After three years alone with my words, they were now between two glorious covers and about to be set free into the world. I was nervous and excited, wanting to share my novel with readers; doubting it; wanting to hold onto it, work on it a bit more. I loved my characters and the story, but I wondered what on earth I was doing in this place, in front of all these people.
Yep, I think this sounds like your average writer on launch night, full of contradiction.
But I need not have worried. To be part of the ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author series was very special and felt a little daunting, but there were so many friends and smiling faces, all engaged and supportive, that I need not have worried. Catherine Milne, my publisher at HarperCollins, was there to chat with me about the book: the research, the characters, and the themes. She had helped me with the structural edits on an early draft, discerning so clearly the threads of the storyline, offering a perspective that I, immersed in the detail, didn’t have.
The conversation was such fun, and Catherine had chosen excerpts from the novel for me to read that would illustrate the ideas we were discussing. (It was, in fact, a master class for me in how to interview an author!) Members of the audience asked great questions about the research and my writing process, and it was a very special chance to share some of the journey with them. Then it was time to meet readers and sign books — the best part. I left on a high. My book and I felt very loved.
You can hear a podcast of the interview here.
My thanks to Colin Steele for proposing the session and Pamela Lourandos for helping to organise it.
A few days later, at Dymocks in Adelaide, I launched Book of Colours where, three years earlier, The Anchoress had set sail into the world. It was so lovely to be back there with Mandy and Louise of Dymocks, and with such great memories. I had spent the day making orange-almond cupcakes, and though the recipe was easy, I managed to turn it into a messy marathon of cake and buttercream icing; that’s what nerves will do!
I was so delighted that my dear friend Lorna Hallahan had agreed to launch Book of Colours. Her words were astonishing: insightful and passionate, offering a personal and profound reading of my novel that left me, literally, without words. Lorna had given my novel back to me in a new way. You can read her wonderful words further down this post.
But, the very best of all, was the surprise: my daughter, Myfanwy, came to the front and handed me a package. Inside was a present from my four children (to whom the book is dedicated): an illuminated manuscript page from a fifteenth-century French book of hours. The genuine, original parchment, ink, paint and gold leaf. What a beautiful gift!
Mandy, the lovely manager at Dymocks Adelaide, summed it all up by saying this was the best book launch they had ever hosted. For me, it definitely was.
Then, my heart overwhelmed, it was time to meet some readers and sign books.
And eat the messy, but tasty, cupcakes! What a wonderful night.
Lorna Hallahan’s reflections on Book of Colours
Dymocks Bookshop, Adelaide, May 1, 2018
(published with permission)
Page 10: The dock nearby was empty now but for the gargoyle from St Paul’s that squatted, watching him, arms crossed on its knees, penis dangling loose between its legs and a wide grin cracking its ugly face. The round eyes slowly blinked as its throat gurgled with the green slime that lined it. Page 11: You must have imagination that sees visions of what might be, of all that God has created that is not yet known to us. You must have a heart that encompasses order and disorder, be serious and playful. But these things, important as they are, are not enough. Above all, you must love your work, listen to all it asks of you, let colour and shape, light and shadow, lead your brush.
It’s odd to me that I want to start talking about the structure of Book of Colours because that seems a bit too technical, too dry, too Radio National professional reviewer for such a work of beauty, fluency, imagery, texture and odour. But this is where we must start because Book of Colours is really a unity of 3 books, a trinity, 3 revelations, 3 persons in one. When so early in the book we meet this juncture, a dangling penis and then advice to an artisan to follow God, the Great Artisan we know that this is no simple page turner. It is seemingly effortless design that delivers story, erudition and sagacity on every page, on every level.
You will be familiar with the concept of palimpsest: a parchment that retains discernible traces of earlier inscription, even though the words have been effaced to make a smooth clean surface for new writing. Book of Colours leads with a narrative of Will, the haunted, creative soon to be master limner, Benedict the labouring apprentice, Gemma the self-sacrificing driving force within the atelier; her husband John, the fading master; and their children, woven into the life of Lady Mathilda, commissioner of the Book of Hours, her embattled husband and their children. This is really the story of the production of a gorgeous book; its creation set in a time of tyranny, of avarice for land and power at the expense of the peasants and those who sought livelihood and survival in the gloomy streets of an overcrowded, unsanitary London. A time of extreme frosts, of drought, of hunger, of punitive rulers and murderous plots. A time when privation made it hard to care for a neighbour let alone to seek peace and beauty. Robyn, once again, I am struck by how well you write cold and how well your write desire. This book number one, the story of the book, shows an artful sociological imagination. The American sociologist of the mid 20th century, C Wright Mills described the sociological imagination as that which enables us to see our biography as part of history. The ‘my-story’ as an ‘our-story’ as an ‘all-story’. Robyn, with elegance and subtlety you have given us a truly impressive historical novel. It’s a dangerous enterprise the old historical novel as it can be contrived, melodramatic, too sharply delineated, too focussed on the rich, leaving the poor a blurred backdrop, insensitive to the potential for quiet acts of integrity and subversion. Clichéd and tedious. Nothing like that here. Sure we have fucking and fighting; birth and bereavement; gift and grief. But this is a story shaped within oppression and exploitation but on an intersubjective trajectory to forms of freedom. For Will, a recovery of sorts as he turns back to a place of fear and loss to reconnect to creativity and hope.
