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The English Country House & The Novel

This blog piece was written by Library member, Jean Y. Jones.

 

A sunny morning. In Morrab Library I sat in my leather chair, book in lap, gazing out of the Georgian window over the gardens and out to sea. The library was quiet and peaceful. The book on my lap, taken from the shelves in the Cornish Room, was Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca.

 

Manderley, the house of all our dreams, a country house of the kind familiar to us all through the medium of the novel. The link is astonishing. From its earliest inception as a literary genre, the novel has looked to the english country house for background and setting.

 

When Richardson considered using imaginative story-telling as a vehicle for his views and opinions he placed his heroine, Pamela, in the country house, a pretty servant faced with moral dangers therein. So successful was he that Smollett and Fielding rapidly followed in his footsteps. The country house proved a perfect background to exploit, for tales of high romance and derring-do, of Gothic mysteries and horror. Jane Austen, writing a while later, used the country house as a more conventional setting, with its beautiful parklands, grand rooms well-furnished and well-appointed, of the kind so highly admired by Henry James. With it came a way of life that over generations had evolved into a strong social class system, the English gentleman exhibiting an etiquette of manners, at times civilised in the extreme, exclusive and insular. Save for the imaginative incursions of the novelist.

 

So great was the attraction of the country house to literature that it moves frequently from background to foreground. In Pride and Prejudice Darcy might well have remained a bachelor  were it not for Pemberley and its effect upon Elizabeth. Similarly, in Northanger Abbey Catherine is quite led astray by the house, almost as much as General Tilney was by rumours of her wealth. 

 

The country house is used to a more passionate and vibrant effect by the Brontes – Wuthering Heights, brooding over the moors, Jane Eyre with its mad woman in the attic. Even Charles Dickens succumbed to its use, in Great Expectations skilfully creating in the mind’s eye the dark and deserted rooms leading ever inward to Miss Havisham’s wedding feast. 

 

But with industrialisation breaking up the patterns of rural life, universal education and democracy, the tenor of novels shifted to the more social and political. Disraeli’s Sybil, George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical, Trollope, concentrating on domestic dramas played out in the country house, closely followed by Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. All still using the country house and its social context to centre their narratives on. 

 

As the twentieth century progressed, writers of a different mettle appeared, some, self-proclaimed self-conscious intellectuals like those of the Bloomsbury Group, products themselves of the country house epitomised in novels like Mrs Dalloway, Howard’s End and Brideshead Revisited. These gave way in turn to the novelist writing for a newer kind of reader, exploring a wider range of experience. Though still the country house maintained its allure as in D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Crime writers found it a great setting and jumping-off platform, as evidenced in Agatha Christie’s works, and Conan Doyle. This has persisted to the present day. 

 

Its romance endures, in the charm of Georgette Heyer’s Regency works, in for example Catherine Cookson and Jilly Cooper’s writings, right through to contemporary fiction. And who can forget the superbly written “Remains of the Day” by Ishiguru?

 

The country house may no longer by the symbol of power, wealth and privilege it once was. Yet it lives on, in our novels, in our imaginations, and on the shelves of our own country house, Morrab Library. 

Growing Up in West Cornwall – the latest volume from the Penwith Local History Group

A new book from the Penwith Local History Group

The Penwith Local History Group (PLHG) has enjoyed a strong relationship with Morrab Library for many years. The group undertake important and fascinating research into West Cornwall and are based here at the library, meeting regularly and making us of our collections.

Their latest book, Growing up in West Cornwall, follows a long line of important and valuable works by the PLHG. This is their 11th title, the first being published in 1990. Previous volumes have covered topics as diverse as farming, Cornish women, and the Naploeonic era, as well as highlighting the treasures of Morrab Library’s collections.  A full list can be found on their website: http://www.penwithlocalhistorygroup.co.uk/publications/

All of the publications provide a detailed insight into their subject with evidence of extensive research, yet written in a thoroughly engaging style, making them accessible to a wide range of readers be it for academic use or just personal interest. 

Growing Up in West Cornwall is no exception. As it says on the tin, it brings to life the experience of childhood in West Cornwall, from as far back as the seventeenth century, taking us up to the 1960’s. There are numerous fascinating illustrations and photographs throughout, which are invaluable in helping to tell the variety of stories that emerge from the pages. It combines the use of archival records such as school logs and parish records, alongside personal recollections from the contributors and people they have interviewed. There are also very extensive subject, school and surname indexes at the end, a useful bibliography, and excellent footnotes and references throughout – essential for researchers.

