“Lyme Regis is a town that has submitted to its geography rather than forced the land to submit to it. The hills into town are so steep that coaches cannot travel down them…The narrow road leads down to the shore, and then quickly turns its back on the sea and heads up hill again, as if it wants merely to glimpse the waves before fleeing.” (Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier – p18)
Last time, I mentioned I was a little enamoured of Tracy Chevalier, so I feel I should expand on that statement!
Along with many other historical fiction devotees I was enthralled by Chevalier’s most famous novel Girl With A Pearl Earring, her fictional account of the model from Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting of the same name, and I have been wanting to try more of her tales every since.
So when I found myself planning a winter jaunt to the charming seaside town of Lyme Regis in the south-west of England, I seized the opportunity to pick up a copy of Remarkable Creatures – Chevalier’s novel about one of Lyme’s most famous residents, Mary Anning.
But first a little picture of Lyme Regis beachfront to get you in the mood. We were lucky – it might have been the depths of winter, but we scored a stunning day for our visit.
“But that is not all there is to Lyme. It is as if there are two villages side by side, connected by a small, sandy beach where the bathing machines are lined up, awaiting an influx of visitors.” (p18)
Now Lyme Regis is famous for a few things, such as its 700 year old working water mill, its picturesque harbor and the bizarre ‘sport’ of conger cuddling (you’ll have to follow the link and read about it for yourself, it’s far too complicated to explain, suffice to say it has been described as the “most fun a person could have with a dead fish”!!)
But the most celebrated aspect of this tiny seaside resort is its geology. The coastline is inundated with fossils (and no, I’m not referring to those in their autumn years who fancy a whirl along the seafront in their high-tech mobility scooters – I wouldn’t be so rude!).
Part of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, it is not unusual, even today, to find fossils that are more than, oh you know, around 100 million years old. And amazingly, you don’t have to be an expert to head down to the beach with your trusty hammer and do a bit of fossilising for yourself – it’s open to all. There were certainly plenty of people having a go on the day we visited.
If you look closely at this rock, you can see an impression of what I’m guessing is an ammonite fossil – not an unusual sight if you stop and have a look around. Please note: I am geologically-challenged, so if I can notice this, anyone can!
Impression of a fossil in a rock at Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
She sells sea shells…
But back to Mary Anning – the feisty, tenacious, real-life heroine of Chevalier’s book.
Painting of Mary Anning – Image courtsey of Wikimedia Commons
Born in Lyme in 1799, by the time she was a teenager Mary had survived a lightning strike, grieved for her dead father – who inspired her love of fossil-hunting – and made one of the world’s most significant scientific discoveries of all time. Not bad going for a 12 year old!
Mary and her brother Joseph had always contributed to their family’s meagre income, helping their father Richard look for “curies” or fossils, and selling them to tourists from their “shop”, a humble table outside their home. But Mary was just 11 when Richard Anning died of consumption, leaving the family in debt, and she stepped up her fossiling efforts to help make ends meet. She was soon rewarded when she and Joseph unearthed the world’s first complete ichthyosaur skeleton – a dolphin-like marine reptile, the existence of which raised significant questions about the history of living things at the time. If, like me, you can’t even pronounce ichthyosaur let alone imagine one – this two minute BBC story will help!
To give you an idea of scale, these creatures grew up to nine meters in length – just the skull that Joseph and Mary found was two meters long.
Drawing of the Ichthyosaur skull found by Joseph and Mary Anning
Image courtesy of Philisophical Transactions of the Royal Society 1814 via Wikimedia Commons
Mary spent her life scouring the cliffs of Lyme Regis and went on to make other discoveries that cemented her skill in a world that had little place for her. She was an uneducated, working-class woman mixing in the middle-class, scientific world. Despite the significance of her finds, her intelligence and self-taught proficiency in palaeontology, she had to battle to receive any of the credit she deserved and was not allowed to enter the hallowed halls of the male-only Geological Society of London.
