Cornwall: A Literary Introduction

Cornwall, England

Various

I walked this land with a dreamer’s freedom
- Daphne du Maurier

I am so drugged with fresh air that I can’t write
- Virginia Woolf

Cornwall is very primeval: great black, jutting cliffs and rocks,…and a pale sea breaking in, like dawn.
- D.H. Lawrence

…with every kind of little growing thing
- Katherine Mansfield

The slate-hung farms, the oil-lit chapels,
- John Betjeman

the low shaggy hills full of tumbling walls and rough stone houses
- Paul Theroux

The golden unpeopled bays
- John Betjeman

The shadowy cliffs and sheep-worn ways
- John Betjeman

That wild weird western shore
- Thomas Hardy

Where to the sky the rude sea rarely smiles
- Percy Shelley

All Cornwall thunders at my door
- Charles Causley

These quotes are a small selection from the many writers and poets who have been drawn to Cornwall. With the exception of Percy Shelley who may or may not have visited Cornwall at all, and Paul Theroux who travelled through the county only briefly, they all lived here for a time; for some, the place exerted a powerful influence  throughout their lives, and featured significantly in their works.

John Betjeman

Poet laureate John Betjeman’s love for the cliffs and beaches of northern Cornwall began with childhood summers spent with his family in the fishing village of Padstow. As the train approached the Cornish coast, the young Betjeman would almost burst with excitement. His early impressions were incurably romantic and caught up with memories of the warmth and security of his childhood. This was a different world to London, full of shipwrecks, haunted woods, ‘oil-lit chapels’ and ‘golden bays’ as described in his iconic poem, ‘Delectable Duchy‘ (1974). As an adult he returned most summers until he moved here permanently.

Daphne du Maurier

At nineteen Daphne du Maurier visited Cornwall with her mother and sisters, on a mission to find a holiday house. Sweeping around a bend they entered a ‘gateway to another world’ in the tiny, southern riverside village of Bodinnick. The ‘full expanse of Fowey harbour’ spread out before them, making their  ‘spirits soar’. Cornwall became the central and most beloved landscape of du Maurier’s life, and featured in many of her novels, including Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. To her, Cornwall represented freedom: ‘Freedom to write, to walk to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone.’ I have followed Daphne’s trail all over Cornwall but we begin her story with her youth in London.

Charles Causley

Born in Launceston, on the Northern Tamar/Devon border, the poet Charles Causley lived there all his life, teaching at the local primary school in the shadow of a Norman castle. His ballads are often drawn from Cornish folklore, and he built aspects of Launceston into his poems, with its grey palette of limestone and slate. Much of his work is strikingly original and has lyrical echoes of Cornwall’s working culture. ‘Why should I starve in London…?’ he asked. ‘Starve emotionally, and imaginatively, as well as financially? I meet very few other poets who, secretively…haven’t wished that they’d stayed where – as we say in Cornwall – where they belong to be. And perhaps I belong to be in Launceston.’

Thomas Hardy

Cornwall held powerful, romantic associations for Thomas Hardy as it was where he met his wife Emma. He renamed it Lyonesse and built it into his imaginary Wessex landscape. As is shown in the story ‘Why go to Saint-Juliot?’ the north coast of Cornwall close to Boscastle featured richly in his early novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, and his  Poems of 1912-13 , a series of elegies about Emma written after her death that are extraordinarily moving.

D.H. Lawrence

For much of the First World War, D.H. Lawrence settled with his wife Frieda on the remote Penwith Coast near Zennor, not far from Land’s End. He was drawn to the wild coastland and the moors, with their strange scatter of huge granite stones and traces of pre-Christian civilisations. It was the place above all others in Britain where he felt a connection with the primeval past: ‘…this seems like a magic country with invisible walls and one is kept in by enchantment.’ His experiences here would find their way into Women in Love and Kangaroo and the landscape had an important bearing on his philosophy, as shall be seen.

Katherine Mansfield

This is not a landscape for everyone. Katherine Mansfield was enchanted when she first arrived, but grew to dislike it, commenting that it had ‘too many stones’. As I’ll show in a forthcoming story, her change of heart had more to do with her experiences here with D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. Although she wrote about it extensively in letters and in her journal, Cornwall never appeared in her fiction.

Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux came to Cornwall on his trip around the British coastline in the early 1980s for the book that became Kingdom by the Sea. By the time he reached Cornwall he seemed tired and out of sorts. Although he compared the northern coastline near Padstow to that of his beloved Maine, he gave the distinct impression he preferred the latter.

Virginia Woolf

‘Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall?’ asked Virginia Woolf. Probably because it was the setting for some of her earliest memories about blissful childhood summers spent at Talland House, her family’s holiday home. There it stood, this big white house in its shimmer of light, with its rambling garden and view of the curving bay of St Ives, a distant lighthouse visible across the ‘great plateful of blue water’. It provided, she said, ‘the best beginning to a life conceivable’ and figured prominently in her work. Three of her novels: To The Lighthouse, The Waves and Jacob’s Room are known as the St Ives trilogy for their autobiographical content drawn these childhood memories of Cornwall.  And all her life she was drawn back to the lights and sounds of this place, as we shall see. I have also followed Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa and the Bloomsbury Group from London’s Kew Gardens, Richmond, Hyde Park Gate and Bloomsbury, to Cassis in the south of France and Charleston House on the Sussex Downs. A story is coming soon.

Over coming months and years (I hope) I will pick up the threads of the lives writers and artists who lived here. And I will try my best to capture their unique interpretations and experiences of places that were significant to them.

