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13/04/2012

‘Is There an East Anglian literature?’

Jeremy Page

With its fine weather and fertile soil, East Anglia has always grown its fair crop of writers. Its seclusion, literary tradition and abundance of nature provide ideal germinating conditions for creative work. Writers are, currently, thick on the ground. But – as with the region’s other produce – does East Anglia’s literature also have its own distinctive flavour?

In a foreword to A Distant Cry, a collection of short stories from East Anglia, Louis de Berniers wrote “There is not a coherent, identifiable East Anglian literature.” Clearly it is often a writer’s sole aim and duty to be as individually voiced as possible. But the unique physical elements that draw writers to this region also tend to be the same elements that inspire the work they then produce. They leave their trait, leading to a distinctive creative output, often readily identifiable. In this essay I shall illustrate specificities of East Anglian place, season, nature, traditions and community. I believe it is by understanding these elements, and spotting their influence in the region’s literature, that we might begin to notice East Anglia’s literature as having notions of cohesion.

A sense of place is fundamental to the writer. For Malcolm Bradbury, writing about Norfolk, place is one of two things: “sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen.” But perhaps more pertinent than place itself, is the extraction of the unique essence of the landscape that has inspired the writer, making its own particular connection. For East Anglia is a very particular landscape.

Without the great mountain ranges, deserts or savannah wildernesses of other continents, it may seem that as a nation we have been robbed of having wild frontiers to write about. Yet we do have the sea. The coast is our literary frontier, beyond which is an ancient and wild environment, and throughout our history it has inspired some of the best of our nation’s writing. But unlike the hard fortress-cliffs of Cornish granite that butt against the Atlantic, East Anglia’s edge is peculiar: it is porous, eroding, soft and malleable. It shifts from year to year with the tides, and in many locations the sea is held back by the merest of obstacles – a sand bar, a gravel spit, or dunes bound with marram. Why the sea does not simply roll over a land that is often at its level or even a few feet below seems to make little sense. As a frontier, it can often not be defined, and it is this unique character that’s often seen in the region’s writing. A sea’s presence that can be felt, but sometimes not reached, is a mysterious presence. An element beyond reach, it seems tailor made for narratives of mystery, isolation or ghost story. In Julia Blackburn’s The Mermaid, set on the Norfolk coast in the 1600s. A body traverses this frontier when a mermaid is found washed up. Throughout the story, it is the strangeness and otherworldliness of this coastal divide that is used to ignite the local community, reflecting itself in myth and folklore / paganism and religion / curse and fertility. Story arrives on the tide line of the shore, it washes up, like it did at Norfolk’s Winterton, where Robinson Crusoe was first shipwrecked, or at the quayside, as with John Skelton’s Bowge of Court.

Effectively, of course, the sea does often overrun the frontier, and it is this pull between the wilderness and the land which creates a very particular tension. Nowhere is this more evident than the most iconic of East Anglian frontiers – the salt marsh. Scoured by a relentless wind and criss-crossed with an intricate labyrinth of creeks and channels, it is an often impenetrable border. It floods, it disorientates, and it inspires a particular type of East Anglian character, represented in its literature. In Susan Hill’s The Albatross, this borderland is the home for the misfit, the outsider. In my first novel, Salt, I also explored this specific frontier, writing about characters who were on land, but at sea, living in a hinterland between the two elements and marginalised from them both. Between the sea and the land I found an imaginative territory that was free and exotic. For others, the salt marsh is a place of infinite isolation and, with its dangerous flows of creeks and tides, a place of psychic peril. In Hill’s The Woman in Black, the salt marsh and tidal causeway are the barriers to rescue, allowing the flourishing of an intact supernatural presence.

Labyrinths to lose you, barriers and dead ends to isolate you, East Anglia has long been associated with the ghost story. In M.R. James’s tremendously spooky A Warning to the Curious, it is the coast itself that has to be protected, utilising the three crowns legend of Aldeburgh. You disturb this delicate balance at your peril. Sparsely populated and full of perceived dangers, the East Anglian coastline is, for many, a coastline of fear.

