Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside…..
It might not feel like it outside, but right now we are in the very heart of summertime. As it’s a bit grim out there, I thought I’d pull together a list of novels set in or around the British coast to at least put us in the holiday mood. Well, there are loads of them, far too many to put into a comprehensive list, so I’ll just pick a few of my favourites.
Early on in ‘David Copperfield‘, when young David goes to stay with Pegotty’s family in Great Yarmouth, she describes it as ‘upon the whole, the finest place in the universe’. I love the description of his stay there, it’s drawn with such tenderness, which reflects Dickens’ own happy stay there.
I am reminded of a certain Sunday morning, on the beach, the bells ringing for church, little Em’ly leaning on my shoulder, Ham lazily dropping stones into the water, and the sun, away at sea, just breaking through the heavy mist, and showing us the ships, like their own shadows.
Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse‘ is infused with light and sea air yet there’s no sentimentality about it. Rather the shifting changeable body of water that surrounds the Ramseys and their guests is more a reflection of the emotional temperature inside the cottage than a decorative vista.
I’m very fond of Brighton having left home to go to university there, and then couldn’t think of any reason to leave such a vibrant buzzing city, nee town by the sea. Both of my children were born on the thirteenth floor of the Royal Sussex hospital overlooking the coast, and even though the call of the wild led us to West Wales, it’s still a very special place to me filled with many good friends. Believe it or not, nine years later I’m still in my old bookgroup, if only by correspondence and an annual weekend meet-up. Homage to Brighton aside, it has changed dramatically since I first arrived at the tender age of eighteen. Investment and greater wealth in and around the city might be good for its economic health, but there are fewer traces left of the seedier side to Brighton that is part of its historical identity. I’m not suggesting that I’d like to see a return to the good old days of gang violence and crime, but sometimes new developments can air-brush a place into bland homogeneity.
So, that’s why I’ve included Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock‘. It conjures Brighton’s darker malevolent past, and shows the seaside that is shabbier and more down-at-heel than is represented by my other choices.
Keeping the mood dark, I couldn’t ignore the brooding menace of ‘Jamaica Inn‘. I loved this book as a teenager, and thanks to the novels of Daphne du Maurier, Cornwall has always held a fascination for me, as a beautiful and rugged but wild unfettered place, with its tales of wreckers and smugglers, a coastline full of secrets, and rocky outcrops like teeth hidden beneath the waves. You don’t know who or what to trust.
John Fowles was one of the first writers that I read when I made that transition from children’s to adult fiction. When I started reading ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman‘ I was blown away by the complex narrative structure of the novel, and the novel confirmed my suspicions that Lyme Regis was an absolute Centre of Cool, what with its opportunities for fossil -hunting (I had a bit of a teen geology geek moment back then) and the Cobb. Seeing the dramatisation of the book with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep probably helped me to tackle what was a challenging novel compared to what I’d been used to reading up to that point, and that image of her pale face emerging from her cloak at the end of the storm-battered Cobb, haunts me still.
My last choice is ‘On Chesil Beach‘ by Ian McEwan. Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting have just got married.
‘They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.’
The novel is excruciating in it’s keenly observed awkwardness between them and their painful inability to communicate. The setting of the honeymoon suite with it’s attentive waiters – silent witnesses to their inadequacy, and the windswept beach outside all make more stark their failure to rise to the occasion and overcome their stifling repression. Crystallizing post-war British reserve quite brilliantly, ‘On Chesil Beach‘ is the perfect foil to the cheeky ‘kiss me quick’ stereotype of the British seaside holiday, but maybe don’t read it on your honeymoon.