Author Archive

Although born in Somerset, John Branfield moved to Cornwall in 1961, where he wrote much of his fiction; including titles such as Nancekuke and The Sugar Mouse, Cornish-set novels aimed primarily at adolescent girls. He was a well-regarded author of fiction in the 1970’s and 1980’s, who, like D.M. Thomas, seems to have given up that part of his career sometime c.1990. Where Thomas returned his hand to poetry, his first love, however, Branfield re-emerged in the early twenty-first century as a biographer of the Newlyn School. This book then, could be said to straddle the two phases in his career both literally and figuratively. Written in the 1980’s but not published until 2001, the novel is structured around Newlyn School paintings.

45cb845a15f38_breathEach chapter begins with a reference to a painting – its title, date, artist and a description – as in a catalogue. Words only go so far however and I feel that the book could be improved considerably if the publishers had gone to the expense of printing full colour reproductions of each painting, or a related work, on the facing page at the beginning of the chapter. Perhaps this was one reason for the book’s not being published when it was first written – the expense of both the printing and the acquiring of rights to do so may have been prohibitive and it’s conceivable that any or all of the writer, his agent and publisher may have felt as I do. Today though, the reader may partially circumvent this problem through use of a computer, or any other device connected to the internet: a quick search on the web retrieves images of many of the paintings without any difficulty (although some are fictitious).

These paintings are used to illustrate a simple tale of obsession slowly destroying a marriage. The protagonist, Roger Trevail , is a writer experiencing a creative slump that, we are led to believe, may be a permanent decline, (no doubt the pun is intended anyway but poor copy-editing occasionally renders his name as ‘Travail’). On one hand, Trevail could be seen as a fictionalised agglomeration of the Tangye brothers, Derek and Nigel; writing short stories, Cornish non-fiction and memoirs of leaving London & setting up in Cornwall complete with children & animals. On another though, there are elements which suggest something of a roman-à-clef – most notably, of course, in both Trevail and Branfield’s interest in the Newlyn School.

Rather than shrinking from any such accusations though, Branfield plays with them – Trevail experiences a touch of envy that contrasts the honesty of painterly self-portraits with the subterfuge of writerly roman-à-clefs, suggesting that critics allow painters a greater freedom than they do authors. Later, indeed, Trevail asks ‘who the hell is J.B.?’ in response to one critical review. We do not know either, in the context of the fictional world, but it would be difficult to imagine that Branfield had used his own initials here subconsciously. There is also a curious foreshadowing in chapter 3 when a novel about the Newlyn School is laid aside by Trevail. It’s difficult to know just how much that is a coincidence and how much it is a black joke at the author’s own expense.

The title of the book itself is a reference to a Stanhope Forbes lecture delivered to the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society in 1900 in which he described the plein-air philosophy of the post-impressionist Newlyn school as ‘a breath of fresh air’. Although the style is varied in the book here, it would be more than generous to bestow such an accolade upon Branfield. In addition to the catalogue-like entries which begin each chapter, some chapters are comprised entirely of them; others include a brief history of the school, a short story by Trevail, mock newspaper articles,  and his wife’s memoir. Just over fifty per cent of the chapters though, are written in the first person of Trevail with a sort of navel-gazing intensity that matches his character’s obsession.

Trevail cannot understand artists producing work that is average, thinking they should give up, somehow unaware that this is himself. Given the possibility raised above of some degree of autobiography being contained in the story we might wonder if Branfield is himself trying to work out whether or not to persevere with his calling. He invents the Newlyn school artist Denzil Hooper, who burns all of his work in a pique of despondency. Later, Trevail tries the same trick with one of his own manuscripts but he believes fervently that painting is a more delicate record of creation and knows that he has drafts of this manuscript elsewhere. His wife sees the stunt as childish attention-seeking.