The tidal feature which is most synonymous with East Anglia is the estuary. From the silt-fjord labyrinth of the Essex coastline, to the outpourings of the Suffolk and Norfolk rivers, these are the giant mouth-lung features that rhythmically suck in and expel the wilderness of the sea, twice each day. For the writer the estuary provides a landscape that has the duality of drought and flood, a changeling landscape that is held in continual balance. In Richard Mabey’s Home Country this tension reflects not just his spirit, but the spirit of the region at large: “I sometimes wondered if the closeness of these unstable edges of the land was part of the secret of Norfolk’s appeal to us, a reflection of a half conscious desire to be as contingent as spindrift ourselves.”

The coast is about dead ends, where characters are often portrayed metaphorically or – in some instances – literally washed up. But we can also see these dead ends in many of the other typical East Anglian landscapes. In Broadland we see the same watery half world of the estuary, but with the added enclosing aspect of more traditional environments where one could become lost: the wood, the marsh, or the fen. For Arthur Ransome, the Broads were the Arcadian idyll for a liberated childhood. But for others – and more commonly – Broadland is a confusing landscape where roads are cut off, or re-routed, at all times liable to isolate the characters and communities that find themselves there. The closer you are to the actual open water, very often the more tangled and impenetrable the land becomes. As a result, it is a bespoke landscape for narratives where characters will be haunted, isolated, or bewildered. In fact, it is very difficult to contemplate setting fiction in the Broads without it being a ghost story, as M. R. James, L. P. Hartley and many others have realised. Or, at least, a good place for a jolly satisfying murder, for example, C.P. Snow’s Death Under Sail. The components of the landscape are too irresistible: remote, unlit, pathways strangely orbiting the few places of open water, in many ways the Broads might be considered as similar creative territory to the outer-space narratives of science fiction. Quite literally, at Hickling Broad, no one can hear you scream.

In character terms, Broadland’s qualities lean towards being the perfect location to travel to when your relationship has broken down – we might consider Rose Tremain’s The Shooting Season as a fine example, where a former husband visits a woman whose life is held in the balance. Alternately the broads are a good narrative choice as a place to stay, if you never had the chance of a relationship in the first place.

The waterlogged world of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads has its dry counterpart in the Breckland, another of East Anglia’s unique landscapes. Once, much of the region was covered in this way, with gorse, heath and forest. In Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places, he writes ‘lying just off the Suffolk coast is a desert,’ meaning the barren shingle spit of Orford Ness. But the same could be said for the huge swathes of Breckland, where its poor soil and the fact it consistently has the lowest rainfall in Britain means it’s as close as this nation gets to having its own desert. Gorse is the Norfolk cactus, and within its spiked corrals there is a similar sense of enclosure and impenetrable nature that we had with the tangled fen around the Broads or the labyrinth of creeks that surround the estuary and cover the salt marsh. Breckland’s wilderness, with its poor dry sandy soil, is virtually worthless to the arable farmer, so has remained largely unchanged over millennia, ever since Neolithic miners dug for flint nuggets in the chalk. For the writer, this allows a near perfect opportunity to view into the past and connect with the communities that once lived there. As a result, many of the narratives set in Breckland feature the literal discovery of ancient remains – Roald Dahl’s The Mildenhall Treasure is about the unearthing of Roman silver igniting a farmer’s particular greed and isolation from his community. John Preston’s The Dig sets its characters against the archaeological discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burials. Treasures, unearthed, are often the catalysts of East Anglian literature, and have produced some of its finest thoughts, too: the unearthing of Roman burial urns was the origin of Sir Thomas Browne’s philosophical Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, written in Norfolk.

