Robyn Cadwallader, Book of colours (#BookReview)

Robyn Cadwallader, The book of coloursWhat makes historical fiction worth reading for me is the exploration of universal ”truths”. Fortunately, Robyn Cadwallader’s second novel, Book of colours, does this, albeit I wish that some of the universals – gender inequity, class (meaning social and economic inequity), and fear of foreigners – were no longer universal! The book explores other more general universals, too, such as love, friendship, loyalty, courage, suspicion, fear. However, historical fiction needs something more of course. It needs to authentically evoke an historical time and place, preferably through engaging characters. Cadwallader does this too.

Book of colours is set in mediaeval England, specifically between 1320 and 1322, and concerns an illuminated book of hours. The narrative is structured into two main chronological threads – the story of the book’s creation and the people creating it, from late 1320 to 1322, and that of the noblewoman who commissioned it, Lady Mathilda Fitzjohn, after she has it in her hands, from May to September 1322. She lives in Hertfordshire, while the limners’ atelier is located in London, so we also see city and country life during this period. As the limner Gemma writes:

…let all of life be there in the book, from high to low, animal and monster, story and joke, devotion and dance … (from The art of illumination)

Now, I particularly like it when historical fiction writers provide some historical context to their story, preferably in an afterword, along with some references or sources. This Cadwallader does, with a four-page Author’s Note and two-plus pages of Further Reading. She explains the historical background, including that the period she chose encompasses the Great Famine and the Dispenser War, and she discusses where the facts are less well documented. The meaning of those bawdy or confronting marginal images in books of hours, for example, is little understood. Also, says Cadwallader, no women limners are listed in this period, but there is evidence that women did, in fact, undertake illumination. These notes support the novel’s political, socioeconomic and sociocultural context.

The story is told third person through three main perspectives: Mathilda’s and those of two of the atelier workers, journeyman-near-master Will Asshe and master-in-work-if-not-in-name Gemma Dancaster. The atelier is owned by Gemma and her husband John – well, actually, given the times, it is “owned” by her husband, but he inherited it from her father. Prefacing the atelier-based chapters are sections from the book The art of illumination which Gemma secretly writes for her apprentice son Nick.

“both beauty and chaos”

Towards the end of the novel, the widowed Mathilda – her rebel Marcher husband having been killed while fighting the Dispensers – realises that life is not “ordered” as she had thought but is, like the “delicate, bawdy and capering creatures” in her book, “both beauty and chaos.” It is this “beauty and chaos” that Cadwallader captures through her vivid characters. The atelier thread starts with the arrival in London of Will, a limner who is escaping something that happened in Cambridge where he had lived and done his training. As the story progresses we discover, of course, what that was, but all I’ll say here is that he’d been associating with a student named Simon who had filled his head with ideas about equality. These ideas make Will angry about “the rich and their ambitions” and resentful about “the marks of privilege” requested for the book of hours. He’s a bit fiery, our Will, and gets himself into several scrapes, all the while watched over by an animated gargoyle who represents, I’d say, Will’s conscience.

Meanwhile, Gemma, the would-be master limner, is frustrated about the inequalities she faces as a woman – particularly a woman having to cover for her husband who is, we soon discover, no longer able to draw and paint. Gemma, too, is aware of economic inequities. Southflete, the stationer and middleman who handles the commission, tells them that

the calendar pages must be beautiful scenes of life on the demesne, you understand … Chubby infants, well-fed peasants, colour, beauty …

Gemma is not impressed:

Beautiful. How, in a village farmer’s wife, would January be beautiful? Snow if the weather was kind, ice if it was not. And this past year, colder than ever. Frost that rarely lifted, and then only to snow or rain. London had clenched its teeth, frozen to the marrow, too cold to move. At least the cramped lanes and houses blocked some of the wind; what it was like in the country, she couldn’t bear to think.

She, like Will, makes her assumptions about their patron Mathilda’s life and values, but as is often the case, assumptions aren’t always completely right – and these too Cadwallader teases out as the book progresses.

There are other characters – including Gemma’s gentle husband, their quietly wise apprentice Benedict, and their son and beginning apprentice Nick. These, plus other residents of London’s book trade area, Paternoster Row, flesh out the story, adding depth to the narrative and to the history of this fledgling industry struggling to establish itself as a guild.

So, there’s beauty and chaos in life, but it is through their drawings that the limners convey their feelings and ideas. As the world changes around them – for reasons I can’t fully divulge – the limners draw and paint their reflections and reactions, their messages even, into the book. Both Gemma and Will remind Mathilda of who she is and of her responsibilities to herself and others, responsibilities that become more nuanced and more personal than their original simplistic view of the world at the start of the novel. The interplay between the artists’ ideas as they paint and Mathilda’s reflections as she considers their paintings is one of the joys of the book. It is as much through these, dare I say, “virtual communications” as anything, that our three main characters grow in understanding. It is through them, for example, that Gemma shares her feelings – feelings Mathilda doesn’t recognise as coming from any sermon she knows – about women’s need to stand strong in the face of men’s power.

