The Somerset locations that inspired classic literature

PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 April 2020

Jane Austen's House, Sydney Place, Bath

Jane Austen's House, Sydney Place, Bath

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BERNARD BALE explores why Somerset has inspired so many writers to create so many classic stories

Wells marketWells market

Northanger Abbey is just one of the many classics written by Jane Austen, who was in love with Bath from her very first visit and needed little excuse to pay further visits to her aunt who lived at No1 The Paragon in the city’s Sydney Place. Bath is justifiably proud of its Jane Austen connection as can be seen at the museum in Gay Street and at other spots around the city.

Bath features prominently in Northanger Abbey and it is clear that Jane became well accustomed with life in the city in the 17th century, including with its social life and culture. The book’s central figure, Catherine, enters Bath society and finds it hard to adjust to and perhaps that is an expression of personal experience. It certainly adds to the novel’s comedy and, despite being described as ‘Gothic humour’, it was always a book for the whole family.

Sadly, Jane never actually saw the book published as it finally hit the shops two years after her death. Originally she had entitled it ‘Susan’ and then ‘Catherine’. It was her brother, Henry who gave it the title Northanger Abbey and thus it became a classic tale and later a classic film, as did Persuasion, another of her classic romantic tales, also set in her favourite city. Her vivid stories are entwined with the life, the times and the general atmosphere of the location, which inspired her the most - all because the lady loved Bath.

Sharpham Park is a country estate on the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury and Street and the birthplace of Henry Fielding in 1707. Doesn’t ring any bells? What if we mention Tom Jones? No, Henry was not a backing singer, he was the author of the classic novel The History of Tom Jones A Foundling.

Blundells SchoolBlundells School

Henry Fielding was both a playright and author and in this, his most famous work, he blends comedy, pathos and a little ribaldry.

Tom is of dubious parentage and grows up to be a loveable rogue with a sense of honour which is occasionally, a little misguided. The result is a comic look at life among the various social levels of Somerset life and presented in a good-natured and fun style that has made this a classic indeed.

Henry Fielding was brought up in Somerset, left to go to Eton and then returned for much of his adult life to his favourite part of the world. He freely admitted that the county and its people provided him with ideas and inspiration.

Elizabeth Goudge was born in Wells and used her West Country affinity to become a successful author although her first attempt was a failure and she almost gave up at that point. It was as well that she didn’t as she went on to write many great children’s books, probably the most famous being The Little White Horse, which was later adapted as a film and then again as a television series. J.K. Rowling revealed that The Little White Horse was her favourite book as a child and its style influenced her writing of the Harry Potter series.

So Somerset inadvertently has played a part even in the success of Harry Potter and countless other great novels by many great authors. We have looked at just a few of them here but there is no doubt that Somerset is inspirational.

Perhaps it is time for you to start writing that book you have always promised yourself!

......and also

When Charles Dickens wrote his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, his central character – Samuel Pickwick – decided to travel to Bath and indeed had many adventures there. Dickens often visited Bath and used details of the area quite regularly in his works. It is said that Dickens even took the name Pickwick from Eleazor Pickwick who was a hugely successful and wealthy local businessman.

Arthur C. Clarke was born in Minehead and attended Richard Huish’s Grammar School in Taunton. He was famous for his film-inspiring novel 2001, A Space Odyssey. He always said that he owed much of his succcess to Somerset because his love of watching the skies was made all the more possible by the clear skies and vantage points of his favourite county.

....and in verse

Somerset has also touched the hearts of poets, none more so than Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, along with his friends Robert Southey and William Wordsworth, found the county to be an aesthetic paradise. Samuel and his new bride Sara visited Clevedon for their honeymoon and were smitten by the seaside town. A year later they took up residence in Nether Stowey.

Coleridge Cottage is now National Trust run and a visit confirms what inspired such much-loved poems as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which includes the lines -

‘The Sun came up upon the left, Out of the sea came he’!

How often must Coleridge have watched the sun rise and set after spending the day shining on his beloved Somerset.

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