For Malcolm Bradbury, “a landscape comes to life through what has been written in it.” It is impossible to consider the landscapes of the region, and their effect on the writing produced within it, without detailing its most extreme variation: the fen. Often considered to be brutal, industrial in its cultivation, divided by the rigid geometry of power lines, water channels and poplar wind-breaks, on first impressions it might seem unrelated to the soft amiable meanderings of the rest of the region’s landscape. But a closer look reveals that it, too, relies upon the same sense of isolation and claustrophobia that exists elsewhere. Here, we also get dead ends, with the fenland droves (roads) stretching for miles in perfect straightness, only to end abruptly with the apparently non-sensical dissection by a drainage ditch. As with the coast and estuary, we have the same beguiling relationship to water and its confusing behaviour: in the Fens, the drainage channels are often higher than the surrounding fields, and when one is passed, a second river is revealed, even higher – a series of watery flyovers that make very little reasonable sense, until you discover that the field you have been in is actually below sea level, and should ordinarily be considered part of the seabed.

Surrounded by such confusing and isolating pressures, it is not surprising that the narratives set in the Fens tend to have these issues very much at their core. Ian McEwan’s First Love, Last Rites combines the isolating stagnation of a fenland town with aspects of sexuality, desire to escape, failure and hope. Graham Swift’s Waterland is similarly built around issues of seclusion, sexual angst and inescapable history. Trezza Azzopardi’s Remember Me features the evacuation to a fenland farm to elaborate her themes of loss and displacement. My own novel, Salt, uses the Fens around the Great Ouse to highlight the issues of entrapment, exile and cyclical behaviour. It’s a simple equation: small isolated communities plus large bewildering landscape equals unregulated growth of psychological anguish. It is also the perfect breeding ground for suspicion and secrecy. In Edward Storey’s No Other Word for it, the closed fenland community is explored through the lens of murder and scandal and the effects of wrong accusation. In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Maze, the same sense of isolated community is evoked, but this time with the theme of ‘unearthing’ that is noticeable in Breckland writing, or the triple crowns legend of A Warning to the Curious, this time dealing with issues of fen / soil fertility and the suggestion of black magic.

In many ways, the fen is an anti-landscape. It is an absence where, without gradient and other usual definable features it can feel as though the true landscape has been scraped away. But what is left behind might be considered as so much more – a 180° view of the sky. Noticeable in nearly every example of writing emerging from East Anglia – from short stories to novels, genre writing to nature writing – are descriptions of the region’s famed skyscape. It is almost as though the sky is the super landscape that floats above the region, passing through all the narratives that are set beneath it. In Salt, the clouds were read by characters who lived on the salt marsh below them, very much as though the clouds were characters themselves.

Related to the width and breadth of the East Anglian sky is the quality of its light. I have lived in London for nearly twenty years, but when I begin to write I invariably return to my roots, starting with the soft-greenish watery glow that exists in corridors along East Anglia’s rivers and estuaries. It seems to be the meditative fertile light out of which any narrative might emerge. The Norfolk light, notably, is remarkable. It is highly particulate in nature, meaning there is a dustiness to it that colours the sky in curious ways. At a certain angle to the setting sun, a pastel lavender glow occurs. Under the harvest sun, a floury haze shimmers above the crops, the shadows pool under distant trees in shades of blue. In winter, the light seems ionised, made of pure ozone, blowing straight off the sea to bend the trees. Light is rarely missed as a descriptive opportunity for East Anglian writers, and it repeatedly shines off the page. In Trezza Azzopardi’s Winterton Blue, Anna tries to recreate the searing brilliance of the Norfolk coastal light, and ends up throwing glitter at a wall.

Common, too, is the sense of season. It would be atypical for a text to be set in East Anglia without mention of its particular time of year. And seemingly more prominent than fiction set in many other locales, season in East Anglia is very much associated with aspects of the natural yearly cycle: spring is correlated with aspects of fertility; summer is of abundance, harvest and surplus; autumn finds its correlation with slaughter and winter with a pared-down bleakness. Rose Tremain’s The Shooting Season is as much about the ashes of a former relationship as it is about the wider context of an autumnal slaughter, whereas for John Fowles, writing in his foreword to Mehalah, the Essex marshlands will forever be ‘set to the key of winter.’