There is so much to love about this book. Anning is a fabulous character, who we meet through amateur fossil hunter Elizabeth Philpot, a London spinster who befriends the spirited Mary when she is a child. Elizabeth and Mary are outsiders, early 19th century Britain seeing little to admire in single women chiselling away at the cliffs (a dangerous pastime we discover), destroying their nails and ruining their reputations by remaining unchaperoned for hours at a time. The book charts the waters of their friendship, alongside Mary’s incredible discoveries and passion, and reveals much about the era’s class and social mores.
And by the way, Mary is said to be the inspiration for the tongue-twister ‘She sells sea-shells by the sea shore”. After reading this novel, you will realise she does quite a bit more than that!
Impressive ammonite fossil in the Lyme Regis Museum – Image by Suzi Butcher
One of the aspects of the novel I found most revealing was the attitude to science at the time. While there is a strong fascination by it, most people appeared to be terrified by any threats to their creationist beliefs. When Mary finds the ichthyosaur skeleton she calls it a ‘crocodile’, and so do most others, the possibility of it being a now extinct creature too much for most to handle. Why would God create a creature and then let it die out?
Even Elizabeth struggles with the concept.
This idea was too radical for most to contemplate. Even I, who considered myself open-minded was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all the animals He created. if He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us? Were we going to die out too? Looking at that skull with its huge, ringed eyes, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff…
Lord Henley scuffed his boots on the floor.
“It’s simple, Miss Philpot. This is one of God’s early models, and He decided to give the subsequent ones smaller eyes.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Do you mean God rejected it?”
“I mean God wanted a better version – the crocodile we know now – and replaced it.”
I had never heard of such a thing. (p98-103)
Mary too tries to reconcile what she’s finding with her beliefs.
“Sir,” I said, “is this one of the creatures Noah brought on his ark?”
Mr Buckland looked startled.
“Well, now, Mary, why do you ask that?”…
“It’s snout is long and pointed like a dolphin’s, while a croc’s is blunt. And it’s got paddles instead of claws, and they’re turned outward rather than forward the way a croc’s legs are. And of course that big eye. No crocodile has eyes like that…and it made me wonder: if this ain’t a crocodile, which Noah would’ve had on the ark, then what is it? Did God make something that was on the ark we don’t know about?” (p152-153)
As you can imagine, this doesn’t endear our female fossil-hunters to the local population.
Thankfully times have changed and Lyme Regis now embraces Mary with the massive bear-hug she deserves.
Visit Mary’s house
“This need to put things in order led me to Richard Anning’s cellar workshop in Cockmoile Square at the bottom of the town. Square is far too grand a word for the tiny open space about the size of a good family’s drawing room…(it) was made up of shabby houses where tradesmen lived and worked…I should soon have been drawn there anyway, if only to compare my fossils to those at the table young Mary Anning tended outside the workshop.” (Elizabeth – p26)
The Lyme Regis Museum – site of Mary Anning’s home – Image by Suzi Butcher
Well, this is not the exact house (unfortunately that didn’t survive the passing of time), but the Lyme Regis Museum is built on the very spot where the house once was, in Cockmoile Square.
When in the novel Mary says her house backed onto the sea “so as soon as I could walk I’d be out there upon the rocks” (p59), she’s not kidding. The museum is extremely close to the water and it is easy to believe comments from Anning biographer Shelley Emling that “the family lived so close to the sea that the same storms that swept along the cliffs to reveal the fossils sometimes flooded the Annings’ home, on one occasion forcing them to crawl out of an upstairs bedroom window to avoid being drowned.”
The museum holds a load of stunning fossils, as well as lots of memorabilia related to the early palaeontologists. I couldn’t find the hammer that Mary’s father made for her (perhaps it was on loan to another institution), so I am looking forward to returning in 2017 when the museum hopes to have opened a planned ‘Mary Anning’ wing, which will see its Anning collection all in one place.
There is however a copy of the famous ichthyosaur skull that Joseph and Mary found, giving you an idea of just how big it was. You can see the original in the Natural History Museum in London.
