To the Isle of Wight Literary Festival last weekend with poets Robyn Bolan, Lydia Fullylove and all-round guru Brian Hilton. We were talking about the spirit of place in our work and how it enriches both character and plot.
I suppose for me place includes times past as well because North Yorkshire was a different place in the fourteenth century. With few large cities, none with more than a few thousand souls, and large tracts of woodland with wide open uplands where vast flocks of sheep roamed, the monastic houses were the only centres of learning and time determined the spirit of place as much as geography. Inevitably Hildegard is a woman of her time in her beliefs and in the way she behaves. Readers unfamiliar with the period are sometimes surprised by how much freedom women like her managed to find within the hierarchies that limited everyone. Time and place then exert an emotional hold when writing to bring the period to life.
We were at the festival at the invitation of David White of Dimbola House. This is the place on the Isle of Wight where the Victorian photographer, a pioneer of portraiture, Julia Margaret Cameron, lived for some time. She was a close friend and neighbour of Alfred lord Tennyson. I have an enduring image of Tennyson in his big black cloak striding over the Downs to visit Julia in her house above the cliffs but I struggled to see a connection between my medieval series and a Victorian photographer. Then I remembered that Cameron produced a marvellous group of photographs to illustrate the Idylls of the King, at Tennyson’s request. Medieval romanticism at its best.
Another connection is that in terms of light she is closer to the middle ages than to our electricity driven age. Her beautifully nuanced portraits are a product of the soft lighting by oil and candle that would have been familiar to Hildegard six hundred years earlier. Only now, with harsh street lights, glaring tv screens and constant illumination in our homes have the subtle effects of firelight, candle light and oil-burning cressets become a thing of the past. If time and location influence character I wonder how the nature of light has changed the way we are?