Tag Archives: Robyn Cadwallader

2, 2 and 2: Robyn Cadwallader talks about Book of Colours

Robyn Cadwallader
Book of Colours
(HarperCollins)
LITERARY FICTION

Robyn-13

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…

Book of Colours Cover high res copy 2

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:

The Book
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

 

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Book review: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

The scenario is claustrophic: in medieval England, Sarah, a seventeen-year-old virgin, relinquishes worldly life—family, human touch, comfort, light, fresh air—and is locked into a tiny stone cell attached to the village church. It is voluntary. And it is permanent. The door to the cell, or anchorhold, is nailed shut. Sarah conceives of this as ‘the nailing of my hands and feet to the cross with Christ’ but an equally fitting comparison would be the nailing of a coffin, because the anchorhold is to be Sarah’s home and also her grave: lest there be any doubt, she is told that the bones of a previous anchoress, Sister Agnes, are interred beneath her. Her life’s work is to devote herself to prayer—for the edification of the village and the soul of the wealthy landowner who is her patron.

9781460702987I was sent a copy of Robyn Cadwallader’s debut novel in preparation for a session I was chairing at the Perth Writers Festival. As someone who has trouble with confined spaces, and has nightmares about being buried alive, I felt a little uneasy when I held the book in my hand, knowing the situation of its protagonist. The stunning cover illustration,  a swallow soaring upwards, should have been a clue, should have reassured me. Because this novel soars, too.

Sarah’s isolation from the world is not as complete as I had originally feared it would be. She has two female servants who attend to her (extremely meagre) needs of food and clothing and cleanliness (such as cleanliness was in medieval times) through one window. Another window allows her to receive female villagers seeking her counsel. A confessor from the nearby priory comes once a month to hear her sins, and to interpret her written Rule. Charmingly, a cat visits through the servants’ window whether Sarah likes it or not, occupying the best place by the fire. And she can partially see, through a narrow slit in the stone wall called a ‘squint’, into the church.

Cadwallader, also a medieval scholar, convincingly creates a world outside the anchorhold that is patriarchal, class-based, punitive, predatory (for women) and austere. Sarah escapes that physical world but not, of course, these defining elements; they continue to shape her existence in every way. While I found her occasional displays of self-loathing disturbing to read (particularly those involving physical mortification—self-flagellation and the wearing of a hairshirt), I could understand them in the context of her time and circumstance.

For a work whose central premise is the act of ‘enclosure’, a determined, purposeful isolation of the self from the world, The Anchoress is a remarkably sensual novel. But perhaps this is not so surprising, because the act of isolation requires a constant repudiation of bodily desires of all kinds. Sexual desire is the obvious one (Bishop Michael tells her, ‘Enclosure is the only means by which your virginity may be assured’ and warns her that ‘Lust prowls, it prowls’), but Sarah and her confessor also speak of ‘keeping the flesh in need’—meaning in need of food, warmth, soft bedding, external stimulation. The narrative dwells in the intimacies and minutiae of deprivation and what passes as compensation. For example, with limited visual stimulation, Sarah’s other senses are heightened.

 The stewed meat smelt rich; the fragrance wound around my head and sank into my clothes.

 

His voice made me think of the river where it runs deepest, the silken sound of its slow eddies…

 

The squeak of metal close by, the sound of wood on wood as the church door shut. The smell of dirt floated in to me as it always did when someone entered the church. Muffled footsteps, a few soft thumps and then quietness. The cough of a sick man, dry and rasping, the sound of breath dragged in and out.

I had been intrigued, at the outset, to see how Cadwallader would create drama and pace in the story of this voluntarily entombed character, but it soon became apparent that there was rich potential for both. First, Sarah has a history, a back story, a reason for the extreme choice she has made. In the interests of avoiding spoilers, I don’t intend to say more about that. Second, although much of the narrative takes place in a cell, that cell is attached to a church, and the church is located in a village, and the village is connected intimately with two sources of significant power—the Catholic Church, in the form of the priory, and the land-owning class, in the form of Sarah’s patron; they, in turn, are intimately connected with each other. There is a strong character arc in the novel in relation to Sarah that could be described as a unique coming-of-age story. And there is are narrative arcs involving the wider world—Sarah’s family, her servants, the villagers, her confessor, her patron, the prior and brothers, the previous anchoresses—to which Sarah is central. The Anchoress unspools its threads at a pace that feels entirely consonant with the world it inhabits, but it never falters, is never less than compelling.

Good historical fiction tells us something about our own world as it narrates a story of the past. While reading The Anchoress, I was struck time and again by the operation of power along gender and class lines. While these play out in the most extreme ways in the novel, I could not help but think of the residues of powerlessness that still exist today, and of the ways in which people resist, fight back, reclaim, endure, create. Or fail to. I think it is one of the greatest gifts of fiction that it increases our empathy for the other, our understanding that the other is ourselves.

The Anchoress is a novel that I know I will continue to think about for a long time—and that’s my kind of fiction.

 

The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader (Fourth Estate, 2015)

ISBN 978 0 7322 9221 7

 

aww-badge-2015-200x300This review counts towards my total for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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