After 2012’s Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival (reports on part 2 and part 3), I could not wait for this year’s to come around. It began with a disappointment, though. My first event was to be a talk by Rupert Everett. It was sadly cancelled due to illness. It was also a shame to have no festival hub in the shape of last year’s superb tented headquarters and bookshop. This left two talks to make up for it. The first was by Paul Roberts, the head of Roman Collections at the British Museum and curator of the greatly anticipated and much heralded exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which opens at the BM on 28 March. The other speaker was Hilary Mantel, double Booker Prize winner for the first two novels of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy and recipient, during the Oxford event, of the Bodley Medal, a medal forged from the copper of the original mid 17th-century roof of Oxford’s first public library. Libraries, as Hilary mentioned in her acceptance speech, fuel writers. History does its bit as well.
For the Hilary Mantel event I was as high up in the gods of the Sheldonian as it is possible to be. People who squeezed past to take their ‘seats’ had to be clutched as they passed by, saving them from a tumble to their doom. This time at least nobody fainted right in front of me. There was no unconscious body to prop up until the end when they could be finally lifted out over the teetering, queasy spectators and lowered to ground level, many, many metres below. While an open window by my head did lead me to worry that hypothermia might be an unfortunate side-effect of this much sought after festival ticket, the event itself was well worth it.
I expected Hilary Mantel to be eloquent and charismatic and so she was. She began with a reading from Bring Up the Bodies, reading the scene where the quiet Jane Seymour is fitted with her painful headdress, so different from the French fashion made popular by Anne Boleyn, squeezed onto her head by her mother and sister, before quietly expressing her opinion on the future of the current queen: ‘You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old.’ You could have heard a pin drop. Following on from the description of a very physical scene, almost comic in places, here was a bitterly cold shock of undeniable and resolute truth told at a time in the novel when it is expected that Anne will be confined simply to a convent. Hearing it all read by Hilary Mantel herself was a privilege.
Hilary spoke about the decision of splitting her story into three volumes – how could one continue to read (or write) after the death of Thomas More or the death of Anne Boleyn? She also talked about the recurring imagery of the novels, the significance of opening and closing lines and the task of making each of the books standalone. The contrast between Cromwell the statesman and the man who loved little dogs was an intriguing one. Most fascinatingly of all, Hilary tantalised about how the end of the third novel The Mirror and the Light will echo the beginning of the first, Wolf Hall. It will be a powerful end. As Hilary said, we know what happens in history and that intensifies our experience. We know that it will end on the scaffold. We know what is in store for Thomas Cromwell and for us, the reader. It’s all the more powerful for it.
Likewise with Pompeii and Herculaneum. We may marvel at the uniquely intact mosaics and wall paintings as well as the possessions from daily life but we know that none of it would have survived without the devastating destruction of 79 AD. The eruption of Vesuvius preserved two cities by destroying them and while neither would have been unusual in their own time, today they are irreplaceable. The poignancy of this juxtaposition between miraculous survival and human tragedy was brought home during the excellent talk by British Museum Roman Curator Paul Roberts by the image of a carbonised baby’s cradle from Herculaneum, one of many evocative objects from this summer’s exhibition at the BM. The cradle might be on display but we were assured that the remains of the baby found within it, along with his or her blanket, would not. We were shown the mosaic of a dog that would have served as a kind of welcome mat at one of Pompeii’s villas. In the next slide, found at the same villa, was the plaster cast corpse of a dog, contorted in death agonies, possibly even the dog on which the mosaic was modelled. You couldn’t say that it wasn’t.
Paul Roberts was a wonderful speaker, telling us about wandering through the store rooms of Pompeii, Naples and London’s British Museum to select items for display in the exhibition that, in many cases, have not been displayed before. Other exhibitions have been held on Pompeii but here we were shown Paul’s efforts to make the 2013 BM exhibition unique, not least because Pompeii and Herculaneum have been given equality. The emphasis throughout is on the life that went on in these two cities, as is demonstrated in the thematic chapters of the accompanying book.
I reviewed the book recently on Goodreads: It is a substantial volume and is far more than a catalogue. Chapters focus on aspects of life and death (but mostly life) in the two cities leading up to the eruption, supported by glorious full-colour images of buildings and artefacts alike. The text is full of useful information, structured in chapters that move from one room of a building to the next, as well as looking at public spaces of the cities, but it doesn’t pretend to examine the sites or monuments in detail. Instead Roberts provides useful references for further personal exploration. The tragedy of the eruption for the inhabitants of the two cities, some of whom are captured here along with their possessions in moving photographs, is not neglected.
Paul Roberts is a fantastic walking advertisement for his exhibition – showing us photos of exhibits squeezed through the British Museum’s doors and explaining how women and ex-slaves had a more significant part in Roman society than authors of the day may have wished. The empress Livia was a role model for powerful Pompeian women who in turn influenced the women in the shops and villas of the town. Ex-slaves comprised an enormous proportion of the two cities’ populations although, as Roberts put it so well, Pompeii was like the Gloucester to Herculaneum’s Cheltenham. Herculaneum might have been more refined but in both places, at the end, people of all classes and ages were on the run for their lives.
I visited Pompeii and Herculaneum just a few days ago partly because of this exhibition although more precisely the exhibition was used as an excuse to fulfil a lifelong ambition to visit these two sites. I’ve excavated numerous Roman remains in Britain and Germany over the years but never made it to Pompeii and Herculaneum. I think I thought it would be difficult or expensive – it was neither. It was glorious though.
Reading the book by Paul Roberts and listening to his talk in Oxford, as well as contemplating a visit to the exhibition, has placed my visit in context. As Paul said, these museum exhibits are not artefacts, they’re possessions. They belonged to people just like you and me and we know that because of the destruction of Vesuvius. Written records don’t always reveal the whole truth. Paul somewhat apologetically said that a goal of the exhibition is that after it you will feel that you have not only touched a Roman, you will have hugged him or her. The disaster has brought them so much closer to ourselves and, thanks to the exhibition and to the sites themselves, we can reap the rewards of that. It was, though, such a tragedy.
We visited Herculaneum and Pompeii on a very warm sunny day – and went back to Pompeii for more on a day when lightning forked across the ruins. While Pompeii was impressive, not least in size, Herculaneum was more accessible, quiet, intimate and so beautiful. I thought I’d inflict some photos on you.
(Photos (c) Kate Atherton)