|Created: 14 June 2017||Last updated: 21 June 2019|
Suffolk has a fine literary tradition. It has inspired some of the great literary works of our time, such as W.G. Sebald’s masterpiece The Rings of Saturn, and some of the greatest writers, such as George Orwell and P.D. James. It is a county with vibrant literary festivals which attract world-famous speakers and several writers have made their home in the county.
As we celebrate the third Suffolk Day, let us consider some of the literary riches we have. What follows is not a comprehensive list, but it gives a small taste of the diverse range of reading that is available with a Suffolk flavour.
Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, normally associated with the Lake District, sets We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea, written in 1937, on the Shotley Peninsula.
Writer Ronald Blythe was born in Acton, Suffolk. He wrote the classic Akenfield in 1969, which is an account of the changes in agricultural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s.
Orwell did not like Southwold, and the best bits of A Clergyman’s Daughter are a vicious satire on provincial small-town life, including tea rooms. The chief protagonist of the novel, Dorothy Hare, is the dutiful daughter of a rector, and her reputation is destroyed by a malicious gossip.
As a child in Burstall, we know from his correspondence that the young Orwell picked up a large cage rat-trap, which several biographers suggest was the prototype for the cage full of rats in Orwell’s last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Charles Dickens visited Suffolk in 1836 as a correspondent reporting the General Election. The corruption he witnessed first hand in Sudbury and Ipswich became the basis for the Eatanswill election in The Pickwick Papers.
In 1859 he gave a public reading in the Corn Exchange in Ipswich which was formerly Lloyds Bank. He also stayed at the Angel Hotel in Bury which he mentioned in The Pickwick Papers.
A fictional record of a journey on foot through coastal East Anglia, Sebald’s home for his last 20 years. It is also an exploration of England’s pastoral and imperial past. Suffolk spotters will soon pick out Covehithe, Lowestoft, Bungay, The Crown Hotel and the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold, Boulge Church, Yoxford, the Ruins at Dunwich and the Pagodas of Orford Ness.
Aldeburgh’s most famous visitor, Orlando the Marmalade Cat brought his wife and children on holiday to ‘Owlbarrow’ in 1952.
Wilkie Collins’ sensational and compelling novel explores the themes of illegitimacy and inheritance in Victorian society. The heroine pursues her persecutor to ‘the quaint little watering-place’ Aldborough (then in Suffolk). She stays in the White Lion hotel and observes the comings and goings of the villa residents.
Although she was born in Lincoln, Penelope Fitzgerald had several links with Suffolk. Described as ‘the quiet genius of British fiction’, Fitzgerald did not publish her first book until her 60th year and did not become famous until she was 80.
In 1979 Fitzgerald was the unlikely winner of the Booker Prize for her novel Offshore. At the time of her death in 2000, she had published three biographies and nine novels, been nominated twice more for the Booker Prize, and earned widespread admiration for her unique, controlled style.
Her novel The Bookshop was inspired by Fitzgerald’s own life working in a bookshop in Southwold. It is about a woman, Florence, who opens a bookshop in the fictional town of Hardborough, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
“Sydney Bartleby has killed his wife, Alicia - at least he has thought about it, compulsively, over and over again, plotting schemes, designing escapes, forging alibis. Of course he has; he’s a mystery-script writer.
“But when Alicia takes a long, unannounced vacation, Sydney seizes the opportunity to perfect his artistic method. With her characteristic precision and unrivalled sensitivity to the inner tremblings of human character, Patricia Highsmith shockingly portrays Sydney’s descent into the treacherous world of his own fictions.”
Patricia Highsmith wrote this novel while she was living in Suffolk, first in Aldeburgh, then in Bridge Cottage in Earl Soham.
‘A Warning to the Curious’ is set in Aldeburgh, which is called Seaburgh in the story.
Set in Walberswick, Esther Freud’s novel tells the story of the local inn-keeper’s boy, Thomas Maggs, who finds an escape from his chaotic family life in the company of two summer visitors from Glasgow. The pair, renowned architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald, encourage Thomas’ budding artistic talent and an unlikely friendship develops.
“Rachel has always loved being at the centre of her large family. She has fiercely devoted herself to her three sons all their lives, and continues to do so even now they are all grown up. They are, of course, devoted to her also. But when Luke, her youngest, gets married, Rachel finds that control is slipping away.”
This one is set on the Suffolk coast.
Set in a dilapidated castle in Suffolk, probably in Wingfield, this is the journal of Cassandra Mortmain. First, there is her eccentric father. Then there is her sister, Rose - and her stepmother, Topaz. Finally, there is Stephen, who is in love with Cassandra. Cassandra records her feelings on all of them. Who can forget the opening with Cassandra sitting with her feet in the kitchen sink?
“It is 1943. The sleepy Suffolk village of Bedenham is jerked into the twentieth century and the harsh realities of war by the arrival on its doorstep of an American bomber base and its 3,000 inhabitants.”
Fictionalised version of the famous 1939 archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo which centres on the characters of Basil Brown and Edith Pretty.
