“Through the open middle sash is visible the crescent-curved expanse of the Bay as a sheet of brilliant translucent green…On the left hand white cliffs stretch away till they terminate in St. Aldhem’s Head, and form a background to the level water-line on that side. In the centre are the open sea and blue sky…” – Thomas Hardy “The Dynasts”
The Dorset Coast – Image courtesy of HerbyThyme via Wikimedia Commons
Well, it’s nigh on impossible to discuss novels set in the beautiful English county of Dorset without beginning with Thomas Hardy.
Hardy’s novels may have been written more than 150 years ago, but they have well and truly stood the test of time; his literary themes spilling down through the generations of writers that followed.
Location was extremely important to Hardy, so much so, that he made up an English county in which to set many of his books, calling it Wessex. Wessex did really exist as a medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom but became extinct as a political unit around the time of England’s unification in the 10th century. Hardy decided this would be a great name for his ‘fictional’ West Country county of which present day Dorset is at the heart, but which also spreads into a good chunk of south-west England including Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset. Hardy’s Wessex (and the area it actually covers) causes much fascination amongst his fans and even gets its own Wikipedia entry. Within ‘Wessex’ Hardy uses fictional names for real places. To find out what place is where in the Dorset-based novels, this article is a great help. Some of the more famous Dorset locations include ‘Casterbridge’ for Dorchester, ‘Budmouth’ for Weymouth and ‘Havenpool’ for Poole.
If you haven’t read any Hardy, I really urge you to give it a go. My favorite ever description of English weather comes from his Far From the Madding Crowd, in which he describes a day as having “a summer face and a winter constitution”. It’s something that I first read when I was 15 and is such a perfect description of a crisp, winter day I have never forgotten it. As a ‘landscape novelist’ he really brings Dorset and its surrounding counties to life, but also creates some truly memorable characters and great stories. Hardy favorites with clear Dorset connection are Tess of the D’urbervilles, Far From the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge – but there are many others.
If you happen to be in Dorset itself, check out the Thomas Hardy Society website which has lots of info about locations and holds talks and walks galore to really take you into Wessex life. For a taste of what’s available for Dorset explorers, here’s a Hardy walk recommended by The Guardian newspaper. And for some real Hardy indulgence, get some friends together and take this week-long guided tour!
Finding fossils on the beach
Turning to other novels, beaches figure quite heavily in Dorset-based fiction, and so they should as the county has a fantastic coastline; so good it has been designated a World Heritage site. But where I just see dramatic cliffs, amazing rock-like formations in the shape of arches and pebbled beaches, people with far more scientific minds know that the Dorset coast is in fact a geological marvel, so much so that it forms part of the area given the rather grand title of The Jurassic Coast and has rocks which apparently record 185 million years of the Earth’s history.
Now if you are like me – then you need a novel to bring all that science alive – and with Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures we can make a start. Famous for her book Girl With A Pearl Earring, Chevalier is renowned for her ability to take real historical figures and create a compelling work of fiction around their story. This novel tells the story of Mary Anning, a 19th century working-class woman form Dorset’s Lyme Regis who became one of the world’s most well-known fossil hunters. By combing Dorset beaches she made some of the most significant geological finds of all time. Chevalier explores the challenges Anning faced coming from a poor, uneducated background at a time when women struggled to be taken seriously by the scientific world and as she says herself, the aim of the book is to “make fossils sexy”.
Here are some of the comments on Amazon.
“This book is one of the best I read this year. Don’t look any further if you’re looking for some good entertainment mixed with interesting history.”
“This book is a must read. You will learn so much about fossils and yet, while fossil finding and the creatures discovered is so very scientific, Chevalier makes it so totally interesting and wonderful.”
“Tracy Chevalier’s writing is perfect. I felt myself discovering the fossils, the wind in my face, the obstacles of being a woman at that period of time. For those who loves a very good book.”
“The way Chevalier was able to describe the Lyme Regis area in England has compelled me to put it on my list of travel interests! But, regarding the story itself, I enjoyed learning about this would-be heroine that actually changed the course of scientific history by just doing what she was gifted to do… very inspiring… I have read it again and again. Each time, I walk away refreshed and aching to see those cliffs and beaches! I WANT AN AMMONITE!!!”
And here’s one other interesting fact about Mary Anning – she is apparently the inspiration for the tongue twister “She sells seashells on the seashore”, so I think we’ve all grown up with a little Mary Anning in our lives and never ever knew it. If you find yourself in Dorset, you must pop in to the Lyme Regis Museum to find out a lot more about this fascinating woman, and you can even go on a Mary Anning Walk around the city.
Just 25 miles to the east of Lyme Regis is Chesil Beach, an 18-mile shingle (pebble) beach which also has significant geological importance. It is the setting for Ian McEwan’s novella of the same name. At barely 200 pages, this book tells of the agonising first night of a young couple’s marriage in the early 1960s. They have booked into a small Chesil Beach hotel, and while they are very much in love, they are both virgins and are approaching the evening with trepidation, if not dread.
What follows through the course of the evening is a breathtaking example of how a lack of communication and comfort with intimacy can have devastating effects on a relationship.
There are plenty of Amazon readers who adored this novel.
“What an amazing, amazing book! Days later, I re-read the last 50 pages or so, aloud, to a friend, and even knowing it all ahead of time, had to stop several times. Couldn’t go on. The last chapter, the fifth one, is among the most moving pieces of writing I have ever encountered.”
“I am awed by this book. McEwan is a master, a compelling and powerful storyteller, with an all-important message to convey.”
“Despite its brevity and simplicity, On Chesil Beach is not an effortless read, but it is beautifully written and a fine, sensitive piece of literature. I loved this book.”
On Chesil Beach is a very short book, which some reviewers weren’t happy about. Others found it depressing. But I thought the novel was stunning; McEwan has an amazing ability to express things I have thought myself but never thought to put into words, and his insight into how human beings respond when they are trying to protect themselves from hurt is very powerful.
To be fair – we don’t see a great deal of Dorset itself; most of the action takes place in the hotel, the past and the characters’ heads – but we do get some glimpses of the water and a sniff of the salty air from time to time, until the final scenes when the beach takes on a greater role. But the impact of this novella is such that I could never walk along Chesil Beach without thinking of Edward and Florence, and remember how tragic it is when human beings are unable to express their love and fears.
One more honorable mention for Dorset before I leave you to explore all the books selected for yourself. The coastal town of Lyme Regis was a popular spot for 19th century visitors and Jane Austen was one of them. And while she rarely set her novels in real places, Lyme Regis has a pivotal role in her classic novel Persuasion. Read more about it here.
Finally, if you are planning a trip to Dorset make sure you first head over to the official Jurassic Coast website to read about all the great things you can do to really explore the area, such as walking the Dorset bits of the South West Coast Path which sounds sensational. Just don’t forget to pack that Tracy Chevalier to take with you!
Find my selection of books set in Dorset here. You’ll need to look over to the menu on the right hand side and select ‘Dorset’.
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