Cheltenham Literature Festival

I’ve been going to Hay literature Festival in Hay on Wye, for the past 15 years. Ever since I first discovered it during my MA Creative Writing course, when we gained a slot to promote our group anthology due to a course member’s mutual acquaintance with one of the founders. Since then, I’ve only ever missed one year of the Festival. I build my year around it, and May is always a month that is carefully planned, being mindful of the dates that I must keep free for my yearly pilgrimage. Almost nothing gets in the way.

I have been planning, for many years since my original adventure into literature festivals, to branch out and attend others across the UK, to see what differs, hoping to extend my love of literature and the arts into more than a ‘once a year’ celebration with like minded people. So this year, thanks to a new and equally as literature obsessed colleague, I took the opportunity to attend Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Having no knowledge or preconceptions of Cheltenham, other than a reference to the Cheltenham and Gloucester building society and a family members exclamation that the ‘shopping is great,’ I was completely unaware of what to expect. I booked my accommodation, event tickets and picked up all the local information I could before setting off in the company of someone who granted, was not ‘a book person.’ What I expected was a literature festival in the middle of a busy town, perhaps similar to hay and maybe a little bigger, with some bigger names. What I got was a wonderfully different experience which came up close to my beloved Hay Festival.

Set in the grounds of Montpelier Park, the festival site is a welcoming warmth of coloured flags, fairy lights and quirky monuments to literature, which included giant book covers, typewriter keys which doubled up as seats and an owl sculpture. All of this is built around a collection of various sized marquees and surrounded by full Autumnal bloom. It is literature for a new season, foreshadowing the dark nights curled up by the fire with a good book, or wintry days at a coffee shop with the newspaper and a recent podcast. A bandstand had been transformed into a little nook for people to sit and relax with friends, or drink coffee and read books. Large armchairs and settees were surrounded by quirky furniture scattered with reading material, while Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling. Immediately I loved this place. Immediately it seemed to invite me in.

The festival was buzzing with anticipation. People of all ages were dashing about despite the rain, on their way to events, to grab hot drinks or to meet friends and family. I booked for two events over the weekend. The humorously titled Heathcliff Vs Darcy: Who’s the bigger s**t? and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca at 80. 

The first, Heatcliff vs Darcy: Who’s the bigger s**t? was a lively debate between a panel of well known writers, including Festival Curator Sebastian Faulks, Novelist and Sunday Times Columnist Dolly Alderton and Novelists Sarah Moss and Phillip Hensher. Faulks and Alderton were to argue for Darcy as the bigger s**t, while Moss and Hensher chose Heathcliff. My mind was already made up. Although it can be argued that Heathcliff’s mistreatment and violent upbringing as a child, contributed to his treatment, torture and responsibility of the death of several characters in Wuthering Heights, his character is far worse in his actions than the snobby and prejudiced Mr Darcy, who is little more than an upper class twit who is put in his place by the witty and smart Lizzie Bennett. In both situations however, class is a key theme to the characters lives and causes their misery as well as their actions.

The debate was an interesting one though. Alderton brought a nice touch of the modern day dating world to the argument, siting Darcy as a bad man, who in the modern world would be asked by her fellow millenials to ‘check his privilege’. She explained his behaviour towards Elizabeth as ‘negging,’ in which he appears to be complimentary but only seeks to lower Lizzie’s self confidence whilst also causing her to seek his approval. Alderton noted she has come across many Mr Darcy’s in her time and that we have gained a kind of Stockholm syndrome to them. She waved away any excuses of shyness or social awkwardness, refusing to accept an audience members suggestion that Darcy was ‘on the spectrum’. Inevitably, the Colin Firth reference came up, (He starred as Darcy in the hugely popular 1995 TV Adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) and Alderton claimed Mr Darcy had been ‘misrepresented’ by Firth. If he didn’t wish to dance at the ball, the key source of social interaction of the time, he would have had no sense to put on a see- through white shirt.  This was met with laughter from the audience, but a fair point.

Sarah Moss’ response to Alderton’s ramble about the bad influence of Mr Darcy on women readers throughout history, was met with laughs too. Brief and to the point, she replied that if Alderton has met lots of Darcy’s, she should be thankful she hasn’t met lots of Heathcliff’s, as ‘Kathy ends up dead’. With reference to the way Lizzie must live as Darcy’s wife, having married into money and status, she summed up her argument with the words’ I’d much rather have a big house at Pemberley than a nice grave on the moors’.

Sebastian Faulks approached the argument that Darcy is more of a sh**t than Heathcliff by using direct quotes, displaying the rudeness of his character. He noted how Darcy states it would be ‘mortifying’ to be drawn to Elizabeth and his resistance to her ‘objectionable family’. He also uses Darcy’s refusal to intervene with Wickham’s dastardly plans, allowing him to attempt to run off with his own sister, and then Lizzie’s too, as a reason to site him as the worse of the two. Darcy, Faulks says, explains his refusal to react to such a situation as ‘beneath him’ despite it threatening to ruin his family honour and the Bennett’s too. Faulks didn’t hold back, calling Darcy a ‘manipulative, hypocritical, self centred depressive.’ Much of which I agreed with. His final comments that Darcy needs Bingley as an interface between himself and other people was interesting. As in each instance, Bingley seems to be there to encourage Darcy and also to make him a slightly better person.