It’s difficult, then, to see what this book has to say, if anything, about the Cornish experience. Difficult, indeed, to see it as any more than an artist trying to work out his problems through his art and comparison with other artists. For some writers that might have been the Bloomsbury Set, but Bramfield has a clear passion for the Newlyn School. Very few of the artists in that group were Cornish and their work largely foisted an English bucolic idyll of simple, honest, peasants onto Cornwall. Here, like in those paintings, ‘the trees are in full leaf and block the view of the valleys and hillsides’.


The Guardian review of Helen Dunmore’s latest novel, which focuses on a soldier returning to Cornwall following the first World War, can be found below.


The Lie by Helen Dunmore – review | Books | The Observer.

Port Eliot Festival 2014Tickets have already gone on sale for the 2014 Port Eliot Festival, available on a first-come, first-served basis, numbers are limited. Now in its 10th year, the Port Eliot Festival has begun to attract some major literary figures and has become something of a feature on the British (Londoner?) festival circuit. It would be nice to see a little more Cornish focus from the festival organised by the man who once lead Cornish interests in parliament though (also unsuccessfully urging Cornwall for Parliament in the war of the five peoples and amicably leaving it to the Royalists thereafter).


In my first post here, in a wide-ranging editorial, I wrote that “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).”

Well, not all of those portraits were entirely unconnected with Cornwall. A new(?) Opie painting was recently discovered and, concerning a Cornish subject, will be exhibited at Falmouth Art Gallery for two years from April 2014, thereby allowing the public free access to it. David Carter has written a short book concerning the discovery and restoration of this important Cornish portrait by Opie. The sitter, about whom little was known, came from Falmouth and led a very interesting life, spanning the 18th and 19th centuries. The blurb for the book describes it thus:

An enigmatic gaze from a young girl in a neglected portrait, obscured by a veil of yellowed varnish, reached out to a dealer in Cornish art when it was spotted in a Midlands saleroom. The artist was John Opie, the 18th century self-taught "Cornish Wonder", who was famously described by Sir Joshua Reynolds as being "like Caravaggio and Velazquez in one". This monograph describes the exciting discovery and careful restoration of a portrait which can now rightfully claim it’s place as a Cornish masterpiece. It reaches into the murky depths of history to shed light on the remarkable life of the sitter, Lydia Gwennap, and takes us from her humble roots in Cornwall to the fashionable environs of London during an age of important social and cultural reform. Lydia was a true daughter of Falmouth, and finally, some 240 years after her birth, her story can be told. . .


Finally, it’s been a while since we’ve run with the image below, or repeated our plea but it does bear repeating.



Amazingly, little more than eighteen months into our existence, Cornish Literature now gets visited daily by people from across the world. We’re lucky to have several people who write freely for the website but they are all busy with other work and cannot give up any more of their precious time than they already do. It has always been the intention of Cornish Literature that it should be community driven – fostering a community of people to promote and debate the written word in Cornwall. This can be done in the comments under each article but we also always welcome new writers of news, feature and review pieces.

If you would like to write for us then please do get in touch via the instructions on the ‘About’ page. In particular, if there is a book that you would like to review for Cornish Literature then please let us know; we’re quite often offered copies of books for review, including the Carter book mentioned above, that we sadly have to decline owing to the constraints of lives and other work.

Golding and Thomas won critical acclaim for their fiction in the twentieth century, but their lack of direct engagement with Cornwall in their work means that few even realise that they are Cornish.”1

So I wrote in March last year.  In the 1980’s, for probably the only time, Cornish writers were the recipients of critical acclaim and sales recognition as never before or since.  It was during this time that Rosamunde Pilcher made the break from Mills & Boon writer to international bestseller, with the widely praised The Shell Seekers, a book later adapted for television in several different countries.  The Cornish setting of that book was overt but the Cornishness of D.M. Thomas and William Golding, despite each writer’s very real pride in their roots, could easily escape the attention of any reader.  Both writers were as commercially successful (give or take a million or so books!) as Pilcher and yet they met with even more critical acclaim than she did.  Golding, still most famous for his debut – Lord of the Flies, won both the Booker (for Rites of Passage) and the Nobel prizes in that decade while Thomas was also shortlisted for the former with his novel The White Hotel.