Nature, oppressive or benign, challenging or rejuvenating, is a constant presence in East Anglian literature. In Elspeth Barker’s Carborundum a woman literally moves into the trees, living in a tree house for thirty years after her wedding day failed to happen. Her home is boarded up, still with wedding presents in it, but nature has saved her. Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure is also primarily concerned with the ability to reconnect with the restoring qualities of EastAnglia’s natural environment which, in turn, references another writer who tried – and failed – to balance mental depression with nature’s cures: the fenland poet John Clare.

It is not a coincidence that the region is the home for the finest writers in modern nature writing. Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Robert MacFarlane, Mark Cocker and Patrick Barkham have all been based in East Anglia, have set seminal works there, and their ancestry can be directly traced to the many Victorian rector diarists and rural life commentators that preceded them, all the way back to Sir Thomas Browne.

It is ironic, in an area often characterised by such isolated and static communities, that much of the region’s wildlife is migratory. Birdlife, in particular, regards East Anglia merely as a stopping-off ground on global flyways. But even this behaviour seems to have found its counterpart in East Anglian fiction. In W.G. Sebald’s writing, in particular The Rings of Saturn, we repeatedly find a narrative which is rooted, or searching for rootedness, alongside a migratory imagination which permits Sebald’s unique visionary roaming of place, time and memory. The author, rooted, the imagination in migration.

Malcolm Bradbury saw writing “as a constant intersection between the local and the universal, things near-at-hand and events far away.” For him, East Anglia’s spaces provided the lack of distraction that enabled a freely roaming creative imagination. We might suggest a similar process was at work with Sir Henry Rider Haggard, who wrote King Solomon’s Mines and other exotic adventures from a Norfolk background, in so doing inspiring a whole new genre of ‘lost world’ literature. One lost world, inspiring another. In my second novel, The Wake, a similar pattern emerged where the protagonist, stuck on a boat among the tides of the Deben estuary, was able to create a diarised fiction of a life he might have had and a journey across the Southern states of America. George Borrow, another Norfolk man, had a similar agenda, roaming Europe in his literature – only he made the mistake of satirising Norwich, and duly managed to get his works burned there.

Without the populace flow that has invigorated many other areas of the country, East Anglia is far from being a backwater, as these examples suggest. It’s a region where ‘thought’ has gravitated towards for many centuries. As Malcolm Bradbury wrote of Norwich, it was always “a place of learning, cultural activity, religious and political dissent. It too felt itself close to the continent, and was always enriched by ‘Strangers.’ The many Huguenots, and emigres from the French Revolution, joined with some of the great, often dissenting and reforming local families – the Frys, Bacons, Barclays, Gurneys, Martineaus – to make it one of the key regional capitals.” As a result, it spawned a whole tradition of writers from Anna Sewell, Amelia Opie, George Borrow and Harriet Martineau to the multitude of writers who live there today.

Assimilation, of all these voices, but the famed ‘separateness’ of the region has always persisted. Across the centuries, literature set in or inspired by East Anglia notoriously depicts static, unchanging communities. Some of these communities have been the subject of detailed observations and dissection themselves. Take Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, upheld as a seminal work of English rural writing, or the oral histories of George Ewart Evans working in Suffolk, Parson Woodforde’s diaries of village life, or George Baldry’s The Rabbit Skin Cap, detailing an impoverished upbringing that is nonetheless richly abundant with nature and closeness to the cycle of the seasons. Charles Dickens used Yarmouth (which he described as ‘the strangest place in the wide world’) as a key setting for David Copperfield. Perhaps most famously is George Crabbe’s The Borough, set in Aldeburgh at the start of the nineteenth century, which, due to the static nature of the community it portrays, is still largely valid today.

