Book of Colours
One of my favourite novels of 2015 was Robyn Cadwallader’s haunting The Anchoress. I had the pleasure of interviewing Robyn about her brilliant debut at the Perth Writers Festival that year, and reviewed it here. The Anchoress was a bestseller in Australia and was also published in the UK, the US and France.
Discovering that Robyn’s second novel would be coming out in 2018 gave me that delicious sense of anticipation that comes from knowing something special this way comes. Book of Colours was recently released and is sitting right now on the top of my reading pile.
Robyn lives among vineyards in the country outside Canberra and has a writerly background that embraces a good deal more than two novels. She has published poems, prize-winning short stories and reviews, a poetry collection, i painted unafraid (Wakefield, 2010), and a non-fiction book based on her PhD thesis about virginity and female agency in the Middle Ages, and has edited a collection of essays on asylum seeker policy, We Are Better Than This (ATF, 2015). She is also the reviews editor for the online literary journal Verity La.
Here is the blurb for Book of Colours:
London, 1321: In a small stationer’s shop in Paternoster Row, three people are drawn together around the creation of a magnificent, illuminated prayer book. Even though the commission seems to answer the aspirations of each one of them, their secrets, desires and ambitions threaten its completion. As each struggles to see the book come into being, it will change everything they have understood about their place in the world.
Rich, deep, sensuous and full of life, Book of Colours is also, most movingly, a profoundly beautiful story about creativity and connection, and our instinctive need to understand our world and communicate with others through the pages of a book.
Over, now, to Robyn…
2 things that inspired the book
The initial inspiration for Book of Colours was curiosity and a question…well, several questions. I had seen many medieval decorated prayer books and had admired their beauty: prayers copied carefully, a beautiful decorated capital or a larger picture, illuminated with gold leaf, of Christ, Mary or the saints, and some delicate foliage in the borders. We’ve probably all seen pictures of them, all written on parchment and decorated by hand.
But I was particularly intrigued by those that seemed to break the rules by including a carnival of life in the margins: jugglers, dancers, cock fights, ball games; animal fables, where animals apparently wreak revenge on humans (Monty Python’s killer rabbit comes straight from a medieval manuscript!); dragons and all manner of fantastical beasts, and even scenes of sin, like a monk and a nun having sex.
All of this in a beautiful and expensive prayer book intended for a woman! How could this be? What was the purpose of such play and fantasy? Scholars have theories, but no-one knows for sure. The margins seemed to resist the authority of the centre, to say that there is more to devotion than paintings of holy figures. I love those fault lines, the places where expectations are undermined, forcing us to rethink our assumptions. What rich material to explore!
A more direct inspiration Book of Colours was a manuscript in the British Library that helped me to find my characters. I sat in the Manuscripts Room with a manuscript painted in the early fourteenth century and an art historian’s study of that particular manuscript. She describes the way it is possible now, through close examination of the painting—brush stroke, detail, style, etc.—to distinguish individual, though unidentified, artists.
So, for example, she described Artist 1 as the most experienced of the group, recognisable by his use of detail and colour, while Artist 2 had a particular talent for painting a crowd and capturing some sense of drama and energy. She went on to describe two more artists, and as I looked at the paintings and followed her analysis, I could imagine the personalities of the illuminators, or limners, as they called them. Why was it, for example, that Artist 4 painted neatly coloured flowers, but his paintings lacked any dynamism? What gave Artist 2 the ability to draw crowds so well? Was Artist 3 perhaps an apprentice? How did they feel about their work? Was Artist 1 the owner of the atelier? How did they get on together? Was there competition or admiration among them all? Instead of four artists distinguished by technique, four characters began to emerge. What personalities and life experiences might their paintings reveal? By the time I closed the manuscript and stood up from my desk, I had the glimmerings of four illuminators, unformed as yet, but each one itching to be in my novel.
2 places connected with the book
London, the setting for my novel, of course—old and new. I’ve spent time in London before, and in 2013 I had a wonderful ten weeks there, researching fourteenth-century London in the British Library. But I was able to do more than read about it: it’s a huge help to be able to walk the streets and land, notice the topography of the land, feel the weather and observe the people. Seven centuries is a long time, and so much of the city has changed, but there’s an essence to a place that seems to seep into the ground.
And there is still the Thames, and the way the land slopes down from St Paul’s; there is Paternoster Row, where my limners have their shop, though it’s now only a small lane; there are Old Change, Cheapside, Smithfield Market, St Bartholomew’s Church and Priory, and parts of the old London Wall. The old stones, the tight network of roads and lanes, the way Old London hugs the river.
Once I had absorbed it all, I pasted my map on the wall above my desk, and let my London take shape in my imagination. It’s different from the London we know, but I can see it all—shops, churches, houses, mud and markets—and walk down its streets.
The second place is the world of possibilities that stories open up. I’m intrigued by the ways that stories are never still, never final, but able to shift and change, depending on our circumstances. You know how it is to read a novel as a child, then as a teenager, then as an adult: the words are the same, but we might understand it differently because we have changed.
In the medieval prayer books made for women, the paintings tell stories: the story of Mary giving birth in a stable, perhaps; or how Jesus rode into town on a donkey and the crowd cheered, only days before he was killed. Each picture has its own narrative. These were familiar, even conventional images and stories, but that doesn’t mean that they were fixed, and unable to be understood in different ways.
In my novel, my characters discover that the pictures go far beyond being simply pious reminders of dogma or morality, and instead become stories of people and places that can touch their everyday lives, meeting them where they are. For the limners who paint the pictures, and for the woman who has commissioned the book, they evoke memories—sometimes memories they have tried to repress, or they speak to their hopes and worries, or they offer consolation and understanding, even possibilities for the future.
I love that subversive idea! Once the book is made and sent into the world, its pictures and the stories they tell—even those in a book of prayers for women—cannot be controlled. The open and always-opening network of ideas and connections is one of the most lovely qualities of stories.
2 favourite things from the novel
I am especially fond of the gargoyle in Book of Colours because it just seemed to insist it should be included. When I was writing the first draft, I described William, one of my main characters, arriving in London and admiring St Paul’s Cathedral. He looks at the army of gargoyles at the base of the cathedral roof, and as he watches, one of them very slowly turns its head towards him and blinks. I had no idea why; the words just seemed to follow one another and there it was. I liked the idea and left it, thinking I would wait and see what happened. Soon the gargoyle was appearing in all sorts of places. It was ugly, and pushy, and shadowy, and I thought it should stay, this creature of the margins. I had some idea of its significance, but it was only at the last draft that I began to really understand why I had kept it. It’s unnerving, but I love that aspect of writing, where the unconscious leads.
A favourite passage in the novel is from a guide to illumination that one of the illuminators is writing for an apprentice. While it is intended as instruction for those who paint, I recognise now how much it applies to me and the novel I have written:
A book is shaped so that it may be picked up and carried, held onto as a baby might clutch a blanket, pondered in the quiet or lonely hours of the night, visited like a friend. You decorate the book for another, for it to be passed on from owner to daughter or son and from them to their children. Once you finish it, you cannot say where it will go and how it will be used. It might sit for years on a shelf, or stay wrapped in a cloth, forgotten. It might be a grieving woman’s companion for the rest of her life, or a child’s first sight of words, open at a page that carries the marks of much use. Perhaps it will go across the sea in a boat. Perhaps it will crumble or burn. It might be passed from hand to hand, through years, for longer than you can dream of. You cannot know. All you can do is paint faithfully and well, then let the book go.
Book of Colours is available now
Find out more at HarperCollins
Follow Robyn via her website