Music:

La Moresca, Awel Vase

La Moresca is a German ensemble formed in 2009. They tour internationally, performing imaginative and unusual programs of Celtic, folk and early baroque music. They are particularly inspired by the music from Celtic nations. ‘Awel Vase’ was composed by Hilary Coleman in 1988 from the Cornish group Dalla. For details about La Moresca’s forthcoming performances, please see their Facebook page.

La Moresca’s music has been linked to the slide show with their kind permission.

Notes

When I told a young English hipster working at the Apple store in Sydney that I was moving to Cornwall for a couple of years he looked aghast. “CORNWALL?” he yelped, “But that’s like living in the fifties!” I told him that would be fine by me. I was after less noise and bustle, more time to think through ideas and read a book from beginning to end; to ramble in big, beautiful landscapes, and experience a sense of community. A small town on the south-eastern coast of Cornwall? Perfect.

The tapering Cornish peninsula on the south-west tip of the British Isles is just 80 miles long and wherever you are in Cornwall, you are never more than twenty-five miles from the sea. Its northern coastline has Atlantic surf, sandy beaches and dramatic cliffs (think Poldark, the Tintagel of Arthurian legend, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Hardy’s poems about Emma), while the southern side is calmer, with rivers, inlets, tidal creeks and lush gardens (du Maurier’s Frenchmans Creek, Rebecca, The Loving Spirit; Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows). Through the centre of Cornwall runs a ridge of higher hinterlands starting in the north with Bodmin moor (Jamaica Inn, Poldark) to the uplands of St. Breock and the Hensbarrow downs in the south, with the eerie white pyramids of the clay mines known as ‘Cornish Alps’ (the poet Clemo).

We lived in a little piece of history, a cottage in Looe, circa 1650, that was once the toll house for the revenue men. Smugglers had been interviewed in its rooms, contraband had been stored in the cellar, and a wooden panelled wall between the two upstairs bedrooms had been salvaged from a shipwreck. Despite being on the more sheltered side of Cornwall, there had been 27 wrecks along that stretch of coast and after storms, intriguing fragments of antique china would wash up on the beach, minutes from our front door. Life was lived at the sort of pace we were seeking. People stopped to chat; events and historical dates were keenly observed, and a sense of community was strong. The Cornish people (and other incomers, like us) were generous and kind to a couple of strangers.

I had landed in the ideal place for a literary pilgrimage. So many writers, poets (artists too) have been drawn here. The more I looked, the more I found: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Jean Rhys, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Celia Fiennes, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Laurie Lee, Patrick Gale, D.M. Thomas, Helen Dunmore and John le Carré. The painters Turner, Whistler and Sickert found inspiration for some of their most famous works here; sculptor Barbara Hepworth based herself in St Ives and there was the famous Newlyn school near Penzance.

From King Arthur and the 12th century love story Tristan and Isolde to the sunken, mystical kingdom of Hardy’s Lyonesse, Cornwall has a wealth of myths, legends and fairytales, with giants, mermaids and the prankish, wrinkly fairies called piskies.

Daphne du Maurier country was just eight miles away and I took her Vanishing Cornwall with me as a guide to the spirit and history of the place. Her voice egged me on through villages with elven sounding names that rolled extravagantly off the tongue: Lostwithiel, Lanlivery, Gwithian. Walking the south west coast path I saw great engine wheals and the sites of shipwrecks, and I passed through sacred landscapes of moor or field, scattered with standing stones, ancient burial sites, stone circles, and granite memorials for ancient kings. As du Maurier writes, to stand beside such relics is to become:

…an astronaut in time. The present vanishes, centuries dissolve, the mocking course of history with all its triumphs and defeats is blotted out. 

So I discovered that the man from Apple was only partly right. Moving to Cornwall is like going back in time, but not just sixty years. It’s more like thousands.

Weblinks

An article in The Guardian, by Philip Marsden, author of the book: Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, about why Cornwall has always been a separate place.

The Fowey Festival of Arts and Literature is a week-long festival of literature inspired by Daphne du Maurier and her works. Usually held annually in May, it has been put back to 25 September in 2020.

The North Cornwall Book Festival usually held in October.

The Penzance Literary Festival. held in July

The Looe Literary Festival, held in November.

Mazed Tales (2014) an online collection of animated Cornish folktales.

A trailer from the Jane Darke film Cornwall Native Poet, Charles Causley.

An interview with Kits Browning, Daphne du Maurier’s son, who talks about his mother’s links to Cornwall and Bodinnick in particular.

Betjeman’s Cornwall: A Film in 35mm.

A clip about a Tate Gallery St Ives exhibition exploring Virginia Woolf’s connections with many artists who were inspired by the landscape of Cornwall.

Another short film: D.H. Lawrence in Zennor.

An article about the independent film maker Mark Jenkin and the recent release of his film Bait, that examines some of the tensions arising from the clash of tradition versus progress in Cornwall.

The Visit Cornwall website.

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Comments from others

  1. STeve on

    Wonderful words and photos. I’m thinking that, when one becomes at one with the natural world around them, one becomes at one within themselves.

    If ever this oneness / simplicity of being was ever meant to be captured, your words and images encapsulate this perfectly.

    Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      Thanks Steve for your lovely comments! I really like that idea of oneness with the outside world acting as a mirror for the inner life. That feels right to me!

      Reply
  2. Meg on

    Love this! Youve captured the energy and ambiance of Cornwall beautifully with the stunning images and evocative quotes! Makes me ache to go back! I look forward to diving deeper into your work!

    Reply