Growing up in West Cornwall talks of all aspects of childhood, including of course schooldays and playtime, but also work, when many children were expected to take up labour at such young ages, working with the fisherman, in the fields and even with the undertakers!

All sorts of fascinating stories have emerged – we learn that in 1600, boys from the age of 7 had to practise their archery in the Zennor churchyard, and that all young men from the age of 16 were obliged to bear arms. We are told of library books needing to be burnt after an outbreak of deadly measles in St Erth in 1917. And the stories about the bad behaviour of the boys at the Recreation Ground after it opened in 1893 prove that some things never seem to change!

For Morrab Library, the group’s ability and avidity in using the library’s collections of books, archives, newspapers and photographs to bring the stories of the events and people of West Cornwall to life is so important to us. The PLHG contributors’ hard work and research skills ensure that our collections remain relevant and interesting to not only our members, but the wider community, creating an awareness of them and encouraging others to make use of them. The Library looks forward to continuing its work with the PLHG in the future. 

You can borrow a copy of Growing up in West Cornwall or purchase your own from the library’s front desk, at a cost of £10.

Lisa Di Tommaso, Librarian

 

New to the library – Familiar faces of St Ives, by Hyman Segal

The library has recently received a charming donation. Titled Familiar Faces of St Ives, this uniquely illustrated pamphlet of around 20 pages offers a brilliant summary of life in St Ives just after the War – the town’s ‘Silver Age’ it might be termed. This fascinating time period is manifest in the vivid sketches by the well-known St Ives artist, Hyman Segal. https://cornwallartists.org/cornwall-artists/hyman-segal   

Segal is probably best remembered for his African paintings as well as for his skill in portraying cats with sweeping economical lines. A Daily Mirror photographic  frontispiece shows him, an Art Therapist at West Cornwall Hospital, helping the recovery of a young lad at Tehidy Sanatorium in Camborne. This classic photograph by Bela Zola indicates the pride in the newly created NHS (Zola was a leading photographer who recorded later the Aberfan Disaster and the Profumo Affair among other renowned assignments.) https://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/photo/1956/28663/1/1956-Bela-Zola-GN1-(1)

The first sketch in the pamphlet is of our celebrated Town Crier, Abraham Curnow – here just 54 years old. This is accompanied by a sketch of his Father-in-Law, Ernest James Stevens, popularly known as “Jimmy Limpets”. This drawing with others by Segal now hangs in the Sloop Inn.

On the following page is an image of Thomas Tonkin Prynne who had been the manager of Lanham’s picture framing business which in previous years  supplied the Royal Academy and other galleries with canvases by inter alia , Julius Olsen, Louis Grier and Moffat Linder. In addition to running an efficient business, he worked for 16 years as a member of the volunteer fire brigade, had a blue Persian cat and loved fishing.

There is also a magnificent sketch of Alistair St Clair Harrison, like Churchill, an old Harovian who had been a fighter pilot during the Second World War. It was Harrison who broadcast for the BBC about the rescue of HMS Wave in September 1952 and also about his interest in Antarctic whaling. It was with his Norwegian wife that he established “The Gay Viking”; almost as famous for its colourful clientele as its innovative continental cuisine. (Gay Viking was incidentally one of eight vessels that were ordered by the Turkish Navy, but were requisitioned by the Royal Navy to serve with Coastal Forces during the Second World War).

Frank Edward Endell Mitchell, appropriately portrayed with bow-tie, fashionable in the 1950’s, was known as “Micheal” and was the tenant of the Castle Inn. His friendship with Dylan Thomas must have been firmly established in the bohemian atmosphere of the bar there, then opposite Lanham’s and the Scala Cinema (presently Boots). Mitchell, who was the brother I believe, of the eminent sculptor, Denis Mitchell, offered the Castle lounge for the display of art works and in his spare time, he himself did pastels and was occupied in breeding Boxer dogs.

The donation of this little pamphlet to the Morrab Archive offers members the opportunity to recreate for themselves the ambience of the Fifties through “The Familiar Faces of  St Ives”.

George Care, Library Member and Trustee