Where are most British novels set? Well, the smart money would be on London. But once you get out of the capital, Iâ€™d lay a bet on Cornwall being the landscape that inspires the biggest number of fictional backdrops.
The rugged, dramatic coastline will have a lot to do with it, of course. Winston Grahamâ€™s Ross Poldark, recently seen on telly equipped with smouldering good looks and preposterous abs, would not carry half as many hearts aloft if his frequent (and, one suspects, often unnecessary) horseback gallops across the cliffs werenâ€™t framed by the sun setting over the storm-lashed Atlantic. Daphne du Maurier has lured many a literary traveller to the county, just as Joss Merlyn and his murderous wreckers guided unwary ships on to the rocks in Jamaica Inn, or the siren call of the foreboding Manderley (in reality Du Maurierâ€™s home Menabilly, near Fowey) in Rebecca.
With a lighter touch, Lelant native Rosamunde Pilcherâ€™s books have painted a picture of Cornwall spanning the generations crossed by family sagas such as 1987â€™s The Shell Seekers, while Virginia Woolf, though not born in the county, admitted to being â€œincredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwallâ€. Her novel To the Lighthouse took as its inspiration the view from Talland House in St Ives, where Woolf holidayed as a child, whose vista opens on Godrevy Lighthouse in the bay.
But, of course, every UK county has its attendant classics. Perhaps a truer measure of how deeply a place is embedded in fiction would gauge how many contemporary novels are set in a place. By that yardstick, Cornwall is in very rude literary health. I holidayed in St Ives over the summer, and beat a path â€“ as does anyone of taste and decency â€“ to the St Ives Bookseller on Fore Street, the narrow, winding thoroughfare that runs behind the harbour front. In addition to the well-curated selection of commercial and literary fiction packed into its small space, it also carries a wide range of locally set fiction.
And boy, is there a lot of it. A huge amount. Liz Fenwick is the queen â€“ or certainly one of them â€“ of the contemporary Cornish novel: A Cornish Affair, The Cornish House, A Cornish Stranger, Under a Cornish Sky â€¦ Fenwick knows her market, and has nailed it utterly. But while Fenwickâ€™s gathering up readers like the fishermen with their lobster pots, sheâ€™s certainly not alone. Television presenter Fern Britton has forged a new career as a purveyor of Cornish lit, including The Postcard, A Seaside Affair and A Good Catch. Similarly, fellow journalist-turned-TV presenter-turned-recommender-of-books Judy Finnigan is treading a darker coastal path, with her Cornwall-set novels, including the spooky Eloise and thriller I Do Not Sleep, wearing an appreciation of Du Maurier lightly on their sleeves.
Thereâ€™s no great mystery in Cornwallâ€™s prominence: people like to go on holiday, when they like to read, when they might enjoy the verisimilitude of a novel set nearby. And the Cornish landscape provides that beauty, that sense of myth, that romance in every sense of the word, that is just perfect as the location for any story.
But the Cornish lit trend isnâ€™t seasonal, like ice-cream parlours or mackerel fishing. The industry keeps going throughout the year. Indeed, there are a rash of variations on the theme of â€œA Cornish Christmasâ€, proving that romance is as likely to bloom under grey skies as it is a bright Cornish summer. Indeed, a quick search for â€œCornishâ€ on Amazon brings up 40-odd titles due out between now and the onset of summer 2018, from feelgood romances to cosy crime murders to sweeping family sagas.
Publishers love a trend, of course: we saw it in the proliferation of â€œgirlâ€ titles two or three years ago, around Gillian Flynnâ€™s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkinsâ€™s The Girl on the Train. â€œCornishâ€ novels might be a slightly more niche trend â€“ but if only someone could find a way to combine the two, theyâ€™d be on to a surefire bestseller. Scone Girl, perhaps?