Landscape, History & Folktales: Cornwall Offers an Anvil on which to Forge Historical Fiction

Katherine Stansfield is a multi-genre novelist who spent her formative years in Cornwall and now lives in Cardiff. In 2014 she won the Holyer and Gof prize for fiction, and she currently teaches for Cardiff University. She works as a mentor for Literature Wales, is a writing fellow at the University of Wales, and the Royal Literary Fund fellow at Cardiff University. Stansfield is also a member of Crime Cymru, a new collective of crime writers with a connection to Wales; she’s also a member of the Crime Writers Association. Allison & Busby publish her historical crime series, Cornish Mysteries, which is set in the 1840s. The third instalment, The Mermaid’s Call, will be “swimming onto” bookshop shelves in September 2019.

Stansfield says, “I grew up in Cornwall, on Bodmin Moor, from the age of four until nineteen, and the place seems to have taken root inside me. I think part of the reason is that I lived on the moor during my formative years, including as a teenager. In some ways I feel like I was ‘forged’ there. The history and folklore of north Cornwall were part of this becoming. I was always interested in Cornwall’s past, whether that was the documented, factual sort, or fireside stories of mermaids. Also fascinating was the way these different kinds of histories seemed often to overlap.”

However, since leaving Cornwall to go to university, Stansfield notes, “I haven’t lived there in a physical sense, but creatively that’s where I spend much of my time: to date, I’ve set four novels in Cornwall, each of them historical. I see my Cornish Mysteries series as a way to share more widely the history of the north of the county, which doesn’t get as much attention in fiction and drama as the south. It’s become my mission to spread the word about north Cornwall’s past – as much as I love Poldark, there’s a lot more to the county!”

Her Cornish Mysteries series has a dark and almost Gothic quality, which is perhaps because the Cornish landscape combined with the rich folklore of the area lends itself to the creation of a sense of foreboding and apprehension. Stansfield believes that this sensation of unease and apprehension is “a combination of the two, not least because the folklore arises from the landscape. Stories about warring giants ‘explain’ strange moorland rock formations. Mermaids are said to be responsible for silting up harbours.”

Her first novel in the series, Falling Creatures (Allison & Busby, 2017), was set on Bodmin Moor, which is, she says, “an unforgiving place: marshes to drown in, mine shafts to fall in, fog to get lost in. That book set the tone for the others that followed, but the underpinning narratives in each book tend to be quite dark anyway. The stories use a combination of real events and folk tales. The majority of the latter were first written down during the mid to late nineteenth century by visiting folklorists. As a result, many tales reflect developments in Cornwall at that time: the rise of Methodism, industrial decline, emigration, poverty, the improvement of transport links and the increased presence of those from outside Cornwall, plus scientific advancement (Cornwall was home to many of the great scientific thinkers of the day). The series, which is set in the 1840s, explores these tensions to provide an insight into the lives of working people, particularly in very rural areas.”

It was from the rich vein of farming and mining history that Stansfield drew the inspiration for her two detectives, Anna Drake and Shilly. She explains, “Anna and Shilly came into being in response to the historical basis of Falling Creatures – it was very much story first, characters second. The real story behind the novel is the murder of a young woman called Charlotte Dymond in 1844.  Charlotte worked on a remote farm on Bodmin Moor. She was known to be courting a fellow servant, and after walking out on the moor with him one Sunday, she disappeared. Several days later she was found nearby with her throat cut. The case became something of a media sensation, for the same reasons such cases do today: a beautiful young woman said to be flirtatious was murdered in an act of horrific violence and left exposed for the world to gaze on, and to judge. In all the documentation about the case, there’s no one who mourns Charlotte, no one who fights for her memory.”

Stansfield says, “my detective protagonist Shilly is that person – a fictional intervention in the past to restore what I see as a kind of emotional balance. But Shilly has some limitations in her capacity to solve the case: she is illiterate, restricted by the narrowness of her world, at the mercy of superstition. She needed some help – cue Anna Drake’s arrival. Anna is a disciple of the new science of detection, which is something I’m interested in exploring in the series. Together, their approach is akin to that of Mulder and Scully in The X-Files, including the will-they, won’t-they romantic element.”

“In The Magpie Tree (Allison & Busby, 2018), Shilly and Anna take on their second case. In a wooded valley near Boscastle, a local boy is missing. A pair of strangers stand accused of witchcraft, but the truth is much closer to home, and much stranger than ill-wishing.”

Stansfield sets her plots against the harsh and desolate landscape of Bodmin Moor, with its peat bogs, mires and the superstitions surrounding its ancient sites, like the Hurlers and the Cheesewring. This enables her to share through her writing the hidden mysteries, landscape and folklore of a dramatically different part of Cornwall to that of Charleston and St. Austell, where Winston Graham’s Poldark novels are situated. Stansfield’s mysteries are bringing to the attention of readers an area that was once made famous through Daphne du Maurier’s 1935 historical novel, Jamaica Inn, set in the nineteenth century on Bodmin moor.

About the Contributor: Myfanwy Cook, who lives close to the border between Devon and Cornwall, is an associate fellow at two British universities and a creative writing workshop provider.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 88 (May 2019)

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