domain

Cadwallader explained that her inspiration for the novel was her interest in books of hours, and particularly in the strange marginalia that many have. This marginalia often depicts weird creatures, and scenes telling stories, some of them rather bawdy. Sometimes they support/illustrate the content, but sometimes they seem to do the opposite, representing, for example, the wages of sin. These stories told via the illuminations, she said, can operate at different levels. What was behind this practice? No-one knows apparently, so here was her gap, her fault-line to explore.

Cadwallader’s research included:

  • lots of reading, about London, about illumination and art, of court rolls and proceedings, about privies and prostitutes. You name it, she probably read it.
  • walking London with a 14th century map, trying to capture what the place was like.
  • talking to an art historian who told her about identifying the different artists working on a particular book of hours …
  • and spending time with that book of hours until the different artists became apparent to her.

Gradually, she said, she began to see the four different people working on this book and by the time she’d finished looking at it she had a sense of her characters.

Milne then told us that in Book of colours, Cadwallader had written a book-in-a-book. Called “The art of illumination”, it’s written, I think I’m right, by Gemma. Excerpts from this preface many chapters. Milne asked Cadwallader to read one of these, and I’ll share a bit here. It starts by stating that the words must be in an order, in lines, to facilitate reading,

But the requirements of decoration are not so simple. The page needs shape and order, but not so much order that life withers. Consider the beauty of the curve and curl. And, as with a breathing city, let all of life be there in the book, from high to low, animal to monster, story and joke, devotion and dance, for God the Artisan made it all. On some pages, simple vines and flowers may be enough. On others let decoration be lush and bountiful.

“Animal to monster” took us to gargoyles and another reading of a vivid scene in which Will, looking at gargoyles, senses one coming to life … he represents Will’s secret, his shame, said Cadwallader, who loves gargoyles. (Don’t we all?)

Challenging the centre …

Moving on to the core of the book, its meaning, Cadwallader said something interesting about marginalia. It’s on the edge she said, a bit like shadows. Because of this position, it challenges the centre, but in so doing it makes the centre more real. I liked this. She said that there’s something about pictures and stories. They refuse to be bound by convention. They – their meaning, their impact – change depending on the reader, or viewer.

Milne then asked about the main theme of the book. It’s a novel about power, she said, of which women have little. How do they wield what they have?

Cadwallader responded, as she also did about The anchoress if I remember correctly, that she’s interested in ordinary women. Gemma and Mathilda (despite the latter’s privilege) are ordinary women. How do they manage the second-class roles they are assigned by their society? Illuminators, for example, like Gemma, worked alongside their husbands but were never recognised by the guilds, while women like Mathilda have more privilege but are controlled by their husbands. In fact, she has less freedom than Gemma.

Cadwallader is interested in how these women dealt with what they were given, “in how they managed to find value in their lives within the constraints.” Laughingly, she said she’s impressed with the gains her characters managed to make!! She spoke briefly about ensuring these gains, their achievements, are real, that is, believable for the time. She feels, she said, knowledgeable enough about mediaeval times, in which she has a PhD, to be able to strike the right balance. During the Q&A, Cadwallader reiterated this point, and said that she was determined not to “damage the women of the era by presenting them differently from what they are”.

That the audience was enthused by the conversation was evident in the wide variety of questions which concluded the event. The topics included the ownership of books of hours, the education of women, the writing process, and the fact that, for all its historical research, the novel contains a “ripping yarn”! I’m always interested in the writing process, and enjoyed Cadwallader’s answer to a question about Will. She said she was able to “find” him by writing a scene with him, that she discovered more about him as the action developed. For Cadwallader, as for many authors I think, their characters are, in a sense, living, changing beings.

The final reading was another excerpt from “The art of illumination”, near the end of the novel. It concluded with:

All you can do is paint faithfully and well, let the book go.

And so Cadwallader has done. I look forward to reading it and sharing my thoughts with you in the near-ish future.

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
26 April 2018

21 thoughts on “Robyn Cadwallader in conversation with Catherine Milne

  1. Frankly, the gorgeous cover was already enough to entice me into buying this one but now that you’ve explained what it’s about – wow. I can’t wait to read it. Thanks WG. And congrats, too, to Robyn Cadwallader.

    • It’s a great cover isn’t it Michelle, just as The anchoress has a great one too (or the Aussie edition anyhow, but I think most of them were good). So nice to see intelligent, beautiful covers.

  2. Ooh, ooh, I’m so excited by this!
    I couldn’t read The Anchoress even though I wanted to because I’m so claustrophobic about being underground that even now I feel a bit queasy just remembering its setting, but I stopped reading your review at ‘the creation of illuminated books’ (which I love!) and ordered this one there and then:)

    • That’s great Lisa. But, you can read the rest of this as it isn’t a review, so I don’t give anything away as I don’t know anything!

      The anchoress isn’t underground, btw, but in a cell on the side of a church. There is a window to another room through which she receives food, and talks to her carers and the women who seek her advice. Still it is small and enclosed. (I don’t like being underground either, btw. I once dated a speleologist. That lasted one date!!)

  3. I was so sorry to miss this event, but so great to at least have your write-up, Sue. The Book of Colours is on my bedside table, next in line.

    • Thanks Irma. I thought you’d be there but didn’t see you so wondered. We rushed out at the end, so didn’t catch people. I probably won’t get to it for another couple of months given I do review copies in order of receipt, but I’m looking forward to it.

  4. Fascinating commentary. I find the 14th century particularly interesting. Books of Hours, other illuminated books and the whole marginalia thing are also intriguing. I like to learn more about the subject. It is very neat to center a novel around these subjects.,

    I love author events. I need to get to more of them.

    • Thanks Brian. I don’t know much about the medieval era so I find her books fascinating. The anchoress was a whole new world. I know a “little” bit more about books of hours from my fine art studies, but we did them fairly cursorily, so this book should be illuminating!!

      And, I love author events too, but don’t get to anywhere near as many as are on here and I’d like to.

  5. Thank you for introducing me to Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours. What a treat.
    (I have a section in one of my novels, The White Garden, called The Book of Colours – it dramatises the life of St Teresa of Avila – in colours. I love it when different writers light upon the same titles and imagine them in such diverse ways.)

  6. Sue, I’m a bit late to this party, though I did try to comment as soon as I saw your post about my event, but my internet connections had other ideas! I think my computer is a bit overworked at the moment… Anyway, thanks so much for this. You have such a talent for giving a sense of content and atmosphere for events like this. And thanks for coming, too. I was a bit overwhelmed at the response — so many engaged and supportive people. Such a lovely way to launch a book. And thanks to all those who have commented on this page. Now I really really hope you enjoy reading the book! Carmel, I’ll be checking out your The Book of Colours!

    • A pleasure Robyn. Mr Gums and I enjoyed the event. I look forward to reading the book when it reaches the top of the review pile. Who isn’t fascinated by those beautiful books?

  7. Hi Sue, I have just finished reading Book of Colours, and it is a great story..I was walking the streets of London with Will, The colours and descriptions are wonderful.illuminations!

  8. Pingback: Book of Colours, by Robyn Cadwallader #BookReview | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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