It is a truism that Cornish literature is thin on the ground. Quite why this is and has been so is a bit of a mystery. Other creative arts flourish in Cornwall – Cornish musicians figure prominently in several different genres today and for large parts of the twentieth century. Richard James (Aphex Twin), Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac) and Roger Taylor (Queen) all helped to shape the way that popular music progressed over the second half of the Twentieth century while a strong grass roots movement today continues to support a diverse and innovative scene which features bands such as Dalla and Hanterhirr. In recent years, the Cornish Film Festival has drawn much praise for the quality of its submissions whilst building on a tradition which has seen John Nettles, Thandie Newton, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Nick Darke enjoy varied critical acclaim and success.
Even a comparison with the visual arts is not entirely instructive. Cornwall became famous for its art in the nineteenth and, especially, twentieth centuries largely through the effect of incoming (mainly English) artists. Over time, there were Cornish artists among their number too, such as Walter Langley (John Opie is probably the most famous Cornish painter, but predates this period and worked largely outside of Cornwall as a portraitist).
Cornish poets and (particularly) novelists do not fit either of these patterns but instead combine a little of the two. Many of Cornwall’s most successful writers are successful independent of Cornwall (in that most people are unaware of their place of birth) and their work does not depend upon any discernibly unique effect of ‘Cornishness’, often living elsewhere. These include William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies), D.M. Thomas (author of The White Hotel) and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (author of Dead Man’s Rock). Conversely, most of the writers most closely associated with Cornwall, such as Daphne du Maurier and Winston Graham are immigrants, similar to the visual artists referenced above. Of those Cornish-born writers who have had any critical success, Rosamund Pilcher can be said to have used Cornwall as an occasional back-drop for essentially English romance novels, whilst W.J. Burley achieved his eventual success due to the TV adaptations based on his Wycliffe character. These latter came closest to conveying an authentically Cornish voice to literature in the late Twentieth century with a writing style and voice that is, moreover, sadly neglected and overlooked by many.
Perhaps then, the most informative comparison might be with Cornish society at large – the brightest and best often leave whilst those that are left are often condescended to by those incomers whom it suits to emphasise and reinforce bucolic stereotypes.
So where does this leave Cornish literature today? In recent years, major literary festivals have been developed in Cornwall at Fowey, Falmouth and Port Eliot. Although it is to be hoped that they may galvanise the scene in the way that the film festival has done, they continue to be dominated, at present, by authors from outside of Cornwall. It is to be hoped that some local writers are inspired by these events – some, perhaps, are.
Alan Kent, seemingly indefatigable in his cultural and academic endeavours, has now written three novels set in present day Cornwall whilst Nick Harkaway (the son of another Cornish immigrant author – John le Carré) has received a great deal of critical acclaim for his first two novels, which are set elsewhere.
This ‘blog then, seeks to review novels by all three of those types identified above – the Cornish-born, the Cornish-immigrant and, especially, that rarest of breeds the Cornish-born-resident who writes about Cornwall.