Cornish reading list

I leave for Cornwall on Monday, and will hopefully have more blog-worthy material than I know what to do with. My summer thus far has been spent planning logistics and doing a lot of reading. Not a bad way to spend a summer. In addition to my actual research topic, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about working at home.

Compared to a job or internship, weekend trips are no problem. Since most of my work can be done from home, I can sleep in or stay up late, or work while I eat breakfast in my pajamas. But distraction is more of a problem at home than in an office, especially with multiple siblings with an ‘on vacation now’ mindset, so having my own workspace and headphones is helpful. Flexibility during the week is wonderful, but it’s crucial to clock my time carefully to make sure I’m putting in my 40 hour weeks.

While the Fairfax County Public Libraries have had a good selection of fiction set in Cornwall, I’ve been using George Mason’s Fenwick library for research with non-fiction materials. Buying a guest pass for this library costs upwards of $100, so I just read everything I needed without leaving the building. Working in the library turned out to be a blessing in disguise-partly because efficiency and focus were greatly improved and partly because if I’d just grabbed some books and left, I’d have missed many of my serendipitous discoveries on the shelves.

In addition to learning about the history and culture of Cornwall, I’m using sources like ‘Geographies of England,’ ‘Imagining Nations,’ ‘The Fantasy Literature of England,’ and ‘The Regional Novel in Britain and Ireland.’ All of which are fascinating to my bookworm self. I’m glad that my research project sprawls across several humanities disciplines, but because Cornwall itself is such a small part of England and of Celtic culture, my scope is still feasible.


GMU also has folklore anthologies which included some stories that are hard to find elsewhere. My favorite story so far is “The Wrestlers of Carn Kenidjack” because it combines so many elements I now recognize as Cornish: pubs on holidays, poor miners, giants, supernatural sprites, wrestling, burial tombs or carns, Christianity mixing with older beliefs. A link to this story is below.

If anyone needs a book to add to their summer reading list, or is curious about this area of the world, here’s the literature I’ve been working with so far.

Most people, if they can think of an example of Cornish literature, will think of Daphne du Maurier. I’ve read four of her novels: Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, The House on the Strand, and Frenchman’s Creek. Though they differ in tone and topic, all of du Maurier’s novels begin with the protagonist arriving in Cornwall. Their end may be good, bad, or ambiguous, but the common theme is that Cornwall is the place to encounter real life-in this remote peninsula lies danger, beauty, nobility and evil. The past becomes the present, and the very geography evokes psychological extremes. A protagonist must come to Cornwall to find, or else to lose, themselves.

Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark, set in the 1780s, provides the gritty details of daily life in Cornwall in this first installation of a family saga.

Kid’s fantasy draws on Cornwall’s long association with Arthur (Mists of Avalon, Over Sea Under Stone) and pirates (Treasure Island).

Medieval Sources: Malory’s Le Morte D’Artur, the work that provided my inspiration for this project; Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of Britain, which includes the founding myths of Britain and Cornwall and the story of King Lear well as early Arthurian lore. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King draws heavily on these earlier sources.

Other works, though set primarily elsewhere, use Cornwall as a means of contrast. D.H. Lawrence’s protagonist in Kangaroo remembers the WWI events in Cornwall that prompted him to leave for Australia. Catherine Norland in Northanger Abbey imagines that Gothic events could only unfold in the extreme north or west of Britain. Gilderoy Lockhart brings freshly-caught Cornish pixies to his Hogwarts students, while in the final Harry Potter book, the protagonist finds brief rest at Shell Cottage on the Cornish coast.



  1. Sounds fascinating! I’ve been running into archival fees as well– all three of the archives I need to check out in Dublin require you to buy a “Reader’s Card,” but none of them are as expensive as the guest pass your library demands. I fully support the concept of working in the library though– it makes it much easier to hunt citations when you’re still in the stacks 🙂