Thomas stopped writing novels at the end of that decade and returned to his first love, poetry.  Recently perusing his website I was interested to see that he had embarked on a project in 2010 to read all of his own novels: something which he had famously never done for any of them since publication.  Imagine my surprise then, on reading this sentence in his overview of the project: “Pleasant surprises: The authentic working-class Cornishness in ‘Birthstone’ –far from the imported ‘Cornishness’ of a Du Maurier”2Birthstone was only Thomas’s second published novel and certainly not his most famous, perhaps that is why I had missed it?  Thomas goes on to say of his his reading:

“My first attempt at a novel, after 20 years of poetry only. Fearing I wouldn’t be able to fill up 200-odd pages, I threw in all my obsessions, like a mad cook. They included: Cornwall, ancient stones, sex, psychoanalysis, Cornish dialect, stockings, suspenders, my mother, my father, my sister. (Well, the last three aren’t obsessions, only memorable figures in my life.) The resultant dish I still like.
Perhaps strangely, it’s my only novel where I’ve ‘explored’ Cornwall and Cornish characters and speech.
I revised it for the Penguin paperback edition. My editor had said there were too many ‘bodily fluids’! There are still quite a few.”3

S1421072o, what to make of it?  In light of Thomas’s revisions, I should first make plain that the copy I read is the revised edition, although oddly published by Gollancz and not Penguin.

There are, indeed, still quite a few bodily fluids – blood, piss, sperm – you name it, it’s here. It has to be said that there’s also a hell of a lot of rather kinky sex, although not written to titillate. Both these aspects feed into the Freudian aspect of the novel, which is strong. The protagonist is schizophrenic, often losing several days at a time to one of her many other personalities. These consume her consciousness, leaving her with no memory of her actions (or, rather, of her alter-egos’ actions) and an inordinate amount of Irish-Catholic guilt. Yes, the novel may be Cornish but the protagonist is not. I’ve noted in past reviews that the outsider is a familiar and useful character through which to explore notions of identity and here we have several. Given Thomas’s comments, above, perhaps it’s fairer to read this novel in those terms than the last time I did so. Here, there are several outsiders and each contributes to the novel in a different way.

The protagonist I have mentioned – she is our window into this world and the vessel through which we explore ideas of psychological problems and Cornishness. A second, minor, character is an Oxford academic who is presented as starchy and aloof – a clear contrast to the other characters that helps to underline ‘the otherness of Cornwall’, to borrow a phrase from Bernard Deacon and Philip Payton. Superficially, this character and the next two I’ll mention could be taken to be lazy stereotypes but they’re saved from this fate by superb writing: even the smallest dramatis personae come to life on the page, made substantial by Thomas’s prose. The final two outsiders are arguably the two largest and most important members of the cast beyond the protagonist: an American tourist couple with whom she stays. From Grass Valley, the Bolithos are here to visit ‘the old country’:

‘We’ve been pronouncing our name wrong all these years! According to the registrar – who’s a real dish – it’s Bol-eýe-tho! Would you believe it? Don’t you think it sounds nicer, honey? From now on we’re Mr and Mrs Bol-eýe-tho. Okay?’

The Bolithos, of course, represent a distinct aspect of Cornishness – the diaspora. Although earnest they are not so much seeking their roots as embracing them – they sing the same hymns after all. From their point of view, they are Cornish and see no impediment to their fitting in locally and having a good time. The diasporic theme is further explored through the character of Frank Wearne, who has travelled the world, working down the mines of almost every white settler state and Mexico – a country recently keen (long after this book was written) to promote its Cornish heritage (museums, diplomatic visits and heritage ties) – whose impacts are explored briefly but touchingly. The visitors are staying in Pendeen and, at this time, there was of course an active mine still offering employment in the village. Geevor, though, remains a shadowy presence in the novel – glimpsed but not explored – and most miners present in the text are either dead or retired as if, in the 1970’s, Thomas is acutely aware of the shift that is taking place in the Duchy from heavy industry to tourism as a principle source of income.

