The Kenyon Review rolled out the red carpet, reimagined the Renaissance, and summoned the falcons for the annual Literary Festival on November 4th and 5th, all leading up to The Denham Sutcliffe Memorial Lecture by Dame Hilary Mantel, the recipient of the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement.
Mantel distinguished herself as a clear contender for the Award for Literary Achievement with her 2009 novel Wolf Hall, which received the Man Booker Prize. The first in a trilogy, Wolf Hall explores the court of King Henry VIII and follows his chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell, through two more volumes, Bringing Up the Bodies and the forthcoming The Light and the Mirror. Additionally, Dame Hilary has written nine previous novels and a book of short stories. She is the first woman and the first British writer to receive the Man Booker Prize twice. Editor David Lynn praises Mantel’s body of work: “One mark of Mantel’s achievement is that she has resurrected the historical novel as a serious literary genre,” he said. “The vibrant prose, the vivid characterizations, the complex psychological insights, the powerful moral understanding are all superb.”
In anticipation of the festival, the Knox Reads! campaign kicked off the celebration in October. The Review distributed more than 300 free copies of Wolf Hall to the Knox County community at Mount Vernon’s Paragraphs Bookstore and the local farmers’ market. At the annual Harvest Festival on October 16th, the Review set up its own heraldry table where kids could design family crests and a coat of arms, reflecting the regal setting of Mantel’s novel.
On Saturday, November 5th, the world of Mantel’s prose was brought to life with a series of Renaissance-themed activities as well as traditional festivities, such as prose and poetry workshops led by Kenyon Review Fellows Jaquira Díaz and Margaree Little and award-winning writer and Kenyon alum Daniel Mark Epstein ’70. I was fortunate enough to participate in Little’s workshop where we learned about persona poems, tying our writing back to Mantel’s work by using the personae of myriad historical figures. A bookstore sidewalk sale offered literary magazines and small-press books to community members, but the real excitement was taking place in the back room inside. For the first time in Lit Fest history, the Review brought in live falcons as a nod to the role of falconry in Wolf Hall. The Ohio Wildlife Center provided the birds and explained the creatures’ living habits. Meanwhile, other attendees designed family crests and a coat of arms at the heraldry table nearby.
Participants also got a chance to understand the novel’s cultural and historical context at a panel discussion called “Reimagining the Renaissance,” moderated by NEH Distinguished Professor of English Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, and featuring Assistant Professor of English Amy Blumenthal; Assistant Professor of English Piers Brown; Professor of Music Dane Heuchemer; and the Rev. Rachel Kessler, chaplain of Kenyon College and priest to Harcourt Parish Episcopal Church. Lobanov-Rostovsky offered a variety of questions concerning the portrayal of the Renaissance through paintings, literature, and music. He began with a focus on prominent portraits by German-Swiss artist Hans Holbein, whose famous depictions of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell have garnered attention for centuries. The audience contemplated the relationship between the somber faces of Holbein’s art and Mantel’s interpretation of the men. Heuchemer also presented some Tudor musical compositions, including an original piece by Henry VIII himself. (There’s a reason he’s known for his monarchy and not his music.)
Twelve Kenyon Review Associates brought storytelling to another dimension with a dramatic reading of Wolf Hall, previously adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton and portrayed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Associates read the first five scenes of the show, giving the audience a taste of the riveting story. Even those less familiar with the novel could tell how much excitement was infused into each moment. Mantel’s retelling is no mere history lesson; she lets readers become intimate with the conniving characters of Henry VIII’s court.
That evening at the eagerly awaited keynote lecture, Mantel delved into her subject: the writing life. She revealed to the audience her “inner rabbit hutch,” a reference to a hutch she found in her grandfather’s attic at age nine which held a trove of nineteenth-century romance novels. From then on, language enraptured her. She acknowledged that she hadn’t always been a writer, but always loved the world of fiction. Her family often caught her daydreaming, and frowned upon her for it.
Some audience members were lucky enough to have mini-conversations with Mantel during the Q & A. As a writer myself, I wanted to mine all the wisdom I could from this incisive writer. I asked her, what are some habits young writers adopt that are often useless? Turning my question around, she emphasized the importance of setting your butt in the chair and doing the work, citing this year’s Man Booker Winner, Paul Beatty, as a model.