Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Notes on Cornish fiction

Cornwall is a popular place to set novels, with its wild country, lovely beaches, hidden coves and tales of smuggling; according to one blog 'it's a literary feast for the senses'. But from Daphne du Maurier to Michael Murpurgo, the majority of Cornish literature seems to be about ghosts, myths and legends; and if it's not set in the past, it involves an idyllic family/romantic holiday. Nothing focuses on the reality that is Cornwall; as beautiful as it is, it has huge unemployment and drug problems, none of which is addressed in literature, whether it be for children or adults (Liz Fenwick's novels all seem to have Cornwall in the title; The Cornish House poses the question 'Can a house heal a broken heart?).

Thanks to my daughter, I've read a few children's books set in Cornwall. The Ingo series, by Helen Dunmore, features the underwater world of Mers (mermaids and mermen). Dunmore also writes adult fiction, one of which is set in Cornwall: Zennor in Darkness features DH Lawrence and his German wife, who lived in Zennor for two years during the first world war, until he was accused of spying and given three days to leave the county. Lawrence didn't exactly ingratiate himself with the Cornish, describing them "like insects gone cold, living only for money, for dirt. They are foul in this. They ought all to die".

Zennor is a tiny hamlet on the rugged Atlantic coast; aside from the incredible views of the ocean, it's famous for its Mermaid of Zennor, a wooden carving on the side of a chair in the local church, said to date back to the fifteenth century. The mermaid has inspired countless poems and folklore tales, including the Ingo series. The hugely popular Michael Murpugo has also used Zennor as a setting for his short story The White Horse of Zennor, where myths brush against reality. For such a tiny place, it's received a lot of literary attention.

Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) is arguably Cornwall's most famous author; she lived most of her life in the county and based much of her fiction there. Most of it ticks Cornwall's literary tradition – Historical? Yup. Smuggling? Yup. Romance and historical? Tick – but her last novel, the satirical Rule Britannia, is strangely prescient, post-Brexit, concerning as it does the UK leaving Europe and joining the United States to become USUK.

David John Moore Cornwell, known more commonly by his nom de plume John Le Carré, has lived in St Buryan, Cornwall for 40-odd years. Though born in Dorset, with his original surname it was presumably inevitable for him to live in the county. Shame his surname wasn't Maldives.

However, due to the recent BBC production, Poldark is currently Cornwall's most famous literary export, surpassing du Maurier and Murpurgo. The twelve historical (naturally) novels by Winston Graham, who lived in Cornwall for 40 years, were published from 1945-1953 and then 1973-2002 (he then died). Anyway, no one's read them, they're probably not any good, and all you want to see anyway is Aidan Turner get his kit off. 

Will there ever be a Cornish Irvine Welsh? Doubtful.

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