Literary History of Cornwall-Post 1

Hello fellow summer scholars! My name is Mel Sparrow. I’m a rising senior majoring in Psychology and English. I’m bringing together two of my favorite things, England and books, to research the literary history of Cornwall. My research will focus specifically on the questions: how do Cornish culture and geography support supernatural stories? how are Cornish settings and characters distinct from those of neighboring countries? how has the representation of Cornwall in literature changed over time?

Cornwall is the southwestern most tip of Britain. It is best known for its coastlines and tin mines and also for its traditional association with the supernatural, including Druids, giants, mermaids and pixies. These geographical and fictional attributes mark Cornwall as a place separate from the rest of England in all genres of British literature.

Cornwall’s history is also distinct from the rest of England. In medieval times, Cornwall was a separate kingdom that interacted with the neighboring countries of England and Wales.  Like Wales, Cornwall’s geography enabled it to preserve Celtic culture when Britain was invaded by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans. But unlike Wales, Cornwall became politically part of England in the 16th century. Today, Cornwall is a county of England, but the only county that is also an independent Duchy and one of the six Celtic nations. (The other five are Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Mann, and Brittany in France.)

The Celtic revival of recent decades has extended to Cornwall, as the traditional language, customs, and festivals are being learned and observed by more Cornish people. The University of Exeter implemented a Cornish studies major program, the first of its kind.

After a few weeks of background research on campus, I’m going to Cornwall! My itinerary is not set yet (I need to do this soon), but the plan is to be in England for about 3 weeks in July. Besides the University of Exeter, other towns and cities have libraries and museums devoted to Cornish history and culture, including the capital ,Truro, and Penzance, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. I will also be able to visit specific literary sites, such as Daphne du Maurier’s hometown of Bodinnick, Hardy’s house at Boscastle, and Tintagel, location of several Arthurian episodes.

I spent the fall 2009 semester in Bath, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had. I traveled around Britain and Europe, but never made it to Cornwall, which was my major regret at the end of the semester. I’d heard it was beautiful and my grandmother’s family is Cornish. I am so excited to return to England, and explore this fascinating corner of the Isle.



  1. I was just reading the wikipedia article on Cornwall a few days ago. Fascinating. Did your grandmother’s family speak Cornish – if you don’t mind me asking? Are you at all interested in the language?

  2. wmresearcher says:

    Hello Marta,

    Thanks for your preliminary insights into the Cornish culture and its venerated folklore! The marriage of core, historic facts with fanciful literary underpinnings will surely make for an eclectic summer research project. It would be interesting if you could somehow incorporate your passion for psychology into your research. I wonder what psychological factors caused this folklore to come about!!!

    Anyway, be sure to take plenty of pictures when you visit!!! Landmarks would be great; mermaids would be better.


  3. Marta Elena Sparrow says:

    thanks for the comments! sorry i didn’t write back sooner, i have an extremely slow learning curve when it comes to finding things on WordPress

    @ Barry-My grandmother’s family has been in the US for a very long time, so her last name was the only real indication of where in the UK her ancestors were from.
    Cornish isn’t really spoken anymore, except for some academics who learned it later in life. Which is a shame, because it’s the sister language to Welsh which is gorgeous; I’d love to learn Welsh someday!

    @ Paul- I didn’t see any mermaids, but got some great pictures : )