The Setting for The Death of Mrs Westaway
The Death of Mrs Westaway opens in my home town of Brighton, but when Hal hops on a train to Penzance, the action quickly moves west along the south coast of England, to an imaginary village called St Piran, in Cornwall.
Cornwall is tucked far away in the south west of England, and Penzance is in the far south west of Cornwall, almost as far as you can go without reaching Lands End and falling into the sea, and perhaps it’s something about the region’s remoteness, as well as its beauty, that inspired me to set the novel there. After all, England is dotted with beautiful country houses, including many in my home county of Sussex, lots of which could have been the model for Trepassen. But right from the moment I began the novel, I knew where Hal would end up.
Perhaps the desire to return to Cornwall in my imagination had its roots in the number of childhood holidays I spent there, toes curled in hot sand, ice creams dripping onto sea-weedy rocks. Or perhaps the lure was the endless variety of the countryside, from the majestically jagged north coast, to the golden family beaches of the south, and the wild green beauty of the inland moors. Maybe it was something about the way that to English eyes, Cornwall appears familiar… yet a just little bit strange. It’s still England, after all, but there’s a foreign lilt to the place names, a ruggedness to the countryside, and the flag that flies from pubs and shops and houses is generally not the Union Jack, but the black and white Baner Peran.
NOVELS SET IN CORNWALL
Whatever the reason, Cornwall is a place I love to visit both in reality and in my imagination – and here are a few of the novels that really make the most of it as a setting.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
When talking about Cornish novels it feels just plain wrong not to start with the grande dame of them all. Daphne du Maurier set many of her novels in and around her real house, Menabilly, in Cornwall, including My Cousin Rachel and Frenchman’s Creek, and it’s hard to cross Bodmin Moor without thinking of her swashbuckling smuggling novel Jamaica Inn. Rebecca, however, is arguably the most famous, and the one that draws most closely on Menabilly as an inspiration for Manderley – the country house where the heroine of Rebecca finds herself, following marriage to the enigmatic Maxim de Winter.
Ross Poldark by Winston Graham
Like du Maurier, Winston Graham was not a Cornish native, but the Poldark novels are his love letter to his adopted county, and to his wife, who is said to have inspired the character of Demelza. Like many others, I came to the novels only after watching the magnificently bodice-ripping BBC drama, but the fabulously atmospheric descriptions of the mines and the painstakingly rendered Cornish dialect lend an extra dimension to the story.
China Court by Rumer Godden
Rumer Godden is best known for her books about India, where she grew up, but China Court is a very English novel. Starting in 1960s Cornwall, it flits back and forth across the centuries to tell the story of a Cornish family dynasty, and their beloved house, China Court. It’s a slim volume and the present day love story is conventional enough that readers will probably be able to see the end coming a mile off, but the beautifully drawn characters with their interwoven hopes and heartbreaks, and the complex, clever structure, make it a richly satisfying read.
False Lights by K J Whittaker
I am a sucker for alternate history, and this is particularly well done. Set in an England where Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo, False Lights tells the story of Hester, an heiress fleeing her Cornish home after the murder of her father, and Crow, an English soldier-spy trying and failing to outrun his demons. The Cornwall Whittaker conjures up is rich, blood-soaked and darkly romantic, and cleverly mixes real history with imagined events.
Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie
This is a little bit of a cheat (ok, a lot of a cheat) because it actually takes place just across the border from Cornwall, in neighbouring Devon. But the setting is so fabulous that I can’t resist including it anyway. Evil Under the Sun is set in an exclusive island hotel, based on the real Burgh Island hotel off the Devon coast, where guests are brought over in a “sea tractor” according to the tides. The plot makes full use of the various coves and winding coastal paths, and the atmosphere of stifled luxury is very much Christie’s home territory.