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The illuminations of Robyn Cadwallader

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Her stories might take her to medieval England, but Robyn Cadwallader’s literary journeys always begin in Canberra.

She wrote her much-lauded debut novel The Anchoress from her home in Murrumbateman, making regular trips to the National Library of Australia for research. The Library is also where Robyn found inspiration for her most recent novel, Book of Colours.

Set in London in 1321, Book of Colours centres around the creation of an illuminated manuscript of prayers. While many such manuscripts were commissioned during this period, their creation – painstakingly hand painted on thin leather pages – was a lengthy and fraught process. It is this journey of minutiae that forms the core of Robyn’s novel.

Book of Colours itself came about because when I was doing research for my PhD. I was doing a lot of research around the medieval period in general and I kept coming across these illuminated manuscripts,” explains Robyn. “I had been to a couple of exhibitions…and what I was most interested in was not so much the beautiful illuminations, although they are magnificent, [but how] these people with such ordinary conditions – no lights like we have – managed to produce these detailed illuminations.”

However, it was the margins of these manuscripts that drew Robyn’s attention.

“They were full of weird and wonderful creatures – dragons and monsters and people playing, animal fables, scenes of people singing, misbehaving, a monk and a nun having sex – things that you just don’t expect in the margins of a prayer book for a woman in the Middle Ages.”

Robyn’s curiosity was piqued and she began exploring not only the manuscripts but the people who created them. From this research, Book of Colours emerged.

“I was lucky enough to attend a masterclass with Michelle Brown, who worked with the British Library,” explains Robyn. “She took us through the history of illuminated manuscripts in that way that only absolute experts can. That really inspired me to think ‘maybe it’s possible to do this’.”

Beyond researching the history of the manuscripts themselves, Robyn says that she needed to do an immense amount of in-depth research around the history of the time – fourteenth century London.

“I did a lot of reading and researching in books – that’s just what you need to do. The research really just means lots of reading and more reading until I could get to the point where I felt confident enough to begin writing.”

Robyn says that she thought of the framework of her book as that of a house.

“While I knew there were going to be gaps…if I could get a sense of the time I could then start to fill in the gaps with some confidence. Think of it as informed imagination, in a way.”

Robyn says that she researched so much that sometimes she thought she was just avoiding writing, which, she adds with a laugh, could very well be true.

However, Robyn’s fastidious research has clearly paid off, with praise pouring in for Book of Colours, including from HarperCollins’ Head of Fiction Catherine Milne, who says that the book is “the most moving and profoundly beautiful novel of the human impulse towards creativity and connection, and our instinctive need to understand our world and communicate with others through the pages of a book.”

But Robyn says she hasn’t done it alone, attributing much of her continued drive and success to her writing group, whose members include acclaimed authors Biff Ward and Karen Viggers.

“Everyone in the group really knows their stuff – we’re all serious writers,” Robyn says. “They gave me the sense that I could keep going. It’s such an isolating thing, writing, and I needed to have this group around me to keep me thinking it was possible.”

You can hear more about Robyn’s books, research and writing processes at her in-conversation event at Muse Canberra on Sunday 29 July where she will share the stage with fellow Canberran and author of historical fiction Eleanor Limprecht.

the essentials 

What: Women, history, journey: Robyn Cadwallader and Eleanor Limprecht in conversation with Angharad Lodwick
When: Sunday 29 July from 3 – 4 pm
Where: Muse Canberra, inside East Hotel, 69 Canberra Avenue, Kingston
Tickets: $12, purchase them here

Robyn Cadwallader’s newest novel, Book of Colours, is out now in all good bookstores and online.

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