Why do writers love Britain?
PUBLISHED: 09:24 24 March 2019 | UPDATED: 10:17 24 March 2019
Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2013
From pre-printing press to post-modernism, Britain has nurtured waves of wonderful writers. Rowan Mantell finds just a few of the ways they have celebrated the country in words.
Britain was created over millennia of geological activity, and then created again in words.
Writers have been inspired by its mountains and moors, cities and seas. From William Wordsworth’s Lake District to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, and from Emily Bronte’s wild moors to Charles Dickens’ seething London or Jane Austen’s sedate Bath, authors have claimed some of the most striking scenery of Britain and used it as setting, atmosphere, metaphor and more.
The English language and British landscape have combined to create countless poems, plays and novels.
Even if we do not dip into Chaucer as we lounge by the holiday pool, or speed through Shakespeare on the train, we are quoting Chaucer when we suggest time and tide wait for no man, or Shakespeare when we say just about anything else.
Well, just about anything else apart from all the words that 17th century Norwich writer (and doctor and philosopher and scientist) Thomas Browne invented, including coma, computer, disruption, electricity, exhaustion, hallucination, medical, migrant, precocious, ultimate and literary.
And if you are looking for literary Britain then East Anglia is a great place to start.
The National Centre for Writing stages events, runs courses and supports writers across the country from its base in Norwich – England’s first UNESCO City of the Literature. The University of East Anglia, in Norwich, pioneered creative writing as an academic subject and is renowned for the number of alumni who have gone on to literary success, including a Nobel Prize, three Booker prizes, six Costa awards and scores of bestsellers.
Britain has nurtured and inspired writers for centuries, and they have repaid it by writing beautifully about it. Here is just a taste of what they have to say:
“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
William Shakespeare, from Richard II, written around 1595
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Samuel Johnson, 18th century poet, playwright, biographer, editor and dictionary-compiler.
“Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England - now!”
From Robert Browning’s 1845 poem Home Thoughts from Abroad.
“I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free... Why am I so changed? I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills.”
From Wuthering Heights, written in 1846 by Emily Bronte.
“When we got into the street (which was strange enough to me), and smelt the fish, and pitch, and oakum, and tar, and saw the sailors walking about, and the carts jangling up and down over the stones, I felt I had done so busy a place an injustice; and said as much to Peggotty, who heard my expressions of delight with great complacency, and told me it was well known (I suppose to those who had the good fortune to be born Bloaters) that Yarmouth was, upon the whole, the finest place in the universe.”
From Charles Dickens 1860 novel David Copperfield.
“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.”
From Rupert Brooke’s 1914 poem The Soldier.
It was in Cley, on the north Norfolk coast, that the poet heard of the outbreak of the First World War. He enlisted immediately and died in Greece less than a year later.
“He stood staring into the wood for a minute, then said: “What is it about the English countryside — why is the beauty so much more than visual? Why does it touch one so?”
From Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, set in 1930s Suffolk.
“It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.”
From the 1986 novel A Taste for Death by PD James, who had a house in Southwold.
“Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying ‘mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but’, people apologizing to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it …What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardeners’ Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? … Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state - in short, did nearly everything right - and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure. The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things - to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.”
From Bill Bryson’s 1995 travelogue Notes From A Small Island. Bill was born American, of course, but has chosen to live in Britain, including 10 years in the Old Rectory, Wramplingham, near Wymondham – which starred in his book At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
“But that day, as I sat on the tranquil shore, it was possible to believe one was gazing into eternity.”
WG Sebald describes staring out to sea a few miles south of Lowestoft in his 1995 book The Rings of Saturn.
“He felt his faith deeply, and above all out of doors, where the vaulted sky was his cathedral nave and the oaks its transept pillars: when faith failed, as it sometimes did, he saw the heavens declare the glory of God and heard the stones cry out.”
From the 2016 novel The Essex Serpent, by Norwich writer Sarah Perry.
“What is pertinent is the calmness of beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.”
From The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, the former UEA creative writing student who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.