And if you time it right you may be be in Lyme on a day when the museum runs one of its Mary Anning walks – I was not so lucky! Better planning required next time! You can also try Literary Lyme for Anning (and other literary) walking tours.
If you have six and a half minutes I urge you to have a look at the museum’s lovely video presented by Chevalier about the passion for fossil hunting in Lyme.
The hunting grounds
“East past the Annings’ house, at the end of Gun Cliff, the shore bends sharply to the left so the beach is out of sight of the town…Both Church Cliffs and Black Ven hold many fossils, gradually releasing them over time onto the shoreline below. That was where Mary found many of her finest specimens. It was also where we experienced some of our greatest dramas.” – Elizabeth (p38-39)
Walking out to Church Cliffs, Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
It’s amazing walking out to the beach where Mary practically spent all her waking hours, and contemplating the blind-blowing amount of history embedded in those cliffs. I have no real concept of 100 million years!
Promenade along the Cobb
“The other Lyme, at the west end of the beach, doesn’t shut, but embraces the sea. It is dominated by the Cobb, a long grey stone wall that curves like a finger out into the water and shelters the shore, creating a tranquil harbour for the fishing boats and the trading ships that come from all over. The Cobb is several feet high, and wide enough for three to walk along arm in arm, which many visitors do, for it gives a fine view back to the town and the dramatic shoreline beyond of rolling hills and cliffs in great, grey and brown.” – Elizabeth (p19)
The Cobb, Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
I loved The Cobb!! I love that there are still places you can walk where you feel that a wrong step could send you tumbling into the sea. Your heart takes a little lurch as the waves pummel the sloping stone beneath your feet, and you imagine how many people have walked those same steps before you.
And here’s the view back to town that Elizabeth talks about.
An Early Grave
I’m glad we get to know Mary from such a young age in Chevalier’s book, because she only lived until she was 47, dying of breast cancer in 1847. Though to be fair, it’s a miracle she didn’t die earlier, given the danger she put herself in. Collecting fossils after storms when the cliffs are at their most vulnerable to landslides (but also when they expose their greatest treasures) is a big risk, and Anning came close to losing her life in 1833 during a landslide which buried her faithful dog Tray.
After reading Remarkable Creatures I felt I knew Mary so well, I was keen to go and visit her in her final resting place at St. Michael’s church on a hill near to the sea. Her grave, where she is buried with her brother Joseph, is one of the first you see as you walk up the path approaching the building.
Grave of Joseph and Mary Anning – Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
Even after all this time, people take the time to put flowers and fossils at the base of Mary’s grave. Fabulous!
Flowers at the base of Mary Anning’s grave – Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
Unfortunately I wasn’t aware the church had a stained glass window dedicated to Mary (and funded at least in part by members of the Geological Society) which was unveiled in 1850, so I will have to have a look at that on my next visit. Actually the Geological Society eventually made quite a few amends for their early mistreatment of her, including raising money to help with her expenses when they learned of her illness. In 2010, 163 years after her death, Anning was listed as one of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science, and in 2014 she received perhaps one of the greatest honors of the modern age – a google doodle!
Reading Remarkable Creatures reminds you of all the people of passion who live (and have lived) in our world. Chevalier celebrates a woman who had a gift for science, and stubbornly ignored all the barriers put in her way. Lyme Regis may be famous for its fossils (so famous they shape their lamp posts like ammonites), but it is Mary (and Elizabeth) who bring it to life for me, as I embrace the sea spray on the Cobb and hear young children shriek with excitement when they too unearth a ‘curie’ on the beach. Whether you intend to visit Lyme in the next few months, or can only make the journey on the fiction train, pick up this novel for your own fossil adventure.
Lyme Regis lamp posts – Image by Suzi Butcher
After reading it, do not be surprised if you are overcome with desire to wander along the beaches of Lyme Regis yourself. And might I say, not only will you get to saunter the coast à la Mary Anning (and impress your friends with your knowledge of fossils) you will have the opportunity to buy the best value and biggest cone of hot chips from a seaside van known to man. Sorry guys – my hands were far too full to take a picture, you’ll have to take my word for it!
