Over at Cornflower Books I've written about The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction which is to be awarded at The Borders Book Festival this weekend. The winning novelist will receive a cheque for £25,000 and this beautiful glass sculpture by Colin Reid, commissioned - along with another piece for their private collection - by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch. Click on the download link at the top of this page to see an extensive photographic record of the making of the second commissioned piece - a fascinating, and at times unlikely-looking creative process which produces a stunning result.
"He stood now on the threshold of the library downstairs, looking at a bowl of coral-coloured tulips whose transparent delicacy detached itself brightly in the sober panelled room. He was grateful to the quietness that slumbered always over the house, abolishing fret as by a calm rebuke."
"For at the centre of all was always the house, that mothered the farms and accepted the homage of the garden. The house was at the heart of all things; the cycle of husbandry might revolve - tillage to growth, and growth to harvest - more necessary, more permanent, perhaps, more urgent; but like a woman gracious, humorous and dominant, the house remained quiet at the centre."
In the post this morning was a novel which may well be of interest to readers of this site, even if you're not in the habit of visiting Cornflower Books. Above are cover shots, and you'll find the full details here.
"... If I call it a novel it is only because I don't know what else to call it. I have little story to tell and I end neither with a death nor a marriage. Death ends all things and so is the comprehensive conclusion of a story, but marriage finishes it very properly too and the sophisticated are ill-advised to sneer at what is by convention termed a happy ending. It is a sound instinct of the common people which persuades them that with this all that needs to be said is said... But I leave my reader in the air. This book consists of my recollections of a man with whom I was thrown into close contact only at long intervals, and I have little knowledge of what happened to him in between. I suppose that by the exercise of invention I could fill the gaps plausibly enough and so make my narrative more coherent; but I have no wish to do that. I only want to set down what I know of my own knowledge."
That is the opening of our book group's May book. All the details are here, and I hope you'll join us to read and talk about it.
(The image is from the cover and is a detail from The Miramar at Cannes fashion plate by Leon Benigni from Femina, 1928.)
Laura Knight, Ruby Loftus screwing a breech ring, 1942
Grace Golden, An Emergency Food Office, 1941
Evelyn Dunbar, A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls pruning at East Malling
Over on Cornflower Books today there's a brief post to introduce the novel Warpaint
by Alicia Foster, which is out soon. As you'll see there, it concerns a
group of female war artists in the 1940s, and it's inspired by the lives
of real artists of the period from whose war work I've chosen these pictures.
"It began in a woman's club on a February afternoon, - an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon - when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this:
To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.
That was its conception; yet, as in the case of many another, the conceiver was unaware of it at the moment."
That is the opening of the Cornflower Book Group's April book. Here are all the details, and I hope you'll join us in reading it - it should be fun.
If you follow Cornflower Books you'll know that I've recently run a series of posts in which authors allow us into their studies and talk a little about their working methods. Today I'm continuing that theme but with a difference, as my special guest tells us about a major part of her research for her latest book - one that involved time at the sewing table rather than the writing desk.
I mentioned the other day that Tracy Chevalier's new novel The Last Runaway
was "craft-inducing", and as you'll see from my review proper, that's because it features needlework - specifically some millinery and a wonderful 'running thread' of quilting - to great effect. The book as a whole is enormously enjoyable, but that aspect of the story fascinated me, and so I'm delighted and privileged to have this post on the subject from Tracy Chevalier herself. Over to Tracy:
Quilts were a common pastime for 19th-century
English and American women. My heroine, Honor Bright, who emigrates from Dorset
to Ohio, makes pieced patchwork quilts. So I found a quilting class nearby,
where our teacher Fiona taught us a different technique each week. Here’s what I
learned to make:
Grandmother’s Garden rosettes
Two sewn together make a pin cushion (much used now)
Put more together and you have a cushion cover
Stars from diamonds
Log cabin cushion cover
Finally we learned how to quilt, stitching in patterns
through the layers to hold them together
Once class was over, I knew I wanted to make a
whole quilt, and joined a quilting group. We meet
every Monday at one another’s homes. Over the course of a year, I made a simple 4-square pattern quilt, all by
hand as I wanted to make it the way my heroine would have.
Tracy’s 1st quilt
What did I learn that I could transfer to the novel?
•Thimbles really are very useful,
otherwise there’s pain and blood
•It helps to thread several needles at
•When combining different fabrics, vary
the size of the patterns, or the patchwork will look too even
•A splash of oddball colour or pattern
gives a quilt variety and movement – it’s the exception that sets the rule of
the rest of the work
•It is possible to make a quilt without
tying a single knot (though I didn’t manage this!)
Not all of this made it into the novel.
But the best thing I gained from making a quilt was an understanding of the
rhythm of creation, a pace I was able to transfer to Honor Bright. It’s a
rhythm I’ve learned to love, so much that I’ve started another quilt!
Tracy’s Gee’s Bend quilt
In the early stages of her research for the novel, by complete coincidence Tracy was invited by the V&A to write a short story about a quilt, and in taking on this commission she paid a visit to the museum's textile store to look at some of the reserve collection and its archive. You can see a short film of her visit here.
My thanks to Tracy for sharing her adventures in quilting and for letting us see her pictures of her own work; I love her phrase "the rhythm of creation", and I shall bear her words in mind the next time I pick up a needle. Thankyou, Tracy!
"Put a picture on a wall and you cut a window into another world.
From this he falls to thinking of all the paintings he knows which represent actual windows and the view beyond ... The effect of the frame within the frame is potent, almost magical. What is it about windows? The comfort and safety of the known world set beside the promise and excitement of a world beyond."
"It's October, an Indian summer. I'm standing on the threshold like some callow teenager, about to move house for the first time in my life. I've spent more than half a century in this place, in this undistinguished, comfortable town house on the edge of the Chiltern Hills, and had come to think we'd reached a pretty good accomodation. To have all mod cons on the doorstep in the quirkiest patch of countryside in south-east England had always seemed just the job for a rather solitary writing life. I'd use the house as a ground-base, and do my living in the woods, or in my head. I liked to persuade myself, that the Chiltern landscape, with its folds and free-lines and constant sense of surprise, was what had shaped my prose, and maybe me too. But now I'm upping sticks and fleeing to the flatlands of East Anglia.
My past, or lack of it, had caught up with me. I'd been bogged down in the same place for too long, trapped by habits and memories. I was clotted with rootedness. My Irish grandfather, a day-worker who rarely stayed in one house long enough to pay the rent, knew what to do at times like this. In that word that catches all the shades of escape, from the young bird's flutter from the nest to the dodging of someone in trouble, he'd flit."
That is the opening passage of the Cornflower Book Group's March book; please come and read it with us - you'll find all the details here.