Book of colours, in other words, is a delicious read, imbued with the life of a long-ago time but filled with people whose emotions, hopes and frustrations are very much our own. Latish in the novel, Mathilda realises that Will’s friend “Simon’s simple borders of right and wrong won’t hold. They leave no space to breathe.” This is the book’s message: to grow and change we need to expand beyond simple conceptions of right and wrong. We need to let each other breathe and be. Only then can true selves, true relationships and, hopefully, a true understanding of equity develop.

Note: Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book, and Angharad Lodwick (one of last year’s Litbloggers) was also impressed. I also reported, back in April, on a Conversation with Robyn Cadwallader about this book.

AWW Badge 2018Robyn Cadwallader
Book of colours
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2018
360pp.
ISBN: 9781460752210

(Review copy courtesy HarperCollins)

32 thoughts on “Robyn Cadwallader, Book of colours (#BookReview)

  1. This sounds wonderful. I was in Mainz in Germany a few weeks ago which was the ‘birthplace’ of the Gutenburg press and they had a fascinating museum about the history of printing which included some 14th century illuminated Bibles. What a work of art they were – each apparently took about three years to create….

    • Oh good Debbie. I wonder why my word “delicious” captures you more? I must use it more often. Haha. When I use that word I tend to mean that it has all sorts of lovely angles to explore. You don’t just read it along one line but see all sorts of connections and ideas playing off each other, the structure perhaps informing the meaning, and so on.

    • Hi Buried, this is just her second novel so it’s probably not surprising that the only one in your library is The Anchoress. She had multiple publication deals for that one too, so it was published in the US and UK and here. I’ve reviewed it too, and it is a good read. I think though, that while its topic was particularly intriguing – the whole idea of the anchoress is astonishing – I found this one more satisfying overall because of the broader history conveyed and the greater breadth of characters.

      • I have taken the first step and bought it. But of course, there are a lot of books I’ve bought that I’m yet to read! It’s been on my list ever since it came out but after reading and enjoying Book of Colours so much, it’s definitely jumped up in the queue. I really appreciate her style and she invokes such atmosphere. That’s what I look for in historical fiction, that sense of place within the set time.

  2. I’m such a sucker for novels set in medieval times, so thanks for drawing my attention to this one. One thing that often trips me up, though, or challenges my suspension of disbelief, is the dialogue. How on earth does a writer capture the way people spoke to one another in the 14th century? How does Robyn Cadwallader manage dialogue?

    • Good question Dorothy. I don’t think she really tried to emulate the speech of the times, at least my understanding of it, from say Chaucer, but she does convey the difference through using some of the vocabulary… The limners’ tools for example, or reference to the demesne. I think I’ve heard Geraldine Brooks discuss this issue saying that she does it though selected vocabulary. Perhaps Robyn will answer your question?

      BTW, Interestingly I am not naturally drawn to mediaeval stories but maybe I should be.

      • That’s right, Sue, I didn’t try for medieval dialogue. I’ve read and thought (and worried ) about this a lot, Dorothy. The language was very different, and we know it mostly from literature, so it’s difficult to really know what everyday spoken language would have been. And even if we did, it can actually get in the way of the reader really engaging with the story. I once read a book set in the Middle Ages and it had so much medieval vocab that there was a long glossary at the end; I gave up after the first page! I figure that I’m not writing ‘actual’ 14th century London, but I write as a 21st century person for the 21st century. But I do try to distinguish classes by their language and syntax, and to include some particular medieval vocab, making sure it’s comprehensible through context. The outlook of the characters, and the medieval mindset / view of the world is more important to me.

  3. Thanks so much, Sue, for all your support, and for such a thoughtful review. I’m so chuffed to read it. As I tried to say in our brief exchange on twitter, I really love to read what other people find most interesting. After all, once the words are between two covers and out in the world, they’re out of my control, for good or ill.

  4. Hi Sue,I too enjoyed this read. I also loved The Anchoress. Robyn Cadwallader; has an appealing writing style that takes you to the time. I thought the descriptions of the limners work in the Book of Colours were ‘delicious’!

  5. This sounds very good. This fourteenth century seems intriguing in and of itself. So are illuminated books. You raise a very good point about universal truths and historical fiction. Some things never change. Unfortunately that applies to some very bad things.

  6. Thanks WG and Robyn for responding to my query about dialogue. Robyn, I haven’t read your novel yet, though I certainly will now, and your response sounds a very reasonable one. We have to engage with the characters as 21st century readers – there’s no getting round that! – and I agree that complicated and archaic vocabulary can get in the way.

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