Shelley Trower, Rocks of Nation: The Imagination of Celtic Cornwall

Shelley Trower, Rocks of Nation: The Imagination of Celtic Cornwall (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2015) vii + 258 pp. £70.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-7190-9096-7

Does the land beneath our feet define us? Do places have inherent meaning, and if so where do those meanings come from? Shelley Trower's exciting new study, Rocks of Nation, brings together poetry and fiction with geology, folklore, the Gothic, Celtic mysticism and nationalist identity, to offer a long view on Cornwall and the literature of places. It gathers a wide range of little-known material to show how the depiction of Cornwall as a contested land develops through time: from the distinctive granite bedrock that enables early nineteenth-century provincial scientists to set out particularized – and resistant – perspectives based on geographical specificity (Chapter One), to the Gothic and imperial technologies of the later nineteenth century that imagine the far south west as a space for ‘reverse colonization’ (Chapter Three), to the Celtic mysticism that emerges in the twentieth century (Chapter Five).

Trower’s account builds on earlier work, such as that of Ralph O’Connor and Noah Heringman, which seeks to level the differences between geological and imaginative writing, and to bring out the aesthetic and structural continuities between them. Her first chapter focuses on Humphry Davy, who as writer and scientist persuasively demonstrates these continuities, and on the establishment of Cornwall’s Geological Society, tracing claims and counter-claims to geological and geographical knowledge made from London and the far west. That question of who gets to define Cornwall runs through the book as a whole. So does another theme laid out early on in the book, namely the interlocking nature of Cornwall’s aesthetic and commercial properties. New understandings of geological strata and their distribution in the early nineteenth century (notably by William Smith) heightened the importance of mineral value, and, crucially for Cornwall, furthered developments in the mining industry. In the specific case of Cornwall, Trower argues, it led to ‘the economic conditions in which a proto-nationalism begins to emerge’ (28).

Chapter Two develops the theme of rocks and race, in the context of this double vision of rocks as spectacle and economic potential. Trower explores this subject in the context of the geologist and folklorist Robert Hunt, who (like Davy) spent time in both London and Cornwall and largely bridged the gap between centre and periphery. A ‘geologist-poet’ (58), Hunt used a range of narrative and cultural forms – mining treatises, poetry, folklore collection – to argue that regions were defined by their rocks, and to claim that the primitive, primordial rocks beneath ‘Celtic’ terrain (especially granite) set them apart from later sedimentary, and it is argued more civilised, English ones. Trower shows that there was also an imaginative or creative side to these endeavours: in The Poetry of Science, Hunt also invested rocks with the power to ‘unlock the secrets’ (66) of the past, in narratives stranger or more sensational than fiction. His contemporary Hugh Miller, the popular Scottish literary geologist, compared Celtic antiquities and folktales to fossils, which he saw in parallel as the surviving remnants of a primitive past. These arguments, founded in actual geology, had major ramifications for natural history in terms of the emergence of the theory of evolution, as well as more widely in terms of ‘the basis for social and political theories which look to science to legitimise both nationalist and racist ideologies’ (68). For some nineteenth-century thinkers, including Matthew Arnold, Celtic zones such as Cornwall became primitive landscapes holding correspondingly ancient races, with a set of distinguishing characteristics: irrational, spiritual, superstitious, passionate, and resistant to enlightenment.

Trower’s examination of such ‘geologically determined racial character’ (82) opens out in the second half of the book to explore competing depictions of Cornwall from within (Cornish industry features importantly in these depictions) and from outside. As a ‘Celtic’ region, Cornwall occupies an ambiguous position as both part of and distinct from England, and this duality underpins Chapters Three and Four, on sensation fiction and imperial Gothic. Trower shows that Cornwall’s cliff edges function not just as geologically important sites (exposing strata, for example) but as points of emotional and ideological confusion and/or crisis. Works discussed here by Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle and D.H. Lawrence turn on a sense of the coastline as the troubled boundary of empire – both the doorway into Britain as well as the route out of it. The Cornish coast therefore figures as ‘an exemplary manifestation of insecure national borders and the dangers of empire, posing a threat to the English visitor’ (103) in particular. As Trower observes, the distinctions between travel writing, geological writing and folklore are often extremely porous. Collins’s fiction (Basil) and travel writing (Rambles Beyond Railways) both draw on elements of superstition and oral culture to present a haunted Cornwall produced through differences of geography, race and geology. Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars goes further, imagining a Cornwall invaded by an Egyptian mummy, in a case of empire returning, or reverse colonization.

That sense of the foreign returning or breaking out within England, via the extreme south west, takes on new meanings in Trower’s final chapters, as Cornwall’s ghostly geology is repurposed as native mysticism in explicitly nationalist forms of writing in the twentieth century. Trower points out that ghosts can be read as manifestations of imperial guilt, in terms of the ‘anxiety suffered by settlers regarding the legitimacy of their claims to belong’ (136). But by the second half of the twentieth century, amid the movement towards stronger political identities and calls for devolution, an emergent New Age-inflected nationalism presented much more positive images of the primitive and spiritual Celt. In works by Donald Rawe and Daphne du Maurier, for example, the animate landscape of an otherworldly Cornwall becomes a place of exceptional creativity – a creativity often linked with or attributed to the underground energy of granite. In New Age spiritualism, that energy is feminized as ‘the Goddess’, as well as linked with an ecological perspective, which seeks to resist patriarchal and imperial models of society.

Trower’s final chapter, on literary uses of clay rather than granite, presents some alternative late-twentieth-century perspectives on Cornwall, which challenge that sense of a simple, spiritual connection to the land. In conclusion, the book’s historical journey through two centuries presents an admirable range of interpretations, carefully unpicking the various claims of scientific knowledge, literary invention, economic advancement and ethnic identification. As such, Trower’s study gives a nuanced transhistorical picture of a fragmented nation and region that represents a valuable and distinctive contribution not just to Cornish literary studies but to archipelagic, devolutionary or four nations criticism that seeks to understand the complex interrelations of places with the cultures that create them.

Liz Edwards, University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth