Ever since those miraculous nine months between October 1847 and June 1848 when three sisters from Haworth published masterpieces that came to define much of the character, the language, and the landscape of rural Yorkshire, the county has had a tremendous literary history.
Everyone knows the major figures who in their diverse ways wrote of and to Yorkshire with a mixture of fascination, love, despair, and nostalgia: Bram Stoker drawing on Whitby as a setting for Dracula; Frances Hodgson Burnett creating The Secret Garden of Misselthwaite Manor in North Yorkshire; JB Priestley following in a time-honoured tradition of creating a Yorkshire town – Bruddersford – for his first and most famous novel, Good Companions; Philip Larkin looking down on Hull and its inhabitants with a mixture of contempt and pity… and then beholding the beauties of Holderness with a heart-swelling rapture. Ted Hughes working a rich seam of British myth in Remains of Elmet. Alan Bennett and Tony Harrison returning, time and again, to the Leeds of their childhoods.
An academic at Leeds Beckett University is convinced that the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st century has produced writing in Yorkshire that rivals anything that has gone before.
“It is clearly not a competition between past and present literature,” says Tom Herron. “In fact, contemporary writing of Yorkshire is often deeply engaged with its literary antecedents. Look at the way that Caryl Phillip’s most recent novel, The Lost Child, is in conversation with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. But there is a vibrancy and an urgency to very recent writing produced in Yorkshire that deserves careful and sustained attention.
“It’s one of the reason why we launched New Yorkshire, a new Masters-level course dedicated to exploring the richness of writing produced over the past 15 years. There is a fantastic diversity of writing that interrogates questions of race, class, politics, the urban-rural divide, social and cultural history, landscape, and migration as it is experienced in every part of this county. Such writing is calling out for the attention of scholars and readers, and we feel that an exploration of the county’s writing is a perfect expression of the university’s commitment to reaching out to the wider community.”
However, it’s one thing for an academic critic to sense the importance of a particular novel and another to gauge what readers beyond the walls of the university consider to be deserving of wider attention. This is what we want to find out. We want to invite readers of The Yorkshire Post to tell us what they consider to be the outstanding Yorkshire novels produced so far this century.
At the same time, we don’t want to pigeon-hole literary writing into being a mere representation of a county or a region. So, for example, while Sunjeev Sahota’s Man-Booker Prize short-listed The Year of the Runaways is set in Sheffield, this magnificent novel has resonances far beyond the city and South Yorkshire. It opens up the experiences and the dreams of individuals who are all-too-often lumped together as immigrants or migrant workers. Anyone who reads Sahota’s novel will never again take for granted the lazy phrases and crude vocabulary used to simplify and demean our fellow human beings.
These are the texts that we feel are among the most important examples of the New Yorkshire novel. There is always, of course, a degree of subjectivity and there is always the pressure of space. Tom Herron says: “An entire course could quite easily be built around the novels of David Peace that taken together constitute a forensic investigation in breathtaking language and formal experimentation of the underside of Yorkshire civic life. A course can do little more than sketch out a literary field. But at the same time, it can go some way to recognising, honouring and, yes, intelligently critiquing, challenging literary representations.”
We have given ourselves tiny bit of leeway by pushing the 21st century back to 1995 in order to include Kate Atkinson’s brilliant first novel. But what books would you nominate? To put forward your suggestions, email Tom Herron at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum
This was Atkinson’s first novel and it went on to win the Whitbread Prize, beating Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. Narrated by Ruby Lennox, a middle-class girl from York, it chronicles the lives of four generations of women. Between each chapter, non-consecutive flashbacks give alternative views of the past. Complex and fascinating.
David Peace, Red Riding Quartet
The first of three entries in our list for David Peace. His take on police corruption, set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders is unapologetically gritty. When the first book in the series was published it marked Peace out as one of the country’s brightest young writers and in 2003 earned him a place on Granta’s list of Best of Young British Novelists.
Jon McGregor, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
Set in Bradford, McGregor has said his 2002 book was inspired partly by the reaction to the death of Princess Diana. Amid that very public outpouring of grief, he focuses instead on a day in the life of a suburban street where life continues as normal, with the plot following the lives of the street’s various inhabitants.
Caryl Phillips, The Lost Child
Phillips’ second entry on our list is a sweeping story of orphans and outcasts. Inspired by Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, at its center is Monica Johnson--cut off from her parents after falling in love with a foreigner--and her bitter struggle to raise her sons in the shadow of the wild moors of the north of England.
Caryl Phillips, A Distant Shore
Born in St Kitts and raised in Leeds, Phillips’ work often crosses continents. Here the focus is Dorothy, a retired schoolteacher who has recently moved to a small northern town following a divorce and Solomon, a night-watchman, an immigrant from an unnamed country in Africa. Each is desperate for love. And yet each harbors secrets that may make attaining it impossible.
David Peace, GB84
For his 2004 novel, Peace swapped the Yorkshire Ripper for the Miners’ Strike.
In his trademark visceral prose, Peace describes the insidious workings of the boardroom negotiations and the increasingly anarchic coalfield battles; the struggle for influence in government and the dwindling powers of the NUM; and the corruption, intrigue and dirty tricks which run through the whole like a fault in a seam of coal.
David Peace, The Damned Utd
A fictionalised account of Brian Clough’s brief spell in charge of Leeds United. Mixing rumour and speculation with a few documented facts, the story is told from the point of view of Clough as as he tries and fails to impose his will on a team he inherited from his bitter rival, Don Revie.
Stephen Clayton, The Art of Being Dead
Clayton’s debut novel published in posed the question, can you become a murderer by doing nothing? Set in the late 1960s in a bleak Northern English town, 24-year-old Jonathan attempts to live his life without love, pain, or commitment, unaware that in his desire to avoid action he will eventually be drawn into a world of chaos, degradation and death.
Ross Raisin, God’s Own Country
One of the most celebrated debut novels of recent years, Raisin tells the story of solitary young farmer, Sam Marsdyke. Expelled from school and cut off from the town, mistrusted by his parents and avoided by city incomers, Marsdyke is a loner until he meets rebellious new neighbour Josephine. But what begins as a friendship turns to something much, much darker.
Alison Taft, Our Father Who Art Out There … Somewhere
Published in 2011 by Caffeine Nights, Taft’s first novel tells the story of a young woman trying to find her dad, and the radical steps she takes when she learns he wants nothing to do with her. The story was inspired by Alison’s own fruitless and frustrating experience of trying to reunite with a reluctant birth father.
Helen Cadbury, To Catch a Rabbit
Sean Denton is Doncaster’s youngest PSCO, but when a dead woman is found slumped against the door of a grubby tailor he takes the case into his own hands. It takes him into an underworld of migrants and the sex trade in a thriller which can only be described as a page turner.
Caryl Phillips, The Lost Child
Phillips’ second entry on our list is a sweeping story of orphans and outcasts. Inspired by Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, at its center is Monica Johnson – cut off from her parents after falling in love with a foreigner – and her bitter struggle to raise her sons in the shadow of the wild moors of the north of England.
Sunjeev Sahota, The Year of the Runaways
At the time of going to press Sahota was still waiting to find out if he had won this year’s Booker Prize for his second novel, which tells the story of 13 young men living in a house in Sheffield, each in flight from India and in search of a new life. Sweeping between India and England, and between childhood and the present day, it’s a story about the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.