The Novels That Shaped the South West

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What’s different about South West England? One way of understanding the specific nature of this region is by looking at the reading habits of its inhabitants.  Ahead of their literary ramble through Exeter this Sunday with the Being Human festival, The Big Book Review research team has found some illuminating quirks in South Westerners’ reading preferences: they’re great fans of Stella Gibbons’s rural comedy Cold Comfort Farm and have a penchant for Patrick O’Brian’s nautical historical Jack Aubrey series. And Austen is closest to their heart. 

A multidisciplinary team led by Professor Sebastian Groes at the University of Wolverhampton has been examining public perceptions of fiction for the BBC’s engagement project The Novels That Shaped Our World. Using surveys, the team has been exploring how the public rates the quality of 100 novels that have had a major impact on British society. Their analyses have also investigated possible regional differences in reading habits. 

The South West: Literary Connections

The South West of England, and particularly Devon, have a long and rich literary history. Thomas Hardy was a Devon native and set many of his novels in the South West. Superselling crime fiction writer Dame Agatha Christie was born in Devon’s Torquay. Harry Potter’s creator J. K. Rowling studied French and Classics at the University of Exeter. Two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize Hilary Mantel lives in Budleigh Salterton. Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, was inspired to create the paperback imprint while waiting at Exeter St David’s train station.  

The South West’s literary heritage can be traced back to the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Old English poetry and riddles and the largest known collection of Old English literature still in existence, which is now housed in Exeter Cathedral. These rich literary connections were acknowledged in 2019 when Exeter became a UNESCO City of Literature, a status which it shares with only 38 other cities.   

Cold Comfort Farming in Exeter

In our Novel Memories survey, readers selected fiction from a list of almost 40 options and provided their memories of both the story and about their life at the time of reading. Readers from South West England were more likely to choose Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice than any other novel on the list, mapping a trend seen across much of the UK. Austen is one of the nation’s most loved writers, but it’s conspicuous to see readers express greater fondness for Austen in the South West compared to other regions. Perhaps it’s to do with a local connection: Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is largely set in Devon, and Austen’s association with rural parts of England could be another reason.   

Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel Rebecca was a close runner up. Again this popularity could perhaps be explained through a geographical connection. After the death of her husband, Du Maurier moved to Kilmarth, near Par, Cornwell. Tied with Rebecca was Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. Across the rest of England, the novel was a less common choice, selected by fewer than 3% of readers compared with 8% of readers from the South West.  

The choice for Gibbons’s novel is illuminating. Tthis satirical 1932 novel tells the story of a London-based jetsetter Flora Poste who is orphaned and ends up moving to her relatives, the Starkadder family.   Flora is determined to civilise and educate the grumpy, booarish working-class Starkadders.  The novel i’s set in Sussex, not the South West, but the juxtaposition of cosmopolitan London against rural communities, and the analysis of the relationship between class and society, might give us a clue as to why this novel is popular with South Westerners.

Unlike some of the other novels on this list that are associated with dark emotions, readers of Cold Comfort Farm remembered feelings of happiness, amusement, and relaxation.  According to one reader, “I know it was much funnier and joyous than I had been expecting – a fun snippet into a particular event in the characters’ lives.”  Another reader enjoyed Gibbons’ satire, “a delight in how a genre of serious fiction can be successfully satirised for the delight of readers.”

Other surveys have asked readers to rate both their enjoyment of classic novels and assess the overall literary quality.  In a survey examining adventure novels, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was rated as both the best and the most literary novel across the UK, which is hardly a surprise as it’s a well-known favourite amongst the British public.  

When exploring different regions, readers from Ssouth -Wwestern England also rated Lord of the Rings very highly, but Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels received the top rating.   Interestingly, with enjoyment of these stories was also rated as being higher than participants from the rest of England.  One reader attributed this to the character development and story: “Brilliant psychologically astute portraits of characters, a rare literary portrait of male friendship, the rendering of a complex, ambiguous world rich in detail, humour and human feeling.”  Others enjoyed the vivid world O’Brian described – “Fantastic historical detail that brings to life a past world through high drama imposed onto real events” – and his knowledge of history: – “Superb knowledge of life at sea and battles. Brilliantly descriptive, accessible for most people despite complex descriptions.”

These comments do not suggest a direct association between O’Brian’s work and the region, yet perhaps it’s not surprising that a region surrounded by the sea is interested in stories about seafaring and the Navy.

This weekend we’ll be heading to Exeter as part of the Being Human festival for our free event The Big Book Review: The Exeter Chapter. On the afternoon of Sunday 14 November we’ll meet for a guided walk through the city centre to explore its rich literary history, followed by a discussion at Exeter Library with Exeter-based writer Virginia Baily about literary identity, wellbeing and the importance of regional writing.

As our research continues with our current Big Book Review survey – which explores attitudes to popular novels published in the last six years – we hope to discover further insights into British reading habits and the books we value as a society, both in the South West and across the country. You can complete the Big Book Review here and give us your views! 

The Big Book Review: The Exeter Chapter will take place on Sunday 14 November. The walk will begin at 2pm outside Exeter Library, and the talk will begin at 3.15pm. All parts of the event are free to attend, but tickets must be reserved in advance here.

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