Nowhere is this  better represented than in the Polglaze family: Arthur Polglaze also travelled the diaspora in his youth but is now a successful local builder looking towards retirement in a bungalow of his own making. His wife, Elsie, is that prototypical Cornish mother: a blur of activity as she chatters and bakes; cooking, washing and cleaning for half the village and tourists alike, twenty or even ten years later she’d most probably be running a café or a B&B. When we first meet them it’s for Sunday dinner, followed by a service at the Methodist chapel where their son, Tom, is a steward. Tom is a product of this changing Cornwall (indeed, at one point the protagonist describes him as a ‘changeling’ – a word she uses to describe her own condition) – at once the perfect Cornish son, a lighthouse officer and rugby forward as well as a Methodist steward, he is also a popular figure in the pub, where he drinks and smokes with the best of them, and with the ladies – he’s not afraid to take advantage of the tourists. Like all the locals here, he exhibits an earthy humour – good-naturedly playing on people’s misconceptions.

His old man, he played in the band. Music is perhaps the most overt manifestation of Cornish culture in the book: songs and hymns are sung not just by the choir and by the Bolithos but at every gathering and the brass band is never far away. Perhaps that is a side of Cornish culture, perhaps on the wane, visible only to insiders: I remember seeing an interview with Jack Shepherd once in which he discussed his direction of a Wycliffe TV episode (‘Standing Stone’), he noted that brass bands were a theme in W.J. Burley’s novels but he felt that a folk band was more authentic and appropriate. Music is a powerful symbol. It’s probably fair to say that if music is associated with Cornwall at all these days it’s not the communal activity that it once was. Music is though, something to which the poet can relate. Birthstone is clearly written by a poet: Thomas’s prose is bewitching; conjuring images and playing with words and references effortlessly. It’s also an occasionally difficult but richly rewarding read, dealing adroitly with many of the themes identified in the ‘New Cornish Studies’ (as well as Freud) before ever that term came to be used in a way that is both insightful and light-handed whilst remaining relevant.


  1. 1. Broderick, L.G., 2012. Whither Cornish Literature?.  Accessed 4/11/12.
  2. Thomas, D.M., 2012.  Novels.  Accessed 4/11/12.
  3. Thomas, D.M., 2012. Novels – Brithstone. Accessed 4/11/12.

The Hypatia Trust have recently released a version of King Arthur’s Wood exclusively for iPads. King Arthur’s Wood was written and illustrated by renowned Newlyn artist Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes and published 109 years ago, in 1904. Only 350 copies of this beautiful book were ever printed. In recent decades it has been much sought-after by collectors, especially those interested in art and the Newlyn School.

Personally, I think it’s exciting to see this work by the Canadian-born “Queen of Newlyn" made more widely available but, not having the relevant device, I’ve had to decline the publisher’s kind offer of a review copy. If anyone reading this would like to take on that task for Cornish Literature then please let me know so that I can put you in touch.


The Godolphin Arms in Marazion will host a free two day feast of spoken word and music on Thursday 3rd and Friday 4th October, called ‘Marazion Ickle Feste’. Ickle Feste has been created by Jak Stringer and writer, poet and Cornish Literature contributor Abigail Wyatt, who have programmed a full creative event which will include something for everyone. Abigail and Jak are proud to have the support of poet and Cornish Bard, Dr. Alan Kent (pictured left), who will be performing on the Friday evening alongside other much loved local poets.

This event will commence daily at 12 noon with an ‘Ickle Bit of Lunch’: a session of poetry and acoustic music. Further sessions include authors talking about their books, children’s sessions, a workshop for people with disabilities, a Cornish film showing, a lit quiz, limerick competition plus bands ‘Goodbye Joel’ and ‘The Man Who loves you’.

