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