Lyme Regis is a four hour drive from London, but if you have the time to be exploring the countryside on a trip to the UK, then it deserves a spot on your itinerary. Here are some more things you can do (and read) while in the area.
In the meantime, get yeself a fossil hammer and I’ll see you on the beach,
P.P.P.S I have to stop writing now. This is a very long post!
It was one of those glorious Thomas Hardy “summer face and winter constitution” type days last Sunday, just begging me to get out and explore some small part of London I had never been.
So after hoisting myself off the comfort of my West London underfloor heating I braved the whims of weekend public transport to head north to a place I’ve been promising myself I’d go for, oh, I don’t know, about a thousand years – Highgate Cemetery.
Perhaps most famous for being the final resting place of legendary philosopher Karl Marx, the cemetery has a peculiar fascination for Londoners (and those tourists willing to explore beyond the more central haunts of Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square), who are attracted to the famous names buried there, as well as its eerie, and often beautiful, Gothic funerary architecture.
With London’s inner-city cemeteries in a bad state in the 1830s — overcrowded and hazardous, with bodies sometimes buried in the spaces in between houses and taverns (think decaying matter leeching into the water supply and causing disease epidemics) — the powers that be decided upon the grand plan of opening seven new cemeteries on the outskirts of London. Highgate was one of them.
The cemetery is divided into two parts. In the East, you can wander around freely after paying a small entrance fee, but in the West (the oldest part), you must take a guided tour. I loved getting all the gory stories and historical know-how from our knowledgeable guide, but it is always a little frustrating to have to limit your photo taking to snatches here and there so you can keep up with the group and to stifle your desire to wander off and do your own thing. Such exploration is strictly forbidden in this part of the cemetery on safety and conservation grounds; much of it is overgrown, crumbling, and laced with sharp spikes of ironmongery amongst the undergrowth – a fashion much favoured by Victorian grave-designers it seems.
Other things I learned…
– It’s actually really challenging to find someone specific in a cemetery such as this. There are A LOT of graves here, mostly crowded haphazardly amongst the muddy paths and undergrowth. And there’s only so long you can concentrate hard enough on reading the fading inscriptions before your eyes start glazing over with the effort. In the East cemetery you are provided with a map of sorts, but unless your grave of interest is on the actual path, you will need a fair bit of time to find it.
Take a gander at this video as world traveler Vic Stefanu walks through some the less accessible areas of the cemetery. You only need to watch the first minute or so to get the idea, though it does make strangely compelling (almost meditative) viewing if you carry on. Note that Vic is doing this on what looks like a fine and sunny day; the cold, mud and general fear of slippage during my visit made me much less inclined to explore too far off the standard routes.
– Someone lives in a glass house in the cemetery. Read more here – it’s a whole story in itself, with an amazing coincidence at the end.
– Victorian surgeon Robert Liston was known as “the fastest knife in the West End”, renowned for his ability to amputate a limb (without anaesthetic, naturally) in 28 seconds.
– In conversation, I find it almost impossible to say “Highgate Cemetery”, for some reason it always comes out as “Highgate Ceremony” – bizarre!
– The cemetery (or ceremony if you like) was originally a profit-making, commercial operation run by the London Cemetery Company. It was initially a great success, but come the end of the Victorian era people were less keen to spend big money on the business of mourning and by the 1930s it began to fall into disrepair. The company declared bankruptcy in 1960 and the gates were eventually shut. In 1975 the Friends of Highgate Cemetery came to the rescue and started the massive task of clearing the undergrowth and repairing some of the memorials. That work continues today and you don’t begrudge having to pay an entrance or guided tour fee so much when you know this is where the money goes. Read more about the history here.
– There are now around 170,000 people buried at Highgate, but amazingly you can still score a spot for yourself, as long as you have the money and you are ready to use it immediately (you have to be over 80 or terminally ill if you want to book it in advance). I haven’t been able to find a price list!
But what does all this have to do with things literary?
Well there are, inevitably, some literary-type resting places here. I managed to track down George Eliot, Douglas Adams and Beryl Bainbridge (photos below) and I particularly liked this gravestone by one avid reader, Jim Horn – apparently NOT a partner at Penguin, but obviously a great admirer.
What to read before you go…
And as with most things Packabook there is some fitting fiction to inspire you to visit Highgate for yourself.
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier (who I am a little in love with right now, of which I will write more about in a future post). Inspired by a trip to the cemetery, Chevalier began doing some volunteer work to get to know the graveyard better. She then wrote a novel set at the very end of Victorian times in which two families, with conflicting views on the new modern era, get to know each other because their loved ones are buried in adjacent graves. I enjoyed reading what she had to say about Highgate on her blog.
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (she of The Time Traveler’s Wife fame). Niffenegger also became a volunteer tour guide at Highgate and the result was this novel built around 20-year old American twins who have inherited their aunt’s beautiful flat which overlooks the cemetery (you will see some of the stunning residences in the area yourself as you walk up the hill to the graveyard gates). But the inheritance comes with conditions, and while Aunt Elspeth may be dead, she doesn’t seem too keen to leave the women to their own devices.
There’s lots about Highgate and her volunteering exploits in this radio interview with Niffenegger, while in this video (unfortunately not brilliant quality) the two writers talk about how they met while doing their bit for the cause.
I am most pleased with myself for heading out into the cold for my short bout of Highgate hijinks and highly recommend it as an item on your London itinerary should you be visiting this fair city anytime soon. Don’t worry, there’s no rush, none of the Highgate residents are going anywhere!
I will leave you with my two favorite graves of the day…
“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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A little while back I came across the story of some modern day pilgrims who had decided to retrace the steps of Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, by walking from London to Canterbury. I was intrigued, and thought I’d investigate further. The result was this little video…
Does this inspire you to read Chaucer’s Tales for yourself?
If so – which version of this 14th century collection of stories should we be tackling…?
According to Henry Eliot, it’s worth having a go at the original Middle English version if you can cope with a bit of a challenge. But if you feel the need for a modern day translation, then this one comes highly recommended.
Henry’s main advice is to not read the tales in order. He reckons you should go for the “juiciest” tales first to get your love of Chaucer flowing, and then tackle the less raucous ones. Dive in and read The Miller’s Tale, The Merchant’s Tale, The Pardoner’s Tale, The Franklin’s Tale, The Reeve’s Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Tale to give you a great taste of what Chaucer was about and then take it from there.
And what if you want to do your own pilgrimage to Canterbury? Here are some more details of Henry’s route from his 2012 pilgrimage that can help you figure out where to go. You will pass some stunning medieval towns and villages as you make your way along the North Kent coast and Canterbury, with its famous cathedral, is a treat. If the four-day walk is a bit much, then you could even do it on a bicycle.
I hope you enjoy the video – it was great fun making it, despite the rain! If you liked it, it would be great if you could give it a thumbs up or a comment on YouTube – it all helps to spread the word.
Thank goodness for Colin Cotterill…
I mean it, we are very lucky that writer Colin Cotterill exists and that he is so prolific, otherwise we’d be drawing an almost blank for the fiction section of our Laos category. Laos is not a destination of choice for most novelists who write in English, or indeed who do English translations!
Let me introduce Cotterill’s creation – Dr. Siri Paiboun, the protagonist of a series of crime novels, eight of which have been published so far. The series begins in 1976 — Laos has recently become a communist state and 72-year old Siri Paiboun is appointed state coroner. It sounds like through much of this series, Dr. Siri is desperate to retire, but instead he must do the government’s bidding and handle the variety of cases which come his way, with the help of some outdated medical texts, inadequate supplies and a bit of witchcraft. Known for his wry humor and witty observations, Dr. Siri does his best to get to the truth while keeping the regime happy – not always an easy task.
According to expat-advisory.com Cotterill’s novels are “the best guide books to (the capital) Vientiane”, so we can be assured of lots of detail to help bring the city alive. And as Dr. Siri often branches out into the countryside, we should expect to see quite a lot of the areas surrounding the capital as well.