Phillp Hensher had the most amusing and believable argument. To begin, he noted that we must recognise the difference between ‘an a***hole and a s**t’. The first, he states, doesn’t know his behaviour is bad, the second, knows he is being a s**t and will go out of his way to be that. Hensher’s hilarious reference to Darcy and Heathcliff taking a disabled parking space is comedy gold, and it makes the point. Darcy, Henser states would take the disabled space not realising he’s depriving anyone, while Heatchliff would see someone trying to drive into the space and he would deliberately overtake them to take the space. Met by laughter from the audience, Hensher had set his argument well. Hensher went on to talk in detail about this difference, and to apply it to Heathcliff and Darcy in turn. He notes Heathcliff’s ability to cause the death of several characters in the novel and to destroy the lives of everyone he comes into contact with. The most valid point in the argument. He also talked about the idea of redemption in Wuthering Heights and in much 19th century literature, Heathcliff’s attempt to wipe the slate clean so he could go and do it all over again. He concluded that ‘we all need a bit of shit in our lives. The sex appeal, the excitement.’ This may have been going too far, but then, Hensher is right in the sense that there are many s**ts in the world, and we can’t escape that. Whether it makes life more interesting is a matter of opinion. It certainly makes for a more interesting read.

The audience questions were interesting, from suggestions that Darcy is ‘on the spectrum’ to wondering what would happen should Heathcliff and Darcy meet? The panel replied with comments such as, ‘Darcy wouldn’t have time for him…’ ‘Heathcliff would set the dogs on Darcy.’

The final conclusions led to an audience vote which resulted in the winner being crowned Heathcliff. A worthy winner in my opinion. What did make me laugh, was a final comment by Hensher to a lady in the audience who began with ‘Wuthering Heights is my favourite book,’ on answering her question, he seemed more perplexed by her first comment, ‘really? It’s your favourite book?’ Such an entertaining event! It made me wonder if in future they could do a series of similar events, pitching other literary characters against each other.

Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca at 80 was an interesting discussion by a group of Du Maurier enthusiasts and writers within the thriller and Gothic literature genre. Author, broadcaster and critic Sarah Dunant, Author of The Essex Serpents, Thriller writer Sarah Perry, Sabine Durrant and chaired by The Pool’s Sam Baker.

These 4 women were clearly huge fans of the novel and of Du Maurier herself. Sam Baker noted at the beginning how Rebecca has never been out of print since it was first published in 1938. Also, it’s lack of real recognition for critics, and the common reference to Du Maurier as a Gothic romance novel writer. I remember reading Rebecca when I was in my twenties, after recommendation from a friend. The opening line pulled me in straight away and I can not remember a novel that left me so cold and with such a strong memory of the characters. They still haunt me even now. I could relate to everything the women were saying, and I could see the audience, (which spanned several decades) were connecting in the same way. There was much talk of that opening line, of the two Mrs De winters, of Maxim and even Mrs Danvers. I would have liked to have heard more of Du Maurier herself, and should I have had the confidence to ask a question, I might have asked how the reading of Rebecca had affected the panel’s individual responses to the rest of Du Maurier’s work. Believing I was not the only one to read her most famous work and then rush out to buy anything else I could get my hands on.

The audience members were most interested in the many film versions of the film. To which the panel seemed to agree, as I did, that they seemed to take away the essence of the book within the last few minutes. Also much discussion fell onto what the second Mrs De Winters first name might be. All we know is that it’s ‘unusual and it suits her’. There was also an interest on the different gender reader perspectives and the span of age ranges approaching it too. It is a book that spans time and can change on different readings as the panel noted, many of them having first read it when they were teenagers. It certainly inspired me to take another reading of it.  It’s a book that I have never been quite able to erase from my memory.

Should I have had more time at the festival, I certainly would have attended more events. There were several that I had highlighted in the programme as of interest. Mary Shelley: A life of Men and Monsters looked fascinating. I was also intrigued by Oscar Wilde: The First Celebrity. Particularly in light of the film release of ‘The Happy Prince’, based on Wilde’s life following his release from Prison for Homosexuality. Also, an event discussing the life and work of writer Katherine Mansfield, who I remember studying at University.

I realised as we wandered around the festival, as I soaked in the atmosphere, watched the wonderful events and talked to like minded people, that I had been mistaken in thinking there could be just one literary home for me. In believing that Hay Festival was where it ended. That was where it had only just begun. Because Cheltenham, for me, was just an extension of my first love, a celebration of all things literary in a different setting. Sure Hay would always be my first, I would always have fond memories of the times I had spent there, they could never be replaced. But there are so many other wonderful places to discover and celebrate the written word, the varied art forms and those who have created them. I left Cheltenham with a new found love for literary festivals. With a hunger for finding the next adventure, and a burning question of ‘what’s next?’

© Amanda Griffiths

Cheltenham Literature Festival runs every year in early October, set in the grounds of Montpelier Park, in the town Centre.



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