Book worm: ‘Your characters probably did not read the Guardian, and very likely believed in hellfire, beating children and hanging malefactors.’

Snippets from the past week in the literary world


With the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival less than a fortnight away, preparations in Melrose are in full swing. For the special Melrose Mastermind event, host Sally Magnusson will be bringing along the original Mastermind chair, which was presented to her father, Magnus Magnusson, at the end of his 25-year stint as host of the popular BBC quiz show.

Among those quaking on its leather upholstery will be Kathy Lette (specialist subject: sex), John Sessions (specialist subject: Sherlock Holmes) and Kirsty Wark and Rory Bremner, who have still to work out what they want to be quizzed on. The event is already sold out, but all the participants are doing other ones for which tickets are still available.


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Before he has even sat in the Mastermind chair, actor John Sessions faces a no less demanding test. As he will be reading extracts from all the six authors shortlisted for the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize, he will have to master French, Irish, New York, Western American and Geordie accents to do justice to the texts. Four of the six shortlisted authors – Andrew Miller, Alan Hollinghurst, Sebastian Barry and Barry Unsworth – will be in the audience to witness how well he gets on, and to take part in a separate event on writing historical fiction. The two Canadian authors, Esi Eduguyan and Patrick de Witt, won’t be there, and so will also miss out on staying at Bowhill with the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, who sponsor the prize, and on meeting Hilary Mantel, winner of the inaugural prize, who will also present this year’s award.


Mentioning Mantel puts me in mind of her excellent critique of so much feminist historical fiction in which the central character is patently a 21st-century free-spirited woman somehow trapped in the wrong century.

“Learn to tolerate strange worldviews,” she told a Royal Society of Literature masterclass a couple of years ago. “Don’t pervert the values of the past. Women in former eras were downtrodden and frequently assented to it. Generally speaking, our ancestors were not tolerant, liberal or democratic. Your characters probably did not read the Guardian, and very likely believed in hellfire, beating children and hanging malefactors. Can you live with that?”