Outdoor literary festivals are fragile concepts at the best of time given the British climate but legend has it that Cornwall in May can be beautiful. Certainly the little town of Fowey, perched on the edge of the sea and beloved home of Daphne du Maurier, one of last century’s most accomplished and popular writers, must be stunning when the sun shines. One can imagine people strolling across the lawns towards the festival tent, stopping to look down on the great river mouth, imagining tea on the hotel deck after an invigorating encounter with a little literature.
Inside the festival tent where I am the “little literature” there is so much wind that the screen set up to show my images of renaissance paintings is behaving like a galley under full sail. I am delivering the first ever Daphne du Maurier lecture for a festival that used to bear her name but it is now called Fowey Festival of Words and Music. While the ways of festival committees and tourist boards are a marvel to us mere writers, it is possible that someone higher up the chain of command has taken exception to the name change, and is now tossing thunderbolts down to make the point. The audience huddle together for warmth at the front of a 600 seater venue. It is early afternoon on a Monday and while Bruce Springstein or Dan Brown might pull a full house I doubt anyone else could. Even Ken Livingstone over the weekend only reached half way to the back. Still of course we all make the best of it: in fact that flapping screen rather suits the image of Botticelli rising Venus who appears to be dancing in front of our eyes, though it works less well with Bellini’s great portrait of the Doge of Venice whose magnified lips vibrate in a kind of sneer.
I go to bed that night almost buoyant at the prospect of the next days session when I talk about Blood and Beauty, the novel’s first outing outside London since it hit the bookstalls ten days ago. I am woken long before dawn by the sound of water lashing against the windows of my room. By morning the sky is so low and the rain so dense that you can’t make out the sea. Torrential is the only word, though horizontal would better to describe the way it is moving. Daphne would have loved it. I can almost see her striding out across the fields with her dogs at her heel, another macabre twist in a story of deceit and betrayal arranging itself in her mind as she walks. I would join her, only of course I packed for spring and my cute canvas shoes are in danger of giving me trench feet.
At the back of the great tent I cower in a little green room made of furled sheets next to small fan heater. It is never good form to ask the festival organiser how many tickets have been sold because that way lies humiliation, but when I mutter something about loosing audiences to flooding his smile is not reassuring. The wonderful academic who is interviewing me – Helen Taylor is her name and an OBE would be not enough – takes my mind of the weather by running through her questions, which will keep me pirouetting on my literary toes.
As we fumble our way through expanses of black curtains I hear someone laugh. Whoever is out there, he/she has a sense of humour. Perhaps I could invite them back to my hotel room and we could do the session there. Then I walk out on the stage. And guess what? There are people there. I have no idea how many, but many more than I can count and while some of look as if they are wearing their duvets (how I envy them) they are smiling and give us a hearty round of applause. We spend the first five minutes congratulating ourselves on how we all got there at all (thank God for the Dunkirk spirit) and then we get going.
What can I say? I love every minute of it. The adrenaline flows and when the questions from the audience come, they are smart and engaged. As are all the people who come up later to the signing table. I sit with an early glass of wine (and why not?) listening to their stories with a huge grin on my face: the couple where the husband read Sacred Hearts at loud to his wife every night, or the trainee English teacher who wrote her A level dissertation on “The Birth of Venus.” Of course I am flattered. Who would not be? But it’s more than that. Suddenly ten hours on trains, soaking feet and the imminent need to build an ark, don’t matter any more. There is a Jackson Brown track of which I am particularly fond. It is about being on the road and it contains the memorable line.
“The only time that seems too short is the time that we get to play.”
It is exactly how I feel. I must go back to my hotel room and take some drugs (ibuprofen comes to mind) and wreck the furniture. If I don’t fall asleep first.
My anxious mood could, of course, be the weather. With spring cancelled this year due to our double dip recession, it has been the bleakest March anyone can remember and if one was to translate that sense of hopelessness into politics, then the incessant rain would be made up of people’s tears. Though at least they might melt the ice with their hot fury.
