Romantic Misrepresentation of Cornwall

‘There is a tinge of superiority felt by holiday makers and newcomers. Patronizing quaint little towns is a pseudoromantic pixies-and-elves approach. It took me years to throw this ridiculous attitude and get to know Cornwall.” (Winston Graham in Poldark’s Cornwall)

One major component of the romantic movement in 19th century Europe is the idea of travel for enjoying nature and landscape. This enjoyment may be educational, spiritual, hedonistic, or some combination. This landscape-centred mindset prevents the tourist from engaging with a new location on a personal level; they stay distant and self absorbed and view the locals as are part of the scenic backdrop. Romantics see beauty over function in a land, which is great for making art, but not a good approach to understanding issues in another society. Ann Beminghma in Writing Worlds says “for the aesthetic the countryside exists as a fantasy solution to dilemnas formed elsewhere.” There was, and still is, a common tendency to view anything different as exotic and desirable, even if the reality is hardship for the locals. Unemployment and misery is recast as primitive peace or romantic melancholy.

Literary texts have a special role linking imagination and landscape.  Yorkshire and Emily Bronte, as well as London and Charles Dickens, are inseparable pairs. While the place obviously shaped the writer, perceptions of the place are forever colored by a text so well known. Novels are particularly connected with landscape, because they tell the story of a particular time and place while an epic or drama shows timeless values and truth.

The effect of literature on attitudes towards a place is more than just an academic curiosity. A 13th century earl built his castle at Tintagel because of the power of Arthurian associations. Today, English tourists choose Cornwall as a primary holiday destination and have altered its economy, infrastructure, and culture. The common idea of Cornwall, shaped by literature and the media, is a county that is too remote, too old-fashioned, and too small to be anything but a playground for the rest of England.

Rebecca‘s heroine escapes from her dismal employment to marry a dashing wealthy man who lives in Cornwall, a place fondly remembered from her childhood. In Over Sea, Under Stone, the young protagonist Jane believes that “fishermen always know things, especially Cornish fishermen.” In Death and the Cornish Fiddler, John is in Cornwall recovering from his wife’s death, but he knows “he would tire of being idle and want to pick up the threads of his life once more.” Across the genres (romance, children’s, mystery). Cornwall provides a backdrop where the English go to escape their real lives. The protagonist finds Cornwall at first enchanting and magical, something out of a blissful past, but otherworldly threats begin to encroach. Both the initial bliss and subsequent adventure promised by these novels attract people to take an escapist tour of Cornwall. Because of its popularity, investors see Cornwall as a property opportunity, which results in high housing costs in additional to  wages and employment rates already lower than other British counties.

It was easy for me to see popular tourist sites like St Ives

and Marazion

through the romantic gaze. With such idyllic seaside locations, it’s hard to imagine a problem anywhere in the world.

Penzance, and neighboring Newlyn, keep alive the old market and traditional fishing boat atmosphere, partly for the benefit of tourists. Penzance is also an ideal town to see the mists which are an important feature in romantic writings about Cornwall, used to create an atmosphere of heightening emotion and otherworldy presence.

After the final battle in Tennysons’ Idylls of the King “A deathwhite mist slept over sand and sea.” In Rebecca, the mist rolls in “as though a blight had fallen on Manderley.”

Visiting the Cornwall Centre in Redruth was a completely different experience. Redruth used to be a mining town and because it’s inland has few tourists. This centre has a large geneology research section, including a map of common Cornish surnames and the areas of the county they originated in. My grandmother’s maiden name is “Cornish” which is from the Launceston/Bodmin area in the Northeast. I bussed through this area later in the week, which looked very different from the Western coast. Apparently it is the dangerous part of the county now.