Whither Cornish Literature?

Posted: March 7, 2012 in books, cornish culture
“Books are the windows through which the soul looks out,” said Henry Ward Beecher.

So where, we may ask, is Cornwall’s soul? Cornwall’s culture has been rightly celebrated in recent years and yet the role of a discernibly Cornish literature in that culture has been overlooked. I’d charge that it has been variously neglected, forgotten, or else misappropriated for the tourist industry in such guises as the Daphne du Maurier festival. Provocative? Perhaps, but not without provocation.

Cornwall has inspired and produced many writers over the years, but those most celebrated ‘Cornish’ writers are rarely Cornish. Du Maurier, Graham, Betjeman and Lawrence all were immigrants. That is not to take anything away from what appears to have been a very genuine affection that each of them had for Cornwall but it has to be acknowledged that their views and experiences, as immigrants, are necessarily different from those authors who are Cornish born. In acknowledging that affection, it is important to acknowledge the validity of their representations of Cornwall – it is, today, rightly almost impossible to discuss issues of identity without throwing Edward Said’s name into the conversation and recognising that we forge our identities in opposition to an other. Immigrant authors, just like immigrants generally, arrive with a preconceived notion of Cornwall and Cornishness which is gradually mutated through daily contact.

The indigenous Cornish ideas of Cornwall and Cornishness are likewise transformed by immigrants and the ideas that they bring with them; this is the essence of cultural evolution. Cornish born writers then, should have a different voice than immigrant writers (themselves different to those writers who may depict Cornwall without any first-hand experience) but their voice is rarely heard. 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. Pilcher wrote famous Cornish novels but they belong to a tradition of romance novels which render the place almost irrelevant – her stories could have been set almost anywhere with a beach.

Burley, another genre writer, did come close to offering a portrait of Cornwall almost unique in its Cornishness. People of all walks of life clamber through his pages and almost to a fault they are mistrustful of interference in their personal lives by the state, they are fiercely independent and yet they are frequently downtrodden, dejected or angry. By having a Cornish immigrant as the protagonist in the clear majority of his books he also allows affectionate caricatures and pithy comments to find their place. We can laugh at both the immigrants and at ourselves in an environment free of any malice. It is by holding up such mirrors to our thoughts and feelings that we can understand them better – witness the reaction to the recent online release of the short-film Tamara.

So what of Cornwall now? Where is our soul and how can we protect it?

“The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out, and after an era new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the heart of men centuries dead.” – Clarence Day

The greatest single body of Cornish literature remains the Mediaeval miracle plays, which have been of ever increasing interest over the last hundred years or so, as the Cornish language movement has gathered pace. Evertype have now undertaken to publish several books, both new and translations of English classics, in Cornish (one would hope, increasingly in SWF, but that is a debate for elsewhere). Some of these books are translations of new works by Alan Kent and all of them are to be commended in their efforts to rapidly build the literature necessary to support a written language. They do not, however, embody the spirit of that Cornish literature discussed here – the window into our collective soul.

Alan Kent has been probably the highest profile Cornish literary academic in the last decade and has now also written several novels which show him to be a writer of rare talent as well as a prodigious worker. One man cannot, however, be termed a movement and it is to be hoped that where he leads others may follow.

In order to make that following easier, I have recently created an online home for Cornish Literature at http://cornishlit.wordpress.com/. The idea behind this website is to provide a single focus for those interested in Cornish literature, in both Cornish and English, and thereby to foster dialogue and to help forge a critical and supportive community. The website will feature reviews of Cornish fiction in the loosest possible sense (including Cornish, Cornish-immigrant and, where they become known, Cornish diaspora writers), alongside opinion pieces and news items. As the website grows it is hoped that it will also be possible to add some short stories and poetry written by Cornish writers. 

If you’re interested in participating in this project by contributing to the website then please do contact me, my details can be found at http://zooarchaeology.co.uk/commercial-work-and-contact.php

Contributed by Lee G. Broderick
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