The second book, The Art of Illumination, could stand on its own. In its spare, didactic style you will find the most evocative presentation of colour that you will ever read. As an aside Robyn, I was reminded of the poem you wrote when our children still had milk teeth, capturing our conversation about blue nail varnish. Here is the aesthetic imagination unleashed. But The Art of Illumination is so much more, it is about an approach to living and working that foregrounds self-denial, patience and attention as the crucible of refinement, of expression, of production, of creation, of beauty, of meaning. There is a lifetime of scholarship and application in its few thousand words. I’m not going to out its author because that person is one whose work delivers a subversive hope in its self-denial, patience and attention and you need to discover this yourself. Yet it does not stand alone and it is placed in just the right ways to deliver a deeply impressionistic approach to the story of the book, its production and the connected lives of the unifying story. Auguste Renoir reportedly encapsulated the impressionist’s artistry, saying: what must control the structure is not the line but the colour. And of course for the impressionists colour is about light, its presence and its absence. This is exactly as I encountered these two books…one adding narrative, the other bringing colour and light…illumination. The Art of Illumination feeds and is fed by our aesthetic imagination because it is simultaneously about illumination while being illumination.
In her much appreciated essay The Semiotics of Sex Jeannette Winterson starts and ends with two brief bookshop narratives. She tells us:
I was in a bookshop recently when a young woman approached me. She told me she was writing an essay on my work and that of Radclyffe Hall. Could I help?
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Our work has nothing in common.’
‘I thought you were a lesbian,’ she said.
The essay offers much to ponder about author identity, emotion, the place of art and writing and what she calls expressing forbiddenness. Here she offers another imagination. She asks: ‘Why do we flee from feeling? Why do we celebrate those who lower us in the mire of their own making while we hound those who come to us with hands full of difficult beauty? If we could imagine ourselves out of despair? If we could imagine ourselves out of hopelessness? What would happen if we could imagine in ourselves authentic desire?
I am going to call this the cosmological imagination. To quote again from my opening excerpt from The Art of Illumination: The imagination that sees visions of what might be, of all that God has created that is not yet known to us.
But first here is the other bookshop story:
I was in a bookshop recently and a young man came up to me and said:
‘Is Sexing the Cherry a reading of Four Quartets?’ Yes, I said, and he kissed me.
Robyn, we celebrate you tonight because you have come to us with hands full of difficult beauty offering us an opening to joy, hope and authenticity. We thank you for giving us Book of Hours.
When I first received your book, I was baffled. I had been calling it The Book of Colours. But it does not have an article, definite or indefinite. It is simply Book of Colours. I think I have come to understand. I am not sure how far in I was when I realised that you have given us a new rendering of Book of Hours. It is the foundational text, grounding the palimpsest, just as it should. It is fashioned technically with initials in the form of excerpts from the Art of Illumination. It is laden with marginalia: a gargoyle, horses rearing and crushing life, rearing and prompting rescue, an orange tree, a dovecote, baskets on a stall, a boy mending a shoe, a lad poring over the forms, a quivering hand, flaccidity in a laneway…I could go on. It tells us of burnishing and of shell gold, and how that brings light. It also does what is important in Book of Hours… it links the sacred story with the life of the people in whose hands it becomes a guide for prayer. Not the demanding intercessory prayer of a grasping generation, but the meditative, pondering, contemplating, ruminating, worrying state that I found myself in. Holding the open book against my guts and confronting the rape of Bathsheba, soon to be widowed in a murderous plot; the mysterious impregnation of a young girl saying yes to a gigantic responsibility; a pregnant girl caught between duty and desire; the adulatory crowd, turning homicidal. I realised that in my hands I held Book of Hours…illuminating my life to fresh imaginings of ancient, embedded stories leading me into pain, into agitation, perplexity and into light and the possibility of love.
I need to say here that the impressionism works so well. This is not a tense, moralistic book; it is not evangelical or pious; it is not tendentious or overt in its theology. I now think of it as a unity in 3, as my book of colours, my book of hours. I am trying to be careful here because I don’t want to force it on the readers. But I also want those who read it to be open to its meaning making power. Another brief story from Winterson, this time from the essay, Art Objects..: Years ago when I was living very briefly with a stockbroker who had a good cellar I asked him how I could learn about wine. ‘Drink it,’ he said.
The day that the book arrived in my office I kissed it…it is stunning and its blurb promises what I need. Over the day, in 2 separate meetings I showed it to two colleagues, women. They both examined it (as you would expect academics to), then read out loud ’the importance of creativity and the power of connection’. Both spontaneously embraced the book and said, ‘this is what I need’. We had become Mathilda, grasping an incomplete book, needing to sink into it, knowing that it will lead us into fresh understandings. And then, at the book’s close, these words: the puzzle of this picture stays with her all night. In her half dreaming, how many women she becomes….later, Mathilda can hear them; can almost hear her own voice. ‘I will not be shamed by you men. I will not heed your accusations. I will stand.’
Robyn, like the young man in the bookshop, I kiss you. You have delivered the hope of Gemma, Book of Hours illuminated by a woman for women and for the men who love them and can face up to the historical agonies faced by so many of our sisters and the fears and griefs of our own. You have taught us about an illuminating imagination that frees us from enduring directions to know our diminished status and to allow our shame and fears to mock as a gargoyle that hovers over our heads. But above all, you have shown us the love in your work, you have listened to all it asks of you, letting colour and shape, light and shadow, lead your pen. Congratulations for following up from The Anchoress, the solitary, suffering, striving Sarah with such a delicate, rich and advanced novel. Thank you for this gift. Thank you for the generosity that lies at the heart of all you do. So, in contributing these words in setting Book of Colours on its way, I say to you Robyn, thank you for an imagination that reclaims history and my connections to the struggles and dreams of others, that opens me to splendour and that binds all into one. I say to all of you here tonight and to your people, read it.