READ ALL ABOUT IT! LITERARY CORNWALL
PUBLISHED: 10:17 22 March 2016 | UPDATED: 12:41 30 August 2017
In the past, before ovine adoption of so-called smart’ phones and tablets, humans read books. I know, astonishing isn’t it? People also wrote letters. When people enter my library they stare in bewilderment at shelves of books as though they have inadvertently stumbled into some museum of yesteryear. National Book Week and World Book Day remind us that books matter; time to look back …
Let’s begin with Medieval Passion Plays. Manuscripts of three full-length Cornish plays have survived, which provide valuable information about the Cornish language. One example is the Ordinale’, probably written in the 14th century, a cycle performed over three consecutive days.
Venturing into the modern world, fast forward to the Rev. RS Hawker (1803-75), vicar of Morwenstow, who shared the superstitions of his parishioners, writing poems popular with Victorians, none better-known than his ballad based on that old Cornish refrain, And Shall Trelawny die?’ Well?
Not all men writing of Cornwall are Cornishmen. Charles Kingsley (1819-75) was from Dartmoor, but set part of Hereward-the-Wake’ (1866) in Cornwall. That man of Wessex meanwhile, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), met first wife Emma Lavinia Gifford in the rectory porch at St Juliot, a place which then featured in A Pair of Blue Eyes’, re-named West Endelstow. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was at it too, setting a Sherlock Homes tale in Cornwall (The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot’).
Time for a Cornishman. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) was a Bodmin boy, who lived in Fowey, remembered for a series of humorous novels set in Cornwall, written under the pseudonym Q’. From a Cornish Window’ (1906) is an entertaining volume of essays, criticism, poems and parodies. Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) sat on cliffs between Pentire Point and The Rumps when inspired to write For the Fallen’, recited each Remembrance Sunday.
Another Cornishman was historian AL Rowse (1903-97), born in St Austell, who wrote poetry, much about Cornwall, but is most famous for numerous works on English history, including Tudor Cornwall’ (1941). His autobiography was entitled, A Cornishman at Oxford’ (1965).
No sweep through literary Cornwall would be complete without Sir John Betjeman (1906-84), Poet Laureate, who was famously fond of the county, which featured prominently in his poetry, covering everything from its character and landscape to Victorian provincial life and saints. He is buried in the churchyard at St Enodoc’s, Trebetherick.
Equally indispensable is Daphne du Maurier (1907-89), resident of Menabilly, near Fowey, many of whose novels had a Cornish setting, although she also wrote the noteworthy Vanishing Cornwall’. The county was the inspiration for one of her terrifying short stories, The Birds’, immortalised in film by Hitchcock.
They keep on coming. Winston Graham (1908-2003) although born in Manchester, set Poldark’ in Cornwall. He moved to Perranporth aged 17, living there from 1925 to 1959. Ross Poldark’, the first of the series came out in 1945, followed by eleven other titles, all set around Perranporth. He also wrote 32 other novels. The first seven Poldark books became a 70s TV series, attracting audiences of about 14 million. Apparently vicars cancelled or rescheduled Sunday services so as not to clash!
Nobel prize-winning novelist William Golding (1911-93) was born in St Columb Minor and returned to live near Truro from 1985 until his death. Of his symbolic moralistic novels, Lord of the Flies’ (1954) is both the most famous and most disturbing, becoming a successful film in 1963.
Jack Clemo (1916-94), born near St Austell, was a notable poet whose work was strongly associated with Cornwall, his visionary work inspired by rugged landscape and china-clay mines and works, dotting the landscape around where he grew up. Tragically Clemo lost his father, killed at sea towards the end of WW1, lost his hearing aged around 20, followed by his sight approaching 40. Perhaps the best known Cornish poet is Charles Causley (1917-2003), a schoolmaster, born in Launceston, whose poetry is noted for simplicity and directness and associations with Cornish folklore.
Tales of the sea abound in Cornish writing and Douglas Reeman (aka Alexander Kent) based parts of his Richard Bolitho and Adam Bolitho series in Cornwall; historical Royal Navy fiction of the late 18th, early 19th centuries, set principally around Falmouth.
Several of Rosamunde Pilcher’s (1924 - ) books have been set in Cornwall where she was born (Lelant) and grew up, attending school in Penzance. Commencing writing aged seven, she had her first short-story published aged 18. The Shell Seekers’, one of her most famous works, has sold over five million copies worldwide.
David Cornwell is more commonly known as John le Carre (1931 - ), writer of espionage novels, who lives and writes in Cornwall. A resident of St Buryan for over 40 years, le Carre now owns a mile of cliff close to Land’s End. Colin Wilson (1931-2013) was another prolific writer living in Cornwall, at Gorran Haven, on the south coast. A philosopher and novelist, he wrote about true crime, mysticism and the paranormal.
A man born in Redruth who attended Redruth Grammar can be considered Cornish through and through. DM (Donald Michael) Thomas (1935 - ) returned to his native Cornwall after stints in Australia and America and has written novels, poetry and other works, being short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1981. As has been amply proven, you don’t need to come from Cornwall to feel inspired to write about it. Charles de Lint (1951 - ) comes from the Netherlands, but that didn’t prevent him setting his novel, The Little Country’ (1991) in the county.
The lure of Cornwall is irresistible to even the most famous of authors and JK Rowling (1965 - ) set two chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ in Cornwall, the story unfolding at Shell Cottage, on the beach outside the fictional village of Tinworth.
What is undeniable is that Cornwall has a literary tradition dating back some 700 years, a parade of luminaries the envy of most other counties. Let’s hope tradition is maintained and folk continue writing in and about Cornwall for generations. Okay, people, please put down those smartphones …