Derbyshire’s Literary Connections to English Literature
Derbyshire and the Peak District has not produced a Charles Dickens or a William Shakespeare but has attracted a wide range of literary visitors and admirers over the years.
The relationship between Derbyshire and England’s literary history can be seen as far back as 1586 Elizabethan historian William Camden, who wrote about the Wonders of the Peak, naming nine of them in his Britannia.
Thomas Hobbes also reference the Peak District in his De Mirabilibus Pecci: Concerning the Wonders of the Peak in Darby-shire in 1636, his work was later updated by Charles Cotton’s The Wonders of the Peak in 1681, which is arguably the first successful guidebook to the region. (The Wonders were Pooles Cavern and St Annes’s Well at Buxton, Peak Cavern at Castleton and later Chatsworth House.)
However, the cultural geography of Derbyshire has shown that it has been a site for many famous writers who have been inspired by its natural beauty and provincial life.
Here are some of the other literary greats who have travelled through, stayed or lived in Derbyshire and The Peak District, and how the region relates to their works.
Daniel Defoe (1661 – 1731)
The son of a London butcher, and educated at a Dissenters’ academy, Daniel Defoe was typical of the new kind of man reaching prominence in England during the 18th century. And yet he was nearly sixty when he turned to writing novels. It was not until 1719 that he published his famous novel, Robinson Crusoe.
Defoe’s great novels were not published under his name but as authentic memoirs, with the intention of gulling his readers into thinking his fictions true. Two excellent examples of his semi-historical recreations are the picaresque adventure Moll Flanders (1722), the story of a London prostitute and thief, and an account of the 1665 great plague in London entitled A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). His other major works include Captain Singleton (1720), Roxana (1724), and A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-27), which is where we find his connection to Derbyshire.
Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784)
Samuel Johnson was a poet, essayist and lexicographer, born in Litchfield and who’s father was born in Great Cubley in Derbyshire.
Johnson lived and worked as a teacher and a bookseller in Litchfield, where he later met and married Mrs Elisabeth Porter, in St. Werburghs Church, Derby, in 1735.
He moved to London two years later and earned some reknown as a prose moralist, notably with his periodical essays ‘The Rambler’ and The idler’, and later with his philosophical romance The Prince of Abysinia, later known as Rasselas.
Johnson’s most famous work was the ‘Dictionary of the English Language’, published in 1755, which remained until the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, over a hundred years later. Johnson wrote the definition of over 40,000 words illustrating them with 114,000 quotations from every field of learning.
He visited Derbyshire on many occasions, sometimes staying with his friend Dr John Taylor who lived at ‘the Mansion’ in Church Street, Ashbourne.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born on 28th June 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland. At 16, Rousseau left Geneva and wandered from place to place, before finally settling in Paris, France, in 1742.
Rousseau’s profound insight can be found in almost every trace of modern philosophy today. Rousseau’s The Social Contract, his most notable work, describes the relationship of mankind with society in which Rousseau claimed that human condition is inherently debased without law or morality. Therefore “good” men only come about by social and civil structures.
Rousseau’s progressive ideas enabled him to accompany his European contemporaries such as the English philosopher David Hume, in January 1766. Hume later invited him to take refuge in England. During his time in England, Rousseau befriended Brooke Boothby of Ashbourne Hall and also enjoyed the company of Lady Dorothy Cavendish, daughter of the 4th Duke of Devonshire.
Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855)
Charlotte Bronte visited her close friend Ellen Nussey whose brother Henry was the vicar of Hathersage in 1845. She stayed for three weeks at the vicarage, around the same time that she was writing Jayne Eyre, which was published in 1847.
The name of the heroine in the novel and descriptions of places seem to tie in with the Hathersage locality. Her description of Thornfield Hall, ‘three stories high, of proportions not vast, though considerable; a gentleman’s residence, not a nobleman’s seat; battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look’, seem to match that of the 15th century manor house of North Lees Hall. ‘Morton’ in her book is possibly a rename of Hathersage.
George Eliot (1819 – 1880)
The renowned English novelist, George Eliot was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans. Evans was born in Arbury, Warwickshire. Her works wittily conveyed life in small rural towns, and was primarily concerned with the ideas of personal responsibility over one’s life along with the moral choices that we make.
Three of her novels dealing with provincial life are Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Middlemarch (1871-72), a portrait of life in a provincial town, that is considered by critics to be her magnum opus or masterpiece.
In her youth, Mary Ann Evans often stayed with her aunt and uncle, Samuel Evans and his wife Elizabeth, who resided in Wirksworth, Derbyshire in 1814. It is generally thought that Wirksworth is the backdrop of her novel Adam Bede, referring to Derbyshire as Stoneyshire, Wirksworth as Snowfield and Ashbourne as Oakbourne and that Samuel and his wife were portrayed as Adam Bede and Dinah Morris.
D.H.Lawrence (1885 – 1930)
David Herbert Lawrence, better known as D.H.Lawrence the novelist, poet and painter, was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire in 1885, son of a miner.
His mother, Lydia Lawrence, whose family the Beardsalls had originally came from Wirksworth in Derbyshire, encouraged him to obtain an education locally.
After attending a local Board School he won a scholarship to Nottingham High School. He then attended Nottingham University College where in 1908 he qualified as a teacher and went to work in Croyden.
The following year, Lawrence had some poems published in The English Review, whose editor also helped Lawrence to publish his first novel The White Peacock. Sons and Lovers was later published in 1913 and it established his reputation as a writer.
After brief spells in London and Berkshire they moved to Derbyshire in 1918 where they lived for 12 months at Mountain Cottage, on the outskirts of Middleton by Wirksworth. Here, he wrote Wintery Peacock, a short romantic story about Ible, a small hamlet near to whee they were staying.