Godolphin Arms Manager, Robin Collyns says he is delighted to be hosting the first Marazion Ickle Feste and he hopes that in years to come, this event will include other venues in Marazion. A full programme is available from The Godolphin Arms Marazion or can be found on their website. Cornish Literature would like to wish the organisers the best of luck with the event and hopes that it will be a popular and fun occasion.


Finally, in what threatens to become a tradition of very later reporting here on Cornish Literature, the aDiving Bellesnnual Holyer an Gof awards ceremony took place in the Truro branch of Waterstones, in July.  In arguably the award of most interest to us here at Cornish Literature, Diving Belles, by Lucy Wood, won the adult fiction category ahead of Rainbows in the Spray, by N.R. Phillips, and A Perfectly Good Man, by Patrick Gale.

Welcome beltaneThe poetry prize, meanwhile, went to Briar Wood’s collection Welcome Beltane and the award for best Children’s book was given to The Messenger Bird, by Rosanne Hawke, ahead of Migrants & Pastes by Janeta Hevizi.

Non-Fiction books always dominate the entry lists for the Holyer an Gof and so it’s never a surprise to see a book in that category scoop the overall award. This year it went to Wade-Bridge: Notes on the History of the Fifteenth Century Bridge by Andrew G. Langdon.

    New Releases Round-Up 16/9/13

    Posted: September 16, 2013 by Lee in fiction, new releases, non-fiction

    Several authors have been in touch with Cornish Literature to inform us of their new books, in addition to those covered in the last ‘Round-Up’.

    B.D. Hawkey was born in Cornwall and can trace her Cornish roots as far back as the 18th century. Her first published work, the short poem Taken, was in Bright Voices: South West England, Channel Islands Edition by United Press Ltd in 2003. Her debut novel Old Sins, Long Shadows is available in paperback and kindle formats: at the time of writing it’s available as a free Kindle download. Speaking to Cornish Literature, Hawkey said:

    “It is a Cornish Victorian romance set against the backdrop of the magnificent Bosvenna Estate, with eccentric rural characters and the sweeping hills of the dramatic Bodmin Moor. Janey Carhart’s story is a tale of obsession, jealousy and love.”

    R. Rushforth Morley, meanwhile, described his new book to us as “a comic historical novel that attempts to deal with issues of Cornish identity”, it concerns events in a remote 19th century Cornish fishing village that are interwoven with tales of the Celtic saints, narrated by the lonely Parson Mudge. The Gift of Honey is published by Indigo Dreams in paperback and an extract can be read at the link above. Morley, too, is a published poet and helps run the Poetry on the Lake festival in Orta, on the Italian Lakes. The author received an Arts Council Grant to assist the completion of The Gift of Honey.

    Like Morley, Sydney Higgins has experience of living and working in Northern Italy. Born in St. Ives he has been a lecturer at the University of Camerino since 1992. His book Theatre in the Round: The Staging of Cornish Medieval Drama is due to be published on 15th December. The importance of Cornish Mediaeval plays are well known to students of Cornish Studies and to Celtic linguists but Higgins argues that they are also important to understanding the development of theatre more generally in Britain.

    As usual, anyone interested in reviewing any of these books for Cornish Literature should get in touch with us so that we may be able to provide you with a review copy.

    Cornish Studies Volume 20

    At some point over the end of 2012 the latest volume in the Cornish Studies series of books was released by University of Exeter Press.  The series has, for the past twenty years, offered a collection of articles which have perceptibly and effectively altered our thinking about notions of Cornwall and Cornishness and, although I haven’t yet seen the contents of number 20 it should continue in this tradition, being a festschrift for the recently retired Bernard Deacon.  Bernard’s analysis of nineteenth and twentieth century Cornish social and industrial history in particular has been one of the principle developments in the “New Cornish Studies” whilst his contributions to language studies, literature studies and social studies have been no less welcome or insightful.

    Priced at £15.99, Cornish Studies 20 is a paperback of 272 pages.