My Monday at the Edinburgh Book Festival | Mary, Quite Contrary and Renaissance Woman | @edbookfest

Yesterday was the last day of the Edinburgh Book Festival proper although there are still a few schools events. I attended one event in person and one online. It seems that there is a bit of a theme in my events today as all the books feature real people from history.

In the morning I attended an event chaired by Lisa Highton featuring Rosemary Goring, Andrew Greig & Sue Lawrence. All three have written books either featuring or set in the time of Mary, Queen of Scots. This event was aptly entitled, Mary, Quite Contrary. I wasn’t in a seat where I could easily take a photo so the one above is from the book festival website. Lisa Highton commented that even after 400 years, there is still an extraordinary interest in Mary with films, plays, opera and of course books still documenting her life.

Rosemary Goring’s Homecoming looks at the 12 short but tumultuous years Mary spent in Scotland. This is a non-fiction history though sounded like it was written in a narrative type way. The author explained that she wanted to look at how Scottish Mary was and how Scotland made and possibly broke her. There is a strong focus on the many places in Scotland associated with Mary. She thinks it’s important for the writer, and the reader, to put themselves in the characters’ shoes and really imagine what life was like for them. Mary is very much present in this book while in the books of the other two authors she has more of an offstage presence. She spoke about the mistakes Mary made and whether her eventual fate was inevitable. She felt that if Mary has played her cards more wisely she might have avoided execution. Marrying Bothwell was a big mistake as he, like every other significant man in her life, let Mary down.

Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson is narrated by a young St Andrew’s student William Fowler and takes the form of an imagined memoir. The author read an extract from the book where young Will gets his first glimpse of Rose Nicolson, an encounter which sets the path of his life. Rose is intelligent and well read, though tries to keep this hidden. She is an amazingly strong woman with strong opinions and who is more than she appears to be. A young Walter Scott also appears in the book and is friends with Will. Andrew Greig remarked that this friendship, as well as his main characters, was real. When researching and then writing about this time, he found he didn’t have to make terribly much up. “There are holes in history and we are invited into the spaces.” His characters were not averse to taking risks and were fearless in a way. They didn’t expect a very long life and so did things while they could. I had bought a copy of this book so got it signed afterwards.

Sue Lawrence’s The Green Lady tells the story behind the ghost who allegedly haunts Fyvie Castle, the first wife of Alexander Seton, the nephew of Mary, Queen of Scots. The book is based on some members of the Seton family and on Mary’s ladies. It’s about power and the lack of power with a strong focus on female friendships. It shows how even those with no agency can find a voice. Women’s lives were always under the control of men whether they were highborn like more or of more lowly ranking. Mothers had no say even in the naming of their children and often their only value was as someone who could produce an heir. Again based on true events, this is a compelling story combining mystery and tragedy and the mystery comes through to the present day part of the book. I have previously reviewed this book, which I think is excellent. You can read my review here: The Green Lady

One final question Lisa Highton asked all the panellists was what one thing they wished Mary hadn’t done. The responses were very interesting. Sue Lawrence said she wished that Mary hadn’t married Bothwell as he was very unpopular and things went downhill from there. Andrew Greig said he wished she hadn’t claimed to be the rightful Queen of England, even though she did have quite a strong claim. This didn’t go down terribly well with Queen Elizabeth I as we all know! Finally, Rosemary Goring said that she wished Mary had not decided to go to England following defeat at the Battle of Langside. Her supporters begged her not to leave but she didn’t listen to good advice.

Fresh from my excitement of actually bumping into Maggie O’Farrell on Sunday, I watched her event online on Monday evening. I had intended to go along in person but the gap was too long between the events so I took advantage of the hybrid approach and tuned in on the laptop. The event began with a funny moment when the chair, Damian Barr, said that Maggie O’Farrell had come dressed as her book cover! Her vibrant dress did rather resemble the book cover and she said her children had also made the same comment.

The Marriage Portrait is again about someone who did exist, Lucrezia de Medici. Much of the discussion focussed on the real people and events the book is based on. Maggie O’Farrell explained she had been reading Browning’s poem My Last Duchess and wondered if the painting he referred to did exist. It actually doesn’t but when she saw the one known portrait of Lucrezia she felt drawn to tell the story of this anxious looking young girl.

Maggie O’Farrell spoke about having a sense of responsibility when writing about real people. She tries to be respectful of the facts but is writing fiction, not a biography. She is interested in people and what makes them tick, what lies behind a mask. What might people have done if a different road had been taken, the idea of imagining a life unlived.

Through the wonders of technology, I was able to submit a question online which was asked during the event. I wondered if having written about women sidelined by history, Maggie O’Farrell had any other ‘forgotten women’ in mind for a future book. She said she didn’t have anyone in mind just now and in fact the new book she is writing is about two men. She says it’s portraying the other side of history that inspires her to write and it’s no coincidence that it is often women on the wrong side of history. She said that sometimes the books she writes choose her rather than the other way around. This was certainly the case with The Marriage Portrait as she was actually planning a different book when she felt compelled to tell Lucrezia’s story.

This was such a fascinating hour which just seemed to whizz by. The packed audience at Central Hall certainly seemed to enjoy it and so did the 270+ online audience judging by the comments in the chat box. As you might know, I was lucky enough to receive an early e-book copy of the book which I reviewed yesterday. It’s absolutely brilliant of course. You can read my review here: The Marriage Portrait

I’d like to end by expressing my grateful thanks once again to the lovely people at the Edinburgh Book Festival for my Press pass and access to the events. As I mentioned in my first piece about the festival, this year I attended a mixture of events I bought tickets for, events I was gifted press tickets for and some online events. Around 200 events were filmed and will be available on the EIBF website until the end of September and you can watch on a pay-what-you-can basis. All donations will help to ensure that the book festival continues to be accessible to those who perhaps can’t afford to buy as many tickets as they’d like to, or who live too far away from Edinburgh to attend or who just prefer the convenience of watching from home. I have very much enjoyed my 2022 Edinburgh Book Festival experiences and look forward to seeing what treats we have in store in 2023.


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