Why do we enjoy reading so many books set in Cornwall?


From Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, to Liz Fenwick’s The Cornish House, Cornwall has provided the backdrop to some of the bestselling fiction of all time.

Inspired by the landscape around her, Du Maurier’s novels, which were largely written at her home, Menabilly, near Fowey, give an instantly recognisable image of Cornwall gone by. From the smugglers of Jamaica Inn to the tension of Frenchmen’s Creek, if you didn’t already know her books were set in Cornwall, the scenic descriptions alone would immediately give it away.

For many authors and readers, it is the landscape of Cornwall itself that provides the atmosphere for their story. Neither is it confined to suiting just one or two genres: From the romance of the sandy beach to the suspense and adventure of pirates and smugglers’ tales, to the chills of a deserted, haunted tin mine; even a dose of crisp Cornish sea air can tell a story.

Cornwall, originally Kernow, retains a sense of separation from the rest of Britain. A proud Celtic land defined by incredible geology and geography, surrounded by the sea, devoid of motorways, and set off against the bleak majesty of Bodmin Moor, it is a terrain that simply provokes imagination. Potters, artists and writers alike have honed in on its inspirational qualities for centuries. The narrow roads habitually marked with a distinctive strip of grass down the middle, and the abundance of cream teas (jam goes on the scone before the cream here), makes Britain’s most South-westerly county the perfect setting for romances and women’s fiction. Contemporary writers such as Jenny Kane, Karen King and Philippa Ashley take full advantage of its romantic appeal: the possibilities of getting lost along Cornwall’s hedge-lined lanes, only to be rescued by a handsome stranger, for example…

Television has taken Cornish-based fiction to its heart over the last fifty years. The current retelling of Winston Graham’s classic Poldark novels on television has led to a massive increase in tourism to the Charlestown area, where much of the action is filmed. The dramatic landscapes alone are a great pull for the screen audience, and it has also meant the Graham novels are selling at a rate they haven’t done since Poldark’s last televised adaptation in the 1980’s.

It not just British audiences who flock to Cornwall to visit the locations of its fiction, though. German readers are aware of a phenomenon known as “Pilcher mania.” This refers to the deep love the German reading community has for the work of bestselling novelist Rosamund Pilcher. Such are the numbers of German tourists visiting Cornwall to see the various locations of Pilcher’s novels that in 2013 The Guardian researched the issue. Although the novels were popular in their own right, it was only after The Day of the Storm was shown on German television in 1993- which was watched by 8 million viewers- that the Pilcher trail was set up. “The directors film it so well,” says Mark Pilcher (one of the author’s four children), “that it has moved on from people buying my mother’s books to Cornwall actually selling them.” Claus Beling, who came up with the idea of turning Pilcher’s work into film believed the success of the adaption was down to a general German fascination and nostalgic longing for a more traditional world, “…where a village is still a community in which everyone looks after one another.” This nostalgic feel that Cornwall evokes is certainly part of the appeal of Cornish fiction in general. We are reminded of childhood holidays, of carefree seaside moments and a freedom that everyday adult life denies us.

Cornwall is not the only place in the UK which inspires a profusion of fiction, of course. The Cotswolds, with its picture-postcard villages, and the striking scenery of both the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland, are all locations which guarantee an author sales, simply because so many people enjoy books set in those places.

Whether you are inspired by the sight of Tintagel and its association with the tales of King Arthur, the children’s classic, Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, or you are beguiled by Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn, there is no doubt that Cornwall has a “certain something” that keeps readers coming back again and again for some ‘Cornish set’ fictional escapism.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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