So yes, it could be the weather. But it could also be work. Though writing can be hard and, with a book as long as Blood and Beauty, seem sometimes endless, even the worst bits when you are stranded without wind in your sails pass eventually and by then you are used to being alone on the ocean. But once the writing and editing are over you are suddenly plunged into a more jagged set of rhythms. This Easter weekend I finished the final proofs, that will go to America – the book doesn’t come out until July there. It was the last shot at fixing those twelve sentences that still defied me however much I played with them, that and slipping in the odd change so clearly necessary – why had I not seen it before? – which will mean that the two editions have a few subtle, indeed minuscule differences, that only I will be able to spot. But now it is over: wrapped up in units fed ex package waiting for the delivery man tomorrow morning and out of my hands. No more tinkering. No more illusion that I am still writing,
I am not complaining you understand. Fate has already been kind to me with this book (though writing about the Borgias has convinced me , rather as it convinced Cesare and Machiavelli that fate is a cold goddess who as interested in mischief as she is in any justice). Pope Benedict XV1 ‘s resignation and the ensuing furor over the conclave have meant that people are interested all over again in papal power and the; politics of Rome , not to mention the way the tidal wave of sexual abuse that is currently enveloping the Catholic Church also speaks loudly of history and Catholicism systematic failure to address the problems of celibacy. Suddenly the 15th century does not seem so far away. I have been part of a number of debate, both on air and in print, and invited to talk at festival and universities abut history and fiction and what we can learn from it . At one level I love all this. I understand not everybody enjoys speaking publically, but I do. I think it is because its not me I am talking about, but ideas and so with audience that wants to take part ( and everybody these days) it is like having a real conversation. What is not to like?
Except as my diary gets fuller I can feel this nameless sense if anxiety building up.
Why am I so nervous? What is stopping me sleeping, what is tying my stomach in knots. I worked hard before, but is usually creates more energy not less.
It has taken those who me love most to enlighten me. The answer, Dear Sarah, is that you are only four weeks away from publication. That is what you are nervous about. It’s as simple as that”
Needless to say they are right. This is the part of the job that every writer hates, when everything can be done has been done (those ten sentences will never be fixed) and all you can is wait Of course because you are a write that doesn’t stop you imagining. I have of course composed a number of reviews already in my own head. Roughly speaking they divide into “when they are god they are very very good. And when they are bad they are horrid”. The idea is to make one oblivious to both (since both can tip off the cliff). Of course it doesn’t work. But least now I’ve done I can try and get on with other things.
Because of course there is is nothing I can do. For now it’s clear what I have to do. Forget it and let time take its course . I who spend so much of my working life in history should be better than this.
Wishful thinking to believe one has any control over the future. Much of what is about to happen has been moving and growing beneath us its path decided long before we are conscious of it. Like the banking crisis and the weather we would needed to have made changes long ago to affect the outcome.
Those ten sentences haunt me. But are just the symbols of all that cannot be changed. The photo is of a Camilia bush in my garden. Those buds have been there a long time now, either the frost has done for them or at the first real signs of sun they will explode into blossom. When it comes to Blood and Beauty I feel somewhat the same way. We are both waiting for spring to find out.
Time for displacement activities. Next week the only holiday I will get this year. Anyone know what the weather is like in Sicily?
With the furore over a new pope having died down, my mind is once again full of thoughts about syphilis as I continue to collect interviews for a BBC Radio 3 documentary about this disease. I realise, looking back on it now, that syphilis has been in my life for quite a while. It started thirteen years with the Birth of Venus, when I found a reference to the “French Boils” in the diary of one Lucca Landucci, an apothecary in Florence who writes an extraordinary diary almost every day for thirty years. The date was 1496 and as I investigated further, along with giving a great idea for the life of a character in the novel, I learned the history of the disease’s arrival in Italy when a French invasion takes the city of Naples. (It is now pretty well established that it came with infected mercenaries soldiers who had travelled with Columbus in his 1491/92 journey to the new world.)
With In the Company of the Courtesan it passed across my radar again. By the 1530’s courtesan culture was flowering in many big Italian cities and women like Fiammetta, while they were higher status than regular prostitutes, were also vulnerable to contracting and then passing on the disease, with many of them dying in poverty with their looks and careers devastated,
But it was Cesare Borgia that finally brought the power of the disease home to me. This astonishing historical figure, much easier to malign than try to understand, was one of the great challenges of my new book Blood and Beauty. His coldness, his drive, his speed and his intelligence, added to the power he is given when at the age of eighteen his father becomes Pope, makes for a riveting journey in anyone’s eyes. Three years later he moves from the church, where he is already a cardinal, to becoming a solder and general. And it is on that cusp of that move, while he is papal legate in Naples sleeping with a number of different women (nothing new in that, I must say), that he contracts what was called the French disease.
First he suffers a outbreak of weeping pustules all over his body, swiftly followed by wracking pains. After a few months he recovers and seems perfectly well. Until, a year later, the attack repeats itself. Once. Twice… We know all this because we have the reports of his doctor who is one of the first to try a treatment of mercury through steam baths. Eventually the disease, no long infectious, goes underground, starting to eat up the nervous system and the gut and, in some, to travel as far as the brain.