Writers are conduits of their environments, and it is the nature of these East Anglian communities that repeatedly suggest fertile narrative themes. Static communities are often superstitious, as seen in the stories of M.R. James, Julia Blackburn’s The Mermaid, or Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Maze, and as their populations rarely change, tradition is largely intact. Many of the oral traditions and myths of previous centuries are still remembered today and in East Anglian literature they are very commonly revisited and reinvented. Take the myth of Black Shuck, for example, the mysterious ghost dog of Blythburgh and other coastal locations. It is largely considered to have been the catalyst of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, has continually been spotted in a multitude of written, musical and fine art variations, and is still being revisited today, most recently in George Szirtes’ Shuck, Hick, Tiffey. In a region where stories have traditionally been handed down, and often kept alive with pub storytellers and the like, it is not surprising that fiction itself has essentially become folklore, able to be revisited and refashioned for a modern age – for example, the extraction of the Peter Grimes story from George Crabbe’s The Borough into Benjamin Britten’s opera.

Static communities are also by nature suspicious – of change, and of outsiders. And it is the depiction of insiders versus outsiders that is perhaps the most common and notable trait of much of East Anglian literature. In Susan Hill’s Mr Proudham and Mr Sleight, a woman renting a house near an odd and possibly gay old couple becomes fascinated by them – and the gothic wax models they make. Esther Freud’s The Visit features a woman connecting with the country partly through her investigations into a foreign (German) history. It exposes problems in her own life, and an alienation from a London world which is increasingly intrusive. D.J. Taylor’s Passage Migrants features a birdwatcher becoming obsessed by an exotic visitor – a woman holidaying in Sheringham. Ali Smith’s The Accidental has a stranger joining a family on holiday, with troubling consequences. In all of these examples we can identify one of two things: either characters are brought to a crisis by visiting East Anglia on holiday (i.e. behaving unusually away from home), or they are brought to crisis as a result of misunderstanding or being affected by the tensions between those who arrive (outsiders) and those who stay (insiders). This has long been the case as a narrative model in East Anglian literature – take Arnold Wesker’s play Roots, where a cosmopolitan London life is juxtaposed with an agrarian world, or M.R. James’ stories, where usually a visiting naïve gentleman scholar stumbles upon a local mystery, or L.P Hartley’s The Go Between, which straddles the worlds of turn of the (20th) century class division in Norfolk. However, it might be argued that the traditional narrative models of landed gentry living alongside a local working population have now been superceded by narratives concerning second home owners arriving in local communities, written about by Esther Freud, Penelope Lively, DJ Taylor, Ruth Rendell, Henry Sutton and Terrence Blacker, among others.

Writers react to their environments in a multitude of ways. It would be wrong to suggest that literature created in East Anglia is always readily identifiable and cohesive. But environment is so closely linked to inspiration, and inspiration to expression, that we should be keen to identify and react to the traits that the creative journey has left along its way.

The region is a frontier, a shore where writers and – by extension – their characters are able to assess the amassed experience of their lives. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go, Kathy ends the novel in a Norfolk field, “thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up.”

The image of a storm beach is a pertinent one, because East Anglia has this quality at its core. Sticking out into the North Sea, bordered on almost three sides by cold water, it is a region that naturally collects, both writers and their material. As Malcolm Bradbury put it, the region serves as ‘patron, producer and muse.’ East Anglia, as muse, has clearly proved itself across the centuries, from the mystic writings of Julian of Norwich to Sir Thomas Browne, and is still reinventing itself today in the cultural literature hubs of the University of East Anglia and Norwich. It is as vast as you want or need it to be, it is total isolation, it is on the way to nowhere, it is surrounded by water, covered by water, below water, below a thousand acres of sky, too. It is everywhere you look and it is, oddly, invisible: more of a state of mind than an actual, tangible reality, shifting its influence from writer to writer, from age to age, but always leaving its trace.

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  • Dave says:

    Very insightful writing. I was stationed in East Anglia with the US Air Force and I lived near the heart of fenland in the village of Somersham. I am fascinated with East Anglia and its unique flavor. I now know a little more about the area thanks to you.