Novels of English towns and counties

From time to time I like to write a post that links books by titles or themes or in some other way. Today the link is English towns and counties. Place is so important in novels. Think of that imagined place: Narnia, although I should point out that Totnes is twinned with Narnia. And think of the significance of a real location, such as Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles  by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Except, of course, that it is not a version of Dartmoor that you will find on the maps.

Cities and counties have great significance in English literature. Here is my random selection, with links to reviews on Bookword where they exist.

Devon and the oldest book of all

Let us start with the oldest book of all, in Devon. The Exeter Book has survived a thousand years, not always cared for, and not always intelligible. It is now in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives collection, and can be seen on monthly open days. 

Written in Old English some time between 960 and 990 the Exeter Book originally had 131 parchment leaves, but the first eight pages are now lost. The text was written by one person, in miniscule Old English, and with some runes included. It contains 96 riddles and some longer poems. A few of the poems have Christian connections, but the collection is largely secular, despite its long connection with the Cathedral. But why it was compiled, and for whom remain mysteries. Read more here.

More history from Devon can be found in The Recent Past  by James Ravilious. It is a book of photographs of the recent past taken in rural North Devon. James Ravilious was a photographer whose commission was to document the North Devon area for the Beaford Arts Centre (today Beaford Arts). He began in 1972 and continued for 17 years to photograph the rural neighbourhood where he lived. There are 75 images in this large format book. It is beautifully produced and smells as good art books should. The photographs are all given James Ravilious’s titles, locations and dates and notes have been added by his wife Robin, which add to the pleasure of the viewing. You can read more about it here.

A county that does not exist

For her massive account of local community matters in the inter-war years Winifred Holtby invented a county, the missing South Riding. When I was young there were three Ridings of Yorkshire: North East and West. I often wondered about the missing South Riding. In Winifred Holtby’s novel Alderman Mrs Beddows took her place in the series on older women in fiction. She was the focus of the post I wrote about this novel. But the 500+ pages are about many more of the people in the community she serves. The beautiful countryside which Winifred Holtby knew so well is also a feature of this novel. 

More Yorkshire can be found in God’s Own Country  by Ross Raisin. The story is set in more recent times, and is a dark tale of under-privilege and rural neglect. It sets rural against urban, middle class life against  poverty, and shows us something of the challenge of the Yorkshire Moors. You can read the whole post here.

From Essex

In 2016 The Essex Serpent  by Sarah Perry won a great many prizes. I thought the cover was brilliant, although it has been copied a great deal since. The story is set in London and Essex in the 1890s. New knowledge is battling with older traditions and myths and this made for an excellent story, much enjoyed in reading groups. It was often described as gothic. My review can be read here.

A Classic about a town on the South Coast

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene is one of the most read of my posts on Bookword. It has a famous first line: 

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.

The novel considers the different beliefs of its protagonists. But above all it is a thriller, set on a public holiday between the wars in a town recognisable today. Here’s a link to the full post.

Brighton Beach on Whitsun, 31 May 2009. By David Hawgood of Geography Project via Wiki Commons.

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