A Good Dorset Read


World Book Night is a global celebration but if you want to immerse yourself in local literature, there are plenty of local authors writing in - and about- Dorset as Annette Shaw discovers

This year’s literary list for World Book Night (23 April) is a diverse selection of fact and fiction, both classic and contemporary, which it is hoped will get us all reading. On the official World Book Night reading list is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; Stevenson lived in the village of Westbourne between 1885 and 1887 where it was hoped that Bournemouth’s sea air would help cure his tuberculosis. The break certainly seemed to help his creativity as during this time he wrote Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

If you like to keep you literary choices local then there plenty of big hitters to choose from ranging from Thomas Hardy through to more recently authors such as John Fowles (French Lieutenant’s Woman) and Tracey Chevalier (Remarkable Creatures) who both set their novels around Lyme Regis.

Dorset has provided the backdrop for many novels over three centuries. The county is a perfect canvas on which to weave a tapestry of words. It ticks every plot box for interesting locations. There are ancient mills on gentle rivers, and lush valleys with pretty villages and hamlets tucked into the folds of the land where time appears to have stood still. If you want a more contemporary setting then it is hard to find a county where you could you arrive by plane, leave on a luxury yacht, dig up a dinosaur or drive around some of the most expensive real estate in the world. 

Bestselling author Susan Lewis has successfully integrated Dorset’s entire scenic repertoire into her acclaimed novel No Turning Back. Factoring in her own life experiences working in Hollywood, she’s no shortage of material to draw on for a good read: ‘From star-studded screenings and glitzy parties, to moonlit dinners on the beach and edgy nightclubs, it was the perfect town to be single.  George Clooney was my neighbour … Nick Cage was a guest at my house and Steve Martin was a regular on our dog walks.  Romances flourished and faded, some dreams came true and others were crushed,’ she writes. 

No Turning Back is incredibly location specific as this passage reveals: ‘Eva loved everything about the quaint little market town of Bridport, from its proud red-brick town hall with jaunty clock tower and bandstand belfry, to the elegant colonnade home of the arts centre ... Most of all though, Eva loved the friendliness of the place, especially around Bucky Doo Square.’

The fictional boutique Perdita, owned by lead character Eva Montgomery, is in the heart of Bridport. When a new collection is launched and the media descends, a glamorous fashion show is relocated from Summer Lodge in Evershot to a larger venue in Bournemouth. Eva’s family also live and work locally; her sister Patty manages a caravan park in Burton Bradstock and her stepmother Elaine, is a minister and healer at a spiritual retreat situated between Weytown and Salway Ash.

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When real life restaurateur Arthur Watson of the Riverside in West Bay gets a walk-on role the book takes on an even more realistic feel:  ‘They ran across to find Arthur, the long-time owner waiting to welcome them...He still cut a handsome figure whose presence alone lent an air of sophistication to one of the region’s most successful eateries.’

So why does author Susan Lewis give Dorset such star billing? “Dorset has all the characters,” says Susan, who adds that she enjoyed many family holidays in Weymouth as a child. “There really are people like Eva Montgomery. There’s also endless scope for fabulous country homes interspersed with the businesses and families that form the backbone of life.” 

Hannah Richell’s spellbinding debut novel, Secrets of the Tides, featured on the ever popular Richard and Judy Book Club list in 2012. Although Bridport is flagged up, the Tide family home, Clifftops, is more of a mystery. ‘He drove them back through the sleep seaside hamlet of Summertown, past candy-coloured cottages and down treacherous lanes...’ I asked Hannah, now living in Sydney, where she placed fictional Summertown and the rocky outcrop she calls the ‘Crag’. 

“My grandparents lived in Dorset and I drew upon childhood memories of times spent at their home in Chideock, near Seatown, to create the landscape of the novel. Summertown is a loosely fictionalised version of Seatown, but the novel also includes real places such as Bridport and Golden Cap.” 

So what were her reasons for setting a novel in Dorset? “It seemed like the perfect place to set the drama - a place where the Tides could experience both the wonderful highs and heartbreaking lows of family life. The landscape contained a necessary wildness too - a place where somewhere like the 'Crag' could exist, it’s also a place where a group of kids might easily lose track of time.”

Hannah feels that writing Secrets of the Tides was in part, an exercise in exploring some of her most treasured childhood memories, but it also brought up feelings of homesickness for England and gave her an insight into the mind of a writer.  “I wrote the novel in Sydney and I see now how my physical dislocation allowed me to conjure up the area more clearly. Rather than being fully immersed in the landscape I was able to imagine scenes and locations like photographs in my mind's eye, and pull out the details I needed, as well as weave a little romance around it.

“Dorset is so incredibly beautiful, it’s a place of wonderful contrasts with its green hills and rolling farmland butting right up the rugged coastline; all those tea shops and chintz, as well as a vast array of history - both actual and literary. As the weather changes, the mood changes and to a writer, that sort of landscape is a gift. Honestly, Dorset is one of my favourite places in the world. I can't wait to come back and share it with my own children.”

World Book Night

April 23rd is a symbolic date for world literature. It is the date of Shakespeare’s birth and death as well as the day the great Spanish novelist Cervantes died. It is in their honour that UNESCO appointed this date as the ‘International Day of the Book’ and why it was chosen to celebrate World Book Night. World Book Night (WBN) is a celebration of reading and books around the world; tens of thousands of volunteers gift specially chosen and printed WBN books to share their love of reading in their local communities.

World Book Night in Bridport

On April 23rd between 3pm and 4pm, nominated volunteer givers Annette Shaw and Pam Middlemast along with members of Books on the Beach Reading Group will be giving away WBN titles at Ellipse, an Italian caffe bistro bar, on the sea front in West Bay (ellipsewestbay.co.uk). The books allocated are The White Queen by Philippa Gregory and The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. There will also be a paperback exchange where you can swap or donate books to help others start or rekindle a love affair with the written word.  

For events in your local area see worldbooknight.org 

A Dozen Dorset-Inspired Books

1 Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy

A wild tale set on Egdon Heath based on the heath near Upper Bockhampton

2 The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

A tragic romance set around Lyme Regis in both the present day and the 19th century.

3 Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier.

Fascinating story based around Mary Anning’s life in Lyme Regis

4 No Turning Back by Susan Lewis

A love story with a dark twist features the Bridport area

5 Secrets of the Tides by Hannah Richell

A family story set around Chideock and Bridport

6 If Wishes Were Horses – Sallyann Sheridan

Set around modern day West Dorset and East Devon

7 The Last Duchess – Daisy Goodwin.

Historic romance based around Lulworth

8 Moonfleet - J. Meade Falkner

Thrilling 18th century smugglers tale on Chesil Beach

9 The Villa by Rosanna Ley

Romance set in modern day Bridport and Sicily

10 Mr Rosenblum’s List by Natasha Solomons

A German refugee aspires to become a true Dorset man

11  The Breaker by  Minette Walters

Thriller set on the Dorset coast

12 The Chimera Code by Andrew Towning

Crime novel set in Scotland and Sandbanks

Tell us about your favourite Dorset-inspired book or Dorset author.

Email helen.stiles@archant.co.uk or tweet us @dorsetmag