When Jane Austen needs to remove Captain Wentworth temporarily, to progress the plot of ‘Persuasion’, she despatches him to see his brother in Shropshire – the epitome of rural isolation.
But Shropshire has never been a backwater and its literary heritage is rich and varied and includes many of the biggest names in English literature.
Many writers have passed through the county and there is even a theory that William Shakespeare may have stayed at the Eyton on Severn, home of the Newport family.
Visitors include three American writers: Nathaniel Hawthorne stayed in Shrewsbury, Mark Twain was a guest and Henry James stayed at Wenlock Abbey on several occasions, writing of his visit in ‘English Hours’.
Charles Dickens sometimes stayed at The Lion Hotel in Shrewsbury. He portrayed Tong Church in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ while that most fantastic of characters, Miss Havisham, was based on the story of an unfortunate lady from Newport who was jilted on her wedding day.
An unlikely visitor to Pontesbury was D.H. Lawrence. The Shropshire landscape was as inspirational as ever and the Devil’s Chair and Stiperstones duly appeared in his novel ‘St. Mawr’.
Clun became the fictional town of Oniton in significant passages of E.M. Forster’s ‘Howard’s End’.
There is a strong tradition of writing for children. The evangelical and macabre Mrs Sherwood in Bridgnorth and Wellington’s Hesba Stretton, whose uplifting ‘Jessica’s First Prayer’ (1867) sold over a million copies were early exponents.
Malcolm Saville’s ‘Lone Pine’ stories set in the Shropshire hills were popular in the 1950s and Sheena Porter was likewise inspired by the landscape, winning the Carnegie Medal for ‘Nordy Bank’.
Pauline Fisk, Anne Turnbull, Ivan Jones, Andrew Fusek Peters and others are continuing the tradition, all seemingly influenced by Shropshire itself.
But who were the quintessential writers?
Mary Webb of course; rarely has a writer been so at one with her landscape. Just read ‘Precious Bane’ or ‘Gone to Earth’ to see how Shropshire was in her heart or experience her poetry to discover it in her soul.
Then there was Edith Pargeter, Shropshire born and bred, fascinated by the Marches history and all things mediaeval and who, as Ellis Peters, became a bestseller with her Brother Cadfael novels.
Few poets have surpassed A.E. Housman’s ability to coin memorable lines. His ‘blue remembered hills’ live on in the mind’s eye forever. Although born in Worcestershire and with a limited knowledge of Shropshire, his bitter-sweet, idealised ‘A Shropshire Lad’ is evocative and enduring.
Finally, perhaps the finest of war poets, was born in Oswestry and lived in Shrewsbury before joining the conflict in France. Killed in action just before the end of the First World War, Owen’s poetry is powerful and poignant and, as intended, continues to speak out against the futility and pity of war.
On Christmas Eve 1994 the angry young man of the 1950s, dramatist John Osborne, died at his home in the tranquil Clun Valley. How appropriate then that his beautiful house, The Hurst, should now have become an Arvon Foundation centre for creative writing.
Shropshire continues to inspire and its literary tradition lives on.