So far I’ve hosted far fewer Writers on Location posts than usual this year but am making up for that now with two in a row on books from my Summer Reads selection: last week it was the gorgeous Greek island of Paros for Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s thriller The Lizard and today, a visit to Cornwall with Jane Johnson, author of The Sea Gate. One of the reasons people love this series is that the pieces are so personal, not just about the place but the author’s relationship with it. And as the two latest additions show, it makes a great story whether they discovered the setting of the novel, like Dugald, or came from there in the first place, as in Jane’s case.
Cornwall occupies a place in many people’s hearts and has been the focus of lots of attention one way and the other during the lockdown. I’m sure many readers of Jane’s new book will soon be returning or wishing they could. Having grown up within easy distance of the Dorset coast, I’ve only ever been to Cornwall once and found it as stunning and magical as everyone says. I’d love to go back in person one day but in the meantime, The Sea Gate almost makes me feel I already have. My review follows:
When you’re raised in a beautiful place it’s amazing how you can take it for granted. As a child growing up in the town of Fowey, on the south coast of Cornwall, I would spend my days playing pirates or Robin Hood with my friends on Readymoney Beach (I was a little boy manqué, never happier than when covered in sand or mud or hitting people with sticks), collecting treasures along the tidewrack, clambering up rocks, or rowing my tiny boat from our jetty to fish for prawns (well, shrimps, really) or out to the mouth of the river to try to snaffle mackerel near the point where in Tudor times a huge chain was stretched across the waters to stop enemy ships sailing in. Everywhere you looked was lovely and historic, so it just seemed normal.
I left Cornwall at the age of 17 to go to university in London, having been desperate to get away. I wanted city life, grime and urban adventures – and I certainly got them in spades (but that’s another story). It wasn’t till I was in my fortieth year that I returned to my home county for anything other than family visits or weekends with my climbing posse. I had sold my first children’s books around the world and had a contract to write the official tie-in books to the Lord of the Rings movies, so I decided to come back to Cornwall on a part-time basis to write. But, oh! How prices had risen in the 20 years I’d been away. Fowey was now the haunt of posh yachting types and our old house, which we’d rented out every summer while we stayed in a caravan to make ends meet, was now worth over £1m! So I travelled further down the county, all the way to Mousehole, and there purchased a tiny granite fisherman’s cottage.
My mother’s family came from West Penwith and traced their roots back to the 14th century. They were tinners and bal-maidens (who helped clear the tailings from the tin mines), servants to great families and farmers. This I discovered when I started researching the Barbary pirate raid on Penzance in 1625, when 40 men, women and children were taken out of a church to be sold into slavery in Morocco – including, it seemed, my ancestor Catherine Tregenna, who disappeared from all records at the age of 19. My first adult novel, The Tenth Gift, told her story, and it earned me enough to step away from my London life and settle back in Cornwall, where I wandered the footpaths, climbed the granite cliffs and found spots around the coast to lie amid the thrift and kidney vetch, listening to the cries of terns and ravens while I wrote longhand in my notebook.
I loved writing about a place I knew well, about the views and the wildflowers with which I was so familiar; but because of my own personal adventures, the next few historical novels I wrote after The Tenth Gift were largely set in Morocco, where I had met, fallen in love with, and married a local man (Abdel, a Berber tribesman: we’re now celebrating 15 years together). It was not until The Sea Gate that I set a novel entirely in Cornwall. The setting is a notional Mousehole – using the old Cornish name of Porth Enys (mainly because I don’t want my neighbours thinking they spot themselves in the story!); but if you’ve ever visited the village you’ll recognise it from the description:
The village of Porth Enys was once described by an eminent poet as the loveliest in England, and you can see why. Its cottages cluster around three sides of an oval harbour in which boats bob on sparkling water and children play on the crescent of golden beach. Take away the cars and dress the people in period costume and it could be a snapshot of a bygone age, until your eye is drawn by the bright kayaks ranged against the harbour wall, the defibrillator unit on the wall of the harbourmaster’s office, the brightly coloured plastic buckets and spades outside the shop.
And Olivia – the central character of The Sea Gate – like me loves her wild footpath walks, especially those between Mousehole and Lamorna:
She knew when the elderflower came out and passed over, when the briar rose blossomed and honeysuckle twined; when the wheatears and swallows arrived and when they flew the scene. She knew the best places to lie in wait to watch fox cubs play and baby rabbits lollop out of their burrows; where the badgers made their setts, where the weasels looped and ran.
I’ve been told the sense of place in my novels is strong, that people can smell the scents of flowers and see the glitter of sun on the sea and imagine themselves on a long-ago Cornish holiday: so I hope they’ve been a perfect escape during lockdown, and will be a refuge for those who prefer not to travel in these difficult times.
Many thanks to Jane for this gloriously evocative piece and the photos to back it up! Scroll all the way down for the last one (they’re too beautiful to shrink).
I always feel an affinity with the books in my quarterly selections and doubly so with those which managed to pull me in and take me out of my four walls during lockdown. The Sea Gate succeeded on both counts, as a dual timeframe story featuring endearingly idiosyncratic character Olivia Kitto in her youth and old age. I enjoy novels which explore how people become who they are and those which show women at stages of their lives which often go unportrayed – they are no less interesting to many readers. It also matters how this is done, of course, and credit to the author for not falling back on the patronising clichés which can accompany the depiction of elderly characters. The World War Two timeline was initially more engaging because it took a while to bond with Rebecca, the much younger relative who drives the contemporary narrative, but this changed as the two women’s stories intertwined to great effect with some unexpected threads (entire subjects, actually) and satisfying parallels. Whether or not you’re leaving home this summer, between the vivid Cornish backdrop, the engaging storytelling and some deliciously sexy and romantic moments, this is a novel with wide appeal.
Although it’s not a Writers on Location post as such, next week’s guest Amanda Huggins looks at the overall importance of setting in fiction – her collection Scratched Enamel Heart takes the reader to all kinds of places.