By Martin Shore
As a person who grew up reading the stories of Beatrix Potter, I jumped at the chance to mark her out as a figure of importance to literature, certainly for younger audiences. Beatrix Potter may not be the first author you’d expect, but I firmly believe she deserves a place within this Northern literary heritage.
I would wager that many of us who grew up with our noses in books encountered at least one of her thirty children’s books, with Peter Rabbit being the most famous. There is a strong sense of ease in the world of Beatrix Potter, simplistic but fun narratives set in the countryside to which she was so dedicated. This charming nature makes her work perfect for the family home, bed-time reading, or as a springboard for eager book-worms. With Potter’s works constantly iterated upon, regularly reappearing in new forms of media from ballets to television to an upcoming movie, British literary culture has fully adopted her modest library of stories as timeless classics.
Sure, her characters might not warrant hours of analysis, and Peter Rabbit’s character is not the next emerging heroic trope, but that shouldn’t mean we should forget Potter’s achievements. The sheer number of people who may have turned to reading for pleasure thanks in part to either reading or having her works read to them means that Beatrix Potter deserves recognition as a key figure to the literary heritage of the North of England.
By May Wall
Beatrix Potter is one of England’s most cherished children’s authors. Her 24 children’s tales have charmed generation after generation with their host of beloved characters, including Squirrel Nutkin, Jemima Puddle-duck, and the enduring favourite Peter Rabbit. Potter was born in London in 1866 and spent her childhood holidays in the Lake District, where she fell in love with the flora and fauna that would later inspire her work. In 1902 she turned her hand from scientific illustration to children’s literature and The Tale of Peter Rabbit went on to become one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. The timeless appeal of her work stems from their watercolour illustrations coupled with a simple didactic style. The subtly moralistic tales have become favourite bedtime stories, yet Potter was not afraid of scaring her young readers and some of her stories, such as The Tale of Mr Tod, are surprisingly dark. Others, however, are full of humour. Indeed, it is impossible not to laugh at the mischief caused in The Tale of Two Bad Mice or the misfortune of Jeremy Fisher.
Many of the tales were inspired by or set on Hill Top Farm, Potter’s Lakeland home. She drew her inspiration from the traditional farmsteads and felt such an affinity for the region she went on to buy several fell farms in order to preserve their way of life. A lifelong advocate of conservation, Potter went on to leave her original artworks, as well as her Lake District estate, to the National Trust. Hill Top Farm now welcomes thousands of visitors every year who come to walk the same paths as the writer herself and to see the place that inspired such an important part of the Northern literary canon.
By Rhiannon Morris
Ted Hughes is a name I mention with caution and anticipation. A figure intimately associated with alleged responsibility for his wife Sylvia Plath’s suicide as well as that of former lover Assia Wevill, it’s clear that Hughes is a literary villain. The name Ted Hughes is synonymous with ‘woman-destroyer’. With the dark shadow cast over his name, I’ve asked myself many times: why as a woman do I love his work?
It’s his poetic voice I try most to emulate. Hughes masters a stylistic union; he brings together the subjective and objective perspectives into one vision. He captures personal feelings, pins them down, and celebrates their beauty of being. For example, in ‘Ouija’ he uses Dickensian imagery ‘Some occult pickpocket/Had slit the soul’s silk and fingered us’ to express hidden feelings of vulnerability and fear. We are faced with the reflection of ourselves in the fabric of the everyday world, human experience and memory.
Hughes’ poetry is vibrant with imagery of nature and violence; he uses animals to illuminate the psychology of human beings. He watches himself; fascinated by his own darkness. He explores it intimately, self-consciously, and ruthlessly.
Hughes and Plath go together; you can’t understand one without the other. Whatever one may feel about the man, the poet should be read for his self-anatomizing determination to hold himself to account. He doesn’t shrink from his own wrongdoing or darkness; he is driven by a desire to understand the man he is and the power he wields.
