The Devon Literary Canon - or Not?

Walter Raleigh
Simon van de Passe [Public domain]

The Devon Literary Canon - or Not?
(unpublished excerpt from a longer piece)

    When I first began to research the backstory of women writers with links to Devon, I assumed that whilst over the centuries a cluster of men - from the establishment - had built up prestigious reputations as authors, it was a very different situation regarding women. As feminist academic, long ago I had accepted the notion that over the centuries the literary canon has disguised and distorted the thread of its women writers. Even so, I took for granted the general idea that until much more recent times there weren’t many, or any, women who wrote in Devon. The recognised notion of the literary history of southwest England’s C19/early C20 texts is of a distinctly male lineage, and indeed even now the prevailing view is that the ‘Victorian manuscript of the Westcountry'[i] was written in the context of a patriarchal culture. Although men writers of the southwest haven’t left the imaginary bequest of the equivalent of ‘Hardy’s Wessex’, there are several authors who are now remembered as though in a symbiotic relationship with the territory of which they wrote, and it is their names that are remembered as representative of Devon's well-known authors. 

         Even back in late Tudor times Devon men frequently stand out, as explorers, as innovators. As writers. Philip Sidney. Walter Raleigh. Familiar Elizabethan figures. Their names ring out. There's also John Ford, William Browne and John Hooker. These men were renowned for their writings and are closely associated with places from Devon’s acclaimed Elizabethan past. Recognised as being important instigators in specific literary genres, these men are Devon’s literary founding fathers: Browne, as the first author to effect a topographical description of his county; Herrick, as one of the handful of foremost C16/17 lyricists; Raleigh, remembered as poet and one of the first significant writers of Devon’s history; Ford, known as a leading dramatist of the period and Hooker, Devon’s first historian. Along with the Devonian ‘Sea-dogs’, who included Walter Raleigh venturing to sea against the Spaniards, these literary men are credited with defining the Elizabethan age in Devon.

    In the early days when I was tentatively venturing in local libraries, archives and The Devon & Exeter Institution, I had no idea that on our Devon doorstep we also had at least one important Elizabethan woman writer, C16 poet Anne Dowriche. That realisation was to come quite a bit later down the research trail.

Cover of Williamson's Tarka the Otter

          Somewhat more recently up along the historical span Blackmore’s fictional reshaping of Exmoor in Lorna Doone, Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, and Charles Kingsley’s representations of Westward Ho! became and remain famous because of their impact on each location, and there are other male authors of almost equal standing in the literary canon. Eden Phillpotts was 'regarded as the Thomas Hardy of Devonshire’,[ii] whilst John Trevena’s novels about Dartmoor left a lasting impression on people familiar with the moors. As though part and parcel of modern appreciation of the landscape, fiction by several of these writers located within a quintessential location of the county has filtered down the years of the literary canon. A ‘patch’ of a particular place has taken on special interpretation because of an earlier text. For instance, Lorna Doone’s Exmoor scenery is now intimately and inextricably, associated with that book, whilst the poetry of William Browne has left longstanding remembered imagery linked to the areas of his home at Tavistock.

      Thus have history's spin-doctors persuaded us male, rather than female authors, put the landscape of Devon on the literary map. Moreover, all too often, whilst those writers knew how to make a woman come alive in fiction, according to these canonical histories, there were apparently no women writers from Devon who could write about themselves or re-imagine their lives within a Devon territorial setting. Even amongst the plethora of women’s texts which kept turning up in research, there appeared to be no Devonshire born woman writer who had left us a legacy such as that of Yorkshire’s Emily Bronte, who, metaphorically, still wanders and writes over the wild landscape surrounding her; or, of Shropshire’s Mary Webb, who skilfully cast her characters into intrigue and drama woven from the very fabric of her county, whose writing had been assessed as 'brighter and better' than Hardy's Dorset associations. We, in Devon apparently had no literary godmother.
      But then, one day, thanks to another keen local researcher, all of my assumptions began to be challenged.  I stumbled upon Mary Patricia Willcocks.

[i] Tresize, The Westcountry as a Literary Invention, 209.         
[ii] 'A Literary Note', in Torquay and South Devon; Illustrated Guide Book (Wardlocj C0, 8th Edition).


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