Book Review: A Reader’s Guide to Writer’s Britain: An Enchanting Tour of Literary Landscapes and Shrines (Sally Varlow) : BH

8/12/2001 • British Heritage Book Reviews

A Reader’s Guide to Writer’s Britain: An Enchanting Tour of Literary Landscapes and Shrines, by Sally Varlow. Distributed by Trafalgar Square, North Pomfret, VT 05053. $24.95, paperback.

A Reader’s Guide to Writer’s Britain, by Sally Varlow, is a wonderfully informative, richly illustrated travelogue of literary Britain and a must-read for everyone interested in learning more about what makes British writers so skilled, and in tune with their surroundings. The book takes readers to King Arthur’s one-time realm, to Chaucer’s and Eliot’s Canterbury, to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon, to Wordsworth’s Lakes, to Stevenson’s Edinburgh, to Kipling’s East Sussex, to the Brontë’s North of England, and to Dickens’ London. In each of these places you will experience the sights and sounds that have inspired British authors for centuries.

Nowhere else in the world has so much literature been as successfully produced as in Great Britain, and Varlow shares stories of the great literary campaigners–Dr. Johnson and his circle, Cambridge’s Apostles, the Bloomsbury Group–and their wars against the intellectual apathy of their age. She also explores the impact of non-British writers such as T.S. Eliot, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and Mark Twain, whose works nonetheless influenced the British world.

The stories relating to why William Shakespeare was the ‘Soul of the Age'; how Charles Dickens used the British Museum and Library to rehearse his craft; how Beatrix Potter illustrated her picture-book House of the Tailor of Gloucester; how North Yorkshire’s town of Thirsk became Darrowby in James Herriot’s tale of a country veterinarian; and how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s special patch near granite-strewn Dartmoor became the setting for ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ are among the stories that will make you want to read more, as well as visit the settings.

Among the many beautiful excerpts from these works, one example struck me as seductively simple and yet complex enough convey a deep sense of God’s eternity. The excerpt is from ‘The Brook’, one of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s English idylls: ‘I come from haunts of coot and hern,/I make a sudden sally . . ./Till last by Phillip’s farm I flow/To join the brimming river,/For men may come and men may go,/But I go on forever.’

Compiled with the support of the tourist boards of England, Scotland, and Wales, A Reader’s Guide to Writer’s Britain contains more than 600 colour pictures and maps, and has a good gazetteer of museums and houses open to the public. It can be read in nine geographic parts as you travel across Britain, or you can eagerly imbibe it all in one sitting. Either way there is much poetry and history here.

David J. Marcou