By Anna Begley
Simon Armitage is difficult to uncover – in one moment, he is a homeless figure “on the street, under the stars”; the next, a student in a lab playing with scissors “in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner.” This kaleidoscopic characterisation allows Armitage to adopt various personas and narratives in his monologues, interrogating themes of gender, class and identity. His skill for perceptive inquisition is notably found in his poem ‘The Clown Punk’ in which his subtly mocking tone of “the town clown” shifts to the more mournful reminiscence of “the sad tattoos of high punk”, challenging our perceptions of cultural identity.
This intimate theme of self-discovery is later explored in his 2012 book Walking Home which brings Armitage back to his northern heritage. His poetry often features the North East as a back-drop. His characters are brought colourfully to the forefront against the industrial, urban scene of his home region; “Soon it is/ an avenue/ which cambers arrogantly past the Mechanics’ Institute.” Indeed, he has been proudly vocal about his northern upbringing and rightly so; his experiences in West Yorkshire shaped his language into a form of raw, class-conscious poetry. It is his dry Yorkshire wit that makes Armitage’s poetry so accessible. Combined with a deadpan delivery, he both comforts and disturbs the reader; “Questions/ in the house. You see red. Blue murder. Bed.” Armitage’s ideas of identity are expressed in such a way that distinguish characters from the loud rabble of modern culture yet render us inseparable from our culture and our past.
By Iona Makin
I’ve always associated the Brontës with the best of times, thumbing through my battered copy of Jane Eyre in front of the fire, taking muddy family walks to Top Withens, or trudging up glowing slopes to Haworth Parsonage in the haze of a late summer’s rain. I used to love going from room to room of the Parsonage and imagining I was Jane Eyre creeping along the passage with my candle, or Cathy flinging up the sash to spy Heathcliff stumbling in from the moors. Something about the house seems haunted by the imagination.
The Brontës to me also represent a spirit synonymous with their landscape. The subversive passion of their discourse portrays female independence in Jane Eyre; ‘a free human being with an independent will’. It roots their writing firmly in the Yorkshire wilderness. It is their unadulterated lust for life which has fascinated so many writers and inspired Ted Hughes to exalt Emily’s ‘open moor’, chronicling ‘the book becoming a map’ for himself and Sylvia Plath. And it is this, after all these years, that continues to compel contemporary readers to step through time into the passage of the Brontë narrative, the ‘dark flower’ of the moorland.
By Betsy Creamer
Hailing from a seaside village in South Shields in the North-East of England, Jen Campbell is one of the rising stars of Northern fiction. On 4th November this year, she released her first short story collection, The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night and sixth book to great acclaim, receiving praise from the likes of Scottish wordsmith Kirsty Logan, author of The Gracekeepers. Campbell graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in English Literature and is known for her keen interest in the history of fairy-tales and their impact on modern fiction. Her latest book is marked by a particularly close engagement with fairy-tales, both in explicit references and the wider themes to which she alludes to in the collection. For instance, it features ghosts, changelings, mermaids, and intertextual references to beloved tales from our childhoods like Jack and the Beanstalk. Campbell is on a roll this year, having published her first children’s book, Franklin’s Flying Bookshop, in September.
She is also an acclaimed poet who has spoken at several literary festivals throughout the country; most recently Durham’s own Book Festival. She is also a renowned BookTuber with around 40,000 followers on YouTube where she regularly posts videos themed around all things bookish. Indeed, her YouTube channel is where many of her first-time readers come across her and are drawn in by her way with words and unashamed honesty about more personal topics, such as her sexuality, deformity, and mental illness. She also champions representation of these often-neglected themes in literature, particularly urging writers to stay away from the damaging tropes that often blight their explorations of these all-important themes. Campbell also mentors up-and-coming writers through her website and accompanying skype sessions, which is another way in which she passes on her infectious passion for literature.
Illustration: Faye Chua