“Extraordinarily skillfully written and almost unbearably tense, Julie Myerson’s tale of murder in a small Suffolk seaside town includes all of the features of a murder mystery. However the book is really about the effect of the murder on a community and how relationships begin to crumble and unravel.”
P.D. James was a frequent visitor to Suffolk and had a home in Southwold. This one is set in an Anglican theological college on a desolate stretch of the East Anglian coast. When the body of one of the students is found, his wealthy father demands that Scotland Yard should re-examine the verdict of accidental death.
This Suffolk-set novel has been shortlisted for the 2019 New Angle Prize.
“The autumn of 1933 is the most beautiful Edie Mather can remember. In the fields and villages around her beloved Wych Farm, however, the Great War still casts a shadow over a community impoverished by economic depression and threatened by change. Change, too, is coming to Edie, who at fourteen must soon face the unsettling pressures of adulthood.
“Glamorous outsider Constance FitzAllen arrives from London to document fading rural traditions and beliefs, urging all who will listen to resist progress and return to the old ways - but some wonder whether there might be more to the older woman than meets the eye.
“As harvest approaches and the future of Wych Farm itself grows uncertain, Edie must somehow find a way to trust her instincts and save herself from disaster.”
New children’s fiction series from a multi-talented Suffolk librarian.
“Lil Potkin lives in bleak Peligan City. Her mum works in City Hall and is rarely at home, so aspiring journalist Lil has all the time she needs to explore the city in her bright yellow raincoat, investigating unsolved stories.
“One rainy evening Lil meets a sad-looking boy sitting by himself in the bus station and buys him a hot chocolate. That night Lil wakes to find him in her bedroom. He doesn’t want to admit to being a ghost, but when he finally remembers his name (Nedly - possibly) he explains that he needs Lil’s help to find out what happened to him after he disappeared from his orphanage a year ago. So Lil and Nedly - aka Potkin and Stubbs - team up to solve their mystery, and they call in the reluctant help of once-famous detective Abe Mandrel.”
New children’s title from another talented member of Suffolk Libraries staff.
“Sisters Tansy and Belle are the stars of the grand finale of a circus show; a dazzling and perfectly timed trapeze act where they soar through the air like shimmering butterflies. One night, desperate to impress her older sister, Tansy attempts a spectacular jump and falls. Now terrified of heights, all Tansy can do is watch from below while Belle shines above.
“But when Belle mysteriously vanishes and Tansy’s shadow miraculously comes to life, Tansy discovers that the courage she needs to rescue her sister may have been inside her all along.”
Gallowglass, The Brimstone Wedding and A Fatal Inversion, by Barbara Vine
Barbara Vine was the pseudonym of crime writer Ruth Rendell who lived at Polstead near Stoke-by-Nayland. There are several local scenes in her books.
“Plucky and headstrong Mildred Holland revelled in the eight years she and her husband, the vicar William Holland, spent travelling 1840s Europe, finding inspiration in recording beautiful artistic treasures and collecting exotic artifacts. But William’s new posting in a tiny Suffolk village is a world apart and Mildred finds a life of tea and sympathy dull and stifling in comparison. When a longed-for baby does not arrive, she sinks into despondency and despair. What options exist for a clever, creative woman in such a cosseted environment?”
This book was inspired by the true story of the real Mildred Holland and the parish church of Huntingfield. Read The Borrowers book group’s review →
“London is dirty, distant and dangerous but that’s where orphan Tom Falconer is heading. And he’s got a whole assortment of vicious criminals hot on his heels. Tom is helpless and alone until he meets Moll Cutpurse, a thirteen-year-old pickpocket. Together they find themselves chased across the city by the murderous Ratsey. But it’s only on the first night of a new play - The Devil and his Boy - that Tom realises that the fate of the Queen and indeed the entire country rests in his hands.”
Anthony Horowitz is based in Suffolk and this story features Framlingham Castle.
A Southwold Mystery and Shot in Southwold, by Suzette A. Hill
Murder mysteries set on the Suffolk coast.
This Bury St Edmunds based novel was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2018.
“Professor Kristian Larsen, an urbane man of facts, has lost his wife, along with his hopes and dreams for the future. He does not know that a query from a Mrs Tina Hopgood about a world-famous antiquity in his museum is about to alter the course of his life.
“Oceans apart, an unexpected correspondence flourishes as they discover shared passions: for history and nature; for useless objects left behind by loved ones; for the ancient and modern world, what is lost in time, what is gained and what has stayed the same.
“Through intimate stories of joy, anguish, and discovery, each one bares their soul to the other. But when Tina’s letters suddenly cease, Kristian is thrown into despair. Can this unlikely friendship survive?”
This is just a small selection of the writers and scenes that are part of Suffolk’s literary heritage, and that is without mentioning Beatrix Potter’s links to Melford Hall, Dick Francis writing about racing at Newmarket and several fine current writers who have made the county their home and are currently writing their own chapter in the county’s literary history. What makes Suffolk such a great place to set a story?