Cesare doesn’t live that long, so I don’t know how far his would have been an eventual syphilitic death. But I do know that by the time we leave him at the end of Blood and Beauty, he is showing signs of erratic behaviour and a tendency to grandiosity and fits of manic energy that I suspect are as much the impact of syphilis as of the disease of power.
By the 18th and 19th century syphilis is deeply ingrained in Europe and seems to have mutated so that by default it ends up attacking the brain. Many of the hundreds and thousands of people who suffer from it are in asylums with a form of insane paralysis , not always diagnosed both because we didn’t know enough about the disease and because for many the shame was so great that even if the families knew they had it, they tried to hide it.
Stories of mania, depression, delusion and aggressive behaviour abound. While it is hard to imagine the horror of the sufferers it is equally upsetting to think about the impact it would have had on their loved ones around them. How lucky we are to no longer in such times, yes?
Except …except…. All this work with syphilis has made me start thinking about the seemingly unstoppable march of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Of course it is different in many ways. There is not the stigma of sex attached and it is not contagious. But oh, it has other horrors attached to it. The fact that it is incurable. The fact that it is growing so fast in an ageing population,(one to four people over sixty five will suffer from it is the latest statistic). And then of course there is the deep irony that it is partly the success of medicine that has brought us here: that now our bodies stay healthier for longer it is our minds which fracture and fall apart.
Among a number of posts celebrating International Women’s Day to which I contributed recently, I read a moving, anonymous account of a woman caring for her demented husband. And there was something in it – both the sadness and despair as well as the hint of shame – that reminded me of the past.
Of course you will say: No – no, but we are much luckier, now. No insane asylums when the horror hits. And that is true. Except in some ways I am not sure we are not doing that much better. The National Health Service, already reeling from the impact of impact of obesity. now has wards filled with demented elderly patents. Medicine, so good at curing, is less suited to long-term compassion. And when families can no longer bear the burden, the likelihood is that sufferers will end up in a home, where regular exposures build up a picture of carers becoming cruel almost because it seems too difficult to be endlessly kind. And so I have found myself thinking of all those syphilitic patients in public and private asylums all over Europe in the 19th century and how, when the mind and personality shatter, how fragile human dignity becomes.
Progress. Working in history I am continually struck by its cyclical nature. Yes we have come so far and yet often we seem to arrive at a place which, in many ways, looks so familiar.
RADIO 3 The Great Pox Sunday 19th March 6.30 pm.
What a time to be in Italy! With the publication of my novel Blood and Beauty, the Borgias, just weeks away, I am here collecting material for a BBC radio documentary on Syphilis, the sexual plague which arrived here in the 1490′s and becomes its own character in the novel as it spreads like forest fire through Italy and Europe infecting rich and poor alike and counting among its victims rulers, bankers, priests and cardinals.
The talk then was all about a divine punishment from God on a country ripe with sin. In the city of Ferrara where I have come from, the son and heir of the ruling family d’Este (a man soon to be the next husband of Lucrezia Borgia) was so ill – and his face so disfigured by pustules – that he couldn’t attend his own wife’s funeral, while in the Vatican cardinals were dying in screaming agony. Immortality it seemed was everywhere.
520 years later and Italy is in the grips of another crisis of corruption. As I write this this morning there is no functioning government and no Pope.
Though the official version is that the Pope Benedict resigned because of age and ill health everyone you talk to on the streets says the same thing: he went because he knew he did not have the stamina to fight the corruption, sexual and financial, that is deep inside the Vatican and the church. Meanwhile, in secular politics last week’s election showed a deep vein of disgust with contemporary politicians; men like Silvio Berlusconi who promised everyone he would refund an increase in house taxes if they voted for him (I got a personally addressed letter from him when I arrived in Florence last week). It didn’t get him back into power. Instead the power brokers of any new government will come from the party of the comedian Grillo who stood as a protest against contemporary politics – a kind of Italian version of the Occupy movements in Britain and the US. As I write this no one knows who they will support or what they will do.
In the 1490’s you could tell sexual corruption from the bodies and faces of those affected by this new and terrifying plague. Today in Italy there are no such obvious outward signs of corruption. But there is no doubt that this is a country in crisis – both inside and outside the church.
History has much to tell us about how we live now. It makes me realise yet again, that in writing historical fiction I am sometimes writing as much about the present as the past. How exciting!