Tales that will rattle the rafters

Ways With Words: Suzi Feay reports back from another great year at the Dartington festival

Writing is a lonely art, and even the best writers can feel a little isolated from their readership - can wonder, indeed, who's actually reading their work. Even Margaret Drabble isn't immune. Leading a readers' group through the intricacies of her latest novel, The Seven Sisters, just paperbacked by Penguin, which is underpinned by scholarly references to Virgil, she asked plaintively: "Has anybody here read any Virgil in the original?". To her amazement and pleasure, half of the group raised their hands.

That's a fine riposte to the notion that we are collectively "Dumbing Down" - or maybe it just says something about the quality of participants at Ways With Words. Audiences aren't to be taken lightly here. On Monday night, in Dartington's lofty Great Hall, Nick Clarke, presenter of Radio 4's The World at One, gave a fascinating - and hilarious - talk about social history over the last 50 years, only to be majestically rebuked by the first questioner who informed Clarke that he had been too entertaining.

The same complaint could be made about Peter Stanford, who ranged effortlessly over Lord Longford's long life and career, from the state of the Longford ancestral pile in Ireland ("I thought I had a rising damp problem") to the strenuous efforts of his subject to alter aspects of the first edition of his biography. Not that Longford wanted to cut a finer figure in its pages - he was more concerned that some of his more notorious acquaintances were presented positively. Told that Dennis Nilsen had been described as a mass murderer, Longford asked plaintively: "But have you also said that he's a promising poet?"

Fiona MacCarthy's latest subject is safely dead - but still a controversial figure 180 years on. She revealed that she was Byron's 401st biographer, and recounted the strange tale of the Michaelmas goose as an example of the problems she faced. Byron wanted to eat the traditional goose, even in Italy - but did he take two, or three, or four of the hapless birds with him on his travels? None of the sources could agree.

Maybe not mad, probably not dangerous, but bad, definitely - that was the verdict on the veteran editor of the Sunday Express, John Junor, according to his own daughter, Penny. Keenly probed by the IoS's Cole Moreton, she talked feelingly about her "monster" father: "He destroyed my mother."

Writers get the last word, and the propriety of writing critically about your own family came up in the discussion about Blake Morrison's memoir, Things My Mother Never Told Me. And the pugnacious psychologist Oliver James believes very firmly in blaming your parents rather than your genes, as he explained in his contentious talk.

Patrick Gale, the Cornwall-based novelist, talked gleefully about novelising his own childhood - and writing his siblings out of existence in the process. Meanwhile, debut novelist Ben Faccini talked about his relief when his mother read The Water Breather and concluded that it was all right because the fictional mother in no way resembled her: "which was great, because the mother was the only character who was absolutely, definitely based on my own family!"

Most literary festivals are geared towards selling books - and yet again Ottakars did a splendid job with its on-site book shop. One event, though, didn't end with the traditional injunction to join the author at the signing table. The six-volume autobiography of the almost forgotten Victorian eccentric and travel writer, Augustus Hare, has been out of print for decades. Celebrating this extraordinary life on the centenary of Hare's death was storyteller Clive Fairweather who set the rafters rattling with his barnstorming evocation of Hare's gothic childhood. One particularly piquant image was that of the teenage Hare at Harrow, along with the young Redvers Bullers, later to be a hero of the Zulu Wars, caught prancing round in fairy costumes by their horrified masters. For Hare the result was expulsion and a later career as literary mentor to, among others, Somerset "Willie" Maugham.

Judith Flanders gave similarly vivid insights into Victorian life in two talks, on her latest book The Victorian House, and her previous book, A Circle of Sisters. Victorian women's underwear could exceed 7lb in weight, she told us; and before the invention of dry-cleaning, elaborate clothes often needed to be completely unpicked, washed in separate pieces and sewn up again.

Laura Thompson spoke movingly about how researching the life of Nancy Mitford has made her reassess her own life. Nancy's unfailing brightness and bravery, her wonderful "will to happiness", has transformed her biographer's own mental outlook. And perhaps the spirit of U and Non-U had also had its effect on the festival-goer overheard in the bookshop. "I picked that up [a novel], but it has the word 'lavatory' in the very first line, so I'm not going to buy it." The writers have been funny, challenging, informative and, yes, unfailingly entertaining, but as ever it's the audiences that make Ways With Words at Dartington so special. Thanks to everyone who made the effort to attend.