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Guinivere Glasford on her new novel and the privilege of being published

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Cambridge novelist and Costa Award nominee Guinivere Glasfurd reveals how she poured her hopes for literature into a novel she wrote during the bleakest hours of lockdown and why a book set in Enlightenment France resonates so much in a post-Trump world

"Books connect us: writers, readers, booksellers, publishers. When a reader picks up a book, they don’t necessarily think of what it took to get the book to the shop and into their hands. What matters is the story. Everything else is invisible, which is as it should be. Yet, this journey of a book from writer to publisher, bookseller to reader, was not always so straightforward and was often fraught with risk and danger.

Privilege is a picaresque story, filled with adventure and mishap. The novel takes you to the heart of book publishing and censorship in pre-revolutionary France, when a book required royal privilege before it could be published. This privilege required the sanction of the King, enforced by the Chief Censor and a network of spies. Books that fell foul of this system were censored or banned; others were published outside of France and smuggled back at great risk.

Author Guinivere Glasfurd . Pic by Stefano Masse (56333505)
Author Guinivere Glasfurd . Pic by Stefano Masse (56333505)

I wrote the book, pell-mell, through 2020, as a way to bring myself out of the bleak lockdown corner I was in. My response to lockdown was to write busily populated scenes, teeming with people and life. The novel was just a file on my laptop at that point, but it felt hopeful, a way to look ahead. Thousands turned to books during lockdown as a means of escape. In a difficult year, there was something incredibly heartening about that – about seeing books find a place in so many people’s lives.

The novel is not only rooted in the experience of the pandemic but was written when Trump was still in power and populist politics were on the rise, including in the UK. It felt urgent to think about the part literature plays in fostering a tolerant society and how fragile our literary culture is.

The novel carries you headlong into a world both familiar and strange: of fountains and gilded porcelain, literary salons and spies. It tells the story of Delphine Vimond, cast out from her family home after her father is disgraced. Into her life tumbles Chancery Smith, apprentice printer from London, sent to discover the mysterious author of a bundle of papers marked only ‘D’. In a battle of wits with the French censor, Henri Gilbert, Delphine and Chancery set off in a frantic search for D’s author. But will they catch up with D before Gilbert catches up with them?

Privilege by Guinivere Glasfurd. (56333507)
Privilege by Guinivere Glasfurd. (56333507)

When we think of the Enlightenment, we think mostly of works by men. Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume. Privilege takes that story and turns it on its head, to reveal a very different book culture that was struggling into existence at the time. It retells, in part, the story of Madame de Graffigny, a once successful French novelist and salonnière. It also reveals the part played by the ‘blue library’, centred in and around Troyes, from which the modern publishing giant, Hachette, can trace its roots.

The novel explores the difficulty and enormous risks associated with bringing work into the public domain at the time. The novel is therefore not only a story of the eighteenth century, but is also a story of now, and a defence of writing at a time of rising populism and the assault on reason. Above all, it is a call for tolerance, understanding, empathy; for us to find common cause in the face of far bigger threats in a world that fast seems to be splintering apart.

Privilege is my third novel. As a woman, with working-class roots in the north of England, the privilege of being published is not lost on me. I hope my novel not only leaves readers thinking about how books were published in the past, but also about the wider question of who is published today and why; about marginalised voices that still struggle to be heard or are suppressed."

  • Privilege is published on May 12 by Two Roads Books, an imprint of John Murray Press.
  • Guinevere Glasfurd will be speaking about the book at Topping’s, Ely, on May 24, 7.30pm.

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