If you are off to Laos anytime soon, then it looks like the Dr. Siri Paiboun novels are a must read! And I love this article and video from Britain’s Channel 4 in which Cotterill talks about the dearth of literature in Laos, and how he hopes Dr. Siri can help.
But there is one other novel I have discovered that will take you to Vientiane…. The second book in John le Carré’s Karla Trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy. If you enjoyed the first novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – then why not follow up with this one, which features Laos among other locations.
The Oregon Pacific Coast – Image courtesy of Klaus with K via Wikimedia Commons
Our second destination for this month, and our first US state to be highlighted on Packabook, is Oregon. Chosen in our public vote – Oregon is rich with novels, which like Laos, tend towards the criminal! Of the almost 50 novels discovered so far, well over half of them are crime novels – is there something about Oregon which brings this out in writers? I’ll leave that for the locals to let us know!
This time we have two very prolific writers who have set much of their work in Oregon. Phillip Margolin and Kate Wilhelm. I am fascinated by Wilhelm; aged in her 80s, she is not only a mistress of mystery, but also a well-known science fiction writer. Up to now, she has written nearly 50 novels. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Oregon is obviously a good place to live – no sign of retirement happening there!
One of the other gems to emerge in our discovery of Oregon is Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey, who also wrote One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (thanks for the tip Kirsten and Martha!) Set in the 50s and 60s, the novel is described on Amazon as having the “mythic impact of a Greek tragedy” and is the story of a family of Oregon loggers who defy a bitter strike which rages through a small lumber town. Amazon reviewers describe it as a “classic of American literature” and possibly the “Great American Novel”. Sounds like a must read.
I’m also tempted by Winterkill by Craig Lesley — the story of a contemporary Native American family and the relationship between fathers and sons, as well as Molly Gloss’s Wild Life. Set on the Northwest frontier in the early 1900s it tells of the adventures of a cigar-smoking, free-thinking woman who writes adventure novels.
With so much to explore, and what sounds like an amazing landscape reflected in these novels, I can’t wait to get myself off to Oregon!
Find novels for Oregon by going to Packabook’s USA page and clicking on ‘Oregon’ under the fiction category on the right hand side.
To the shipyards of England’s north-east…
And finally to our English county of choice – Tyne and Wear in the north-east of the country. This one is particularly close to home for me, as it is where my mother’s family is from. The county’s main city is Newcastle-upon-Tyne, known for its port, shipyards and history of coal-mining. But from the 1930s onwards, Newcastle experienced serious decline, with the closing of its last coal pit in the 1950s, and the demise of the shipyards in the 80s and 90s causing extensive unemployment and tough times for those who lived there. In more recent years, Newcastle has re-invented itself as a centre of business and culture, with a lively nightclub scene and some fabulous galleries.
As is to be expected, many of my book discoveries for Tyne and Wear focus on the lives of the working classes, with The Day of the Sardine and The Watchers and the Watched by Sid Chaplin being two fine examples. The books are recognised as classics of regional working class fiction. And once again, we have chosen a location which attracts the crime novelists – Newcastle’s quayside being a terrific location for all manner of dastardly deeds. Check out the crime novels of Howard Linskey and Martyn Waites to get your fix of north-eastern crime.
Find novels for Tyne and Wear by going to Packabook’s England page and clicking on ‘Tyne and Wear’ under the fiction category on the right hand side.
Thanks everyone for voting for your choices for these new additions to Packabook – and I look forward to announcing the winners for the January voting next week. In the meantime, how about exploring one of these new fiction locations. And if you have any other suggestions for novels which should be added – please let me know in the comments. As always – these selections are just the beginning and will constantly be updated.
P.S. Please note that at the moment I have a policy to mainly stick to traditionally published novels here on Packabook. It’s all part of my decision to carefully curate the books that I select. Down the track I will look at adding self-published novels, but for now, I want to be sure that the books I highlight have passed through the eyes of professional editors and publishers.