Local Literature: Newcastle

6th Sep 2013

Local Literature: Newcastle
As part of our new series on Local Literature, For Books' Sake looks at Newcastle's cultural heritage, including the very first feminist, right-wing zealots and which writer's pigtails are on display in South Shields Museum.

“We shall be at Newcastle all the winter, and I dare say there will be some balls.”

So spoke Lydia Bennet on the eve of her exile to Newcastle. Right here was the point where Jane Austen demonstrated not only the ability to be a feminist and wear a bonnet (sparing Lydia the traditional syphilitic death awarded to most “fallen women”) but also that’s it’s anything but grim up North.

As someone who grew up in a North-East fishing village I highly recommend that you all escape Meryton for the winter and down a few pints of snakebite with Lydia while perusing Newcastle’s rich and varied literary history.

Perhaps the region’s most famous writer is Tyne Dock born Catherine Cock-in Cookson, whose plaits were shorn from her head upon her death and kept in the South Shields Museum. No joke.

Apparently the pigtails are kept in a glass case as they were her favourite thing about herself.Apparently the pigtails are kept in a glass case as they were her favourite thing about herself. I sent my intrepid little mum to verify this although she could not be tempted to crack the spine of The Glass Virgin.

It’s easy to dismiss Cookson (especially when confronted with titles like The Rag Nymph) but she was a hardy, enterprising soul. Born into poverty, the illegitimate daughter of the woman she thought was her sister, she went on to become a bestselling writer with a worldwide readership. At one point she was the world’s best selling author.

Other writers of note

Winifred Watson; author of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. This was a riotous romp that includes casual sex, cocaine, pregnancy scares and the emancipation and sexual awakening of an older lady – something the media still seems to struggle with today, god knows what they made of it in 1938.

Mary Astell; often referred to as “the first English feminist”. Her best known books were A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest (1694) and A Serious Proposal, Part II (1697). She advocated for women’s education at a time when they had the same rights as (and often less value than) cattle. An inspirational campaigner and a remarkable woman.

Elizabeth Gaskell lived in Newcastle as a teenager and Eva Ibbotson lived and wrote here until her death in 2010. On the flip side we’ve also produced a number of Daily Express, Daily Mail and News of the World columnists who made various claims about illegal immigrants being given free cars (soz world).

Shops, Markets and Mags

Newcastle is plagued by second-hand bookshops, stocked to the rafters and full of bookish boffins who know the location, heritage and availability of every single book. John Oliver’s in Whitley Bay and Keel Row Bookshop yielded up my first Viragos (without which I probably would have become a Daily Mail columnist…).

Tynemouth hosts a fantastic second hand books market once a month with everything from Misery Memoirs to Enid Blyton, travel guides to Chaucer and the obligatory spattering of Man Booker and Nobel prize winners.

Finally if you need any further evidence of Newcastle’s literary pedigree it’s also home to women writer powerhouse magazine Mslexia!

Despite the recent 100% cut to arts funding Newcastle still has a thriving community of writers, publishers and forgotten feminist greats just waiting to be rediscovered. Christ, why the fuck did I ever leave?

Recommended Reading: Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson and A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson