The best historical books set in Cornwall

Who am I?

I was in my thirties when I finally visited Cornwall, though I’d long lost my heart to Cornwall through reading. A city girl, I ached to climb the cliff paths and breathe the salt-laden air. My head was full of folklore and history, rugged cliffs, secret coves, and desolate moors. For the last twenty-five years, we’ve been lucky enough to sail our boat along the south coast, anchoring in the timeless harbours and rowing up the creeks. My stories come while we watch the birds scuttle across the riverbanks. A product of my early reading, I’m a romantic dreamer and invite you to join me in my fictional world. 


I wrote...

The Cornish Dressmaker

By Nicola Pryce,

Book cover of The Cornish Dressmaker

What is my book about?

Cornwall, 1796. Elowyn Liddicot and her family believe they have secured the perfect future for her in the arms of Nathan Cardew. But one evening, Elowyn helps to rescue a dying man from the sea, and everything changes. William Cotterell, wild and self-assured, refuses to leave her thoughts or her side.

With Elowyn’s dressmaking business suddenly under threat, and her family’s pressure to marry Nathan increasing, her heart is decidedly at odds with her head. When she uncovers a sinister conspiracy that affects her whole world, Elowyn doesn’t know who to trust. As the truth unfolds, the devasting consequences become clear: in the face of all opposition, Elowyn must find the courage to save the man she loves.

The books I picked & why

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

By Mark Twain,

Book cover of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Why this book?

It is the year 528 and Hank, an unsuspecting time traveler, plunges straight into the court of King Arthur in Camelot only to find himself tasked with looking after a damsel in distress. The book was first published in 1889 and still has me in stitches. It is a comedy, a satire, with a beautifully imagined power struggle between the highly suspicious Merlin and Hank, a modern-day engineer. It’s a light-hearted treat of a book with wonderful characters and a fabulous setting that brings King Arthur’s court with all its chivalry and intrigues vividly to life.


Avalon

By Anya Seton,

Book cover of Avalon

Why this book?

I was at a strict boarding school and read this book long into the night by torch under the bedclothes. It is 973 and King Edgar is on the throne. The story takes us from Cornwall, but it starts in Cornwall and has a Cornish heroine at its heart. I felt her pride in tracing her family back to King Arthur and followed her adventure with bated breath. All of Anya Seton’s books captivate me, but this one drew me completely. It’s in the placenames, the descriptions, the myths, and folklore. Celtic Cornwall is more than a setting; the desolate moors and wonderfully described scenery weave a mystical power of their own. 


Frenchman's Creek

By Daphne du Maurier,

Book cover of Frenchman's Creek

Why this book?

This book has undoubtedly influenced me as a writer. It takes place in Restoration Britain: King Charles 11 is on the throne. A high-born lady leaves her husband in London only to find a notorious pirate using their family creek in Cornwall to conceal his ship. People argue this isn’t Du Maurier’s best book (and I could have picked any of hers) but the thrill of reading it has stayed with me. Recently, I reread it and found it even more powerful. Approve of the heroine’s actions or not, I recommend you read it for the mastery of the writing and the emotions it will evoke. I love this book for its brilliant descriptions. My husband and I often sail up the Helford River and anchor in Frenchman’s creek. It’s still exactly how Daphne du Maurier describes it. 


Ross Poldark

By Winston Graham,

Book cover of Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787

Why this book?

Probably my first serious crush (along with Mr. Darcy, of course). I fell in love with Ross Poldark and his wife Demelza and spent all my pocket money buying the series. It’s the 1780’s and times are hard in Cornwall: ruined harvests have brought corn riots and the wealthy landowners bemoan the lowering price of tin and copper. Ross Poldark returns to Cornwall to find his beloved Elizabeth engaged to his cousin. Winston Graham is a very exact historian. I love this historical period. It’s a great series and a must-read if you love eighteenth-century Cornwall. 


The Shell Seekers

By Rosamunde Pilcher,

Book cover of The Shell Seekers

Why this book?

This well-loved book was published in 1987. It’s beautifully written and takes you right to the heart of Cornwall, evoking the Bohemian lifestyle favoured by the artists who were drawn to the special qualities of the light as well as the lifestyle. It’s a story of family life and family conflict which will resonate with so many. Penelope’s garden remains with me now; the descriptions are perfect, and the characters well-drawn. It’s a story about learning true values and needing to maintain inner strength. Deservedly popular as one of Britain’s most well-loved books, it’s a long read but totally immersive.


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