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Who are the greatest female East Anglian authors?

PUBLISHED: 19:30 01 May 2020

Author Rose Tremain. Picture: Simon Finlay

Author Rose Tremain. Picture: Simon Finlay

Archant Norfolk

Who are East Anglia’s greatest female authors? Here are 10 to get you started.

Ruth Rendell. Picture: Tudor Morgan-Owen.Ruth Rendell. Picture: Tudor Morgan-Owen.

1. Sarah Perry

Gothic fiction writer Sarah Perry was born in Chelmsford and now lives in Norwich. Her acclaimed debut novel, After Me Comes The Flood, about a man named John Cole who wanders into a strange world while seeking out his brother amidst a drought, won the East Anglian Book of the Year Award in 2014. Her second, The Essex Serpent, was Waterstones’ Book of the Year in 2016 and was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Hugely successful, it was inspired by the myth of a sea serpent which stalks the Essex coast, and tells the story of a Victorian widow, Cora Seaborne, who is intrigued by the possibility of the serpent’s return, but clashes with vicar, William Ransome, who is determined to lay superstition to rest. Perry’s third novel, Melmoth, was inspired by the novel Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, and was published in 2018.

2. Ruth Rendell

Norwich-based writer Rachel Hore. Picture: Jerry DawsNorwich-based writer Rachel Hore. Picture: Jerry Daws

Prolific crime writer Ruth Rendell was born and grew up in Essex. She started out as a journalist and later moved to Suffolk, and much of her writing was inspired by and set in East Anglia.

Her best known character, Chief Inspecter Wexford, featured in many of her police procedural stories, some of which were adapted for the small screen. She also wrote a series of stand-alone crime novels, which delved into the psyche of the criminals and the background of their victims. She also wrote another series of novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, including A Fatal Inversion, which was also adapted for television.

3. Rose Tremain

Fiction book winner Esther Freud and Sarah Perry at the East Anglian Book Awards 2015 at Jarrold. Picture: Simon FinlayFiction book winner Esther Freud and Sarah Perry at the East Anglian Book Awards 2015 at Jarrold. Picture: Simon Finlay

Award-winning Norwich and London-based novelist and short story writer Rose Tremain’s books include Restoration, Music and Silence and The Road Home, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2008. Gustav Sonata was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017 and her latest novel, Islands of Mercy, is due to be published in September.

Tremain studied English literature at UEA, which set her on the path to becoming a writer. She was one of the university’s first students in the mid 60s and her lecturers included Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. She returned to teach on the university’s famous creative writing MA course from the late eighties up to the mid nineties. And in 2013, the university’s 50th anniversary year, she was appointed chancellor – the first time the role had been given to a woman, a writer and a UEA graduate.

4. P D James

The flatlands of our region have fired up the imaginations of many crime writers and one of the most celebrated of all time, P D James, spent much time at Southwold , where she had a home. She was a civil servant for most of her career, which also provided inspiration for the settings and storylines of her books.

It was her series of detective novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh which brought her fame, and many of her novels went on to be adapted for television by Anglia TV, starring Roy Marsden as the police commander and poet. Other adaptations include a big screen version of Children of Men, which was directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starred Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine and Death Comes to Pemberley, a murder mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice, was adapted into a mini series by the BBC starring Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys.

5. Esther Freud

Novelist and playwright Esther Freud, who has a home on the Suffolk coast, was named one of the 20 Best of Young British Novelists by Granta magazine in 1993, following the publication of her debut Hideous Kinky. A semi autobiographical story about a young mother who moves to Morocco with her two daughters in the early 1970s, it was turned into a film, which starred Kate Winslet. Other novels include Gaglow, The Wild and The Sea House. East Anglia plays its part in her work. Her 2014 novel, Mr Mac and Me, was inspired by the time Charles Rennie Mackintosh spent in Suffolk.

6. Anna Sewell

Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty, was born in Church Plain, Great Yarmouth. The family moved to east London when she was young, but she spent the last decade of her life back in Norfolk, in Old Catton on the outskirts of Norwich, where she wrote the book which became one of the best-selling children’s novels ever – even though it was actually intended as a book for adults.

Black Beauty was written between 1871 and 1877, as Sewell’s health was declining. Such was her frailty that she would dictate the novel to her mother, who was also an author of children’s books, or write on slips of paper for her to transcribe. Written from the titular’s horse’s perspective, she sold the book to Norwich-based publisher Jarrolds in 1877. She died the following year. There are several lasting memorials to her around the city – the house where she wrote Black Beauty is known as Anna Sewell House, and Sewell Park, which runs between Constitution Hill and St Clement’s Hill in the north city, and has a memorial fountain at the entrance.

7. Julian of Norwich

Anchoress Julian of Norwich is the first woman known to have published a book in the English language. Her work, Revelations of Divine Love, is a 14th century text of mystical devotions, which established her as one of Christianity’s most creative theologians.

She takes her name from St Julian’s Church in the city’s Rouen Road, where she lived after receiving a series of revelations.

She lived alone in a room attached to the church for the rest of her life, spending most of her time in prayer and contemplation of what she had seen.

The current church was rebuilt in 1953 after being bombed in the Second World War on one of the oldest church sites in Norwich – probably dating back to the mid-tenth century.

The anchorhold where Julian lived was torn down in the Reformation, but there is now a shrine built on the site where it is believed to have stood.

Julian is best-known for her optimism in the message that God would make all things well, which is featured in her most famous quote “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”.

8. Margery Kempe

Julian of Norwich’s contemporary, Christian mystic Margery Kempe, lived at King’s Lynn and her work, The Book of Margery Kempe, is considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language. Kempe is said to have visited Julian at her cell in Norwich and undertook many pilgrimages in England and also travelled to the Holy Land – a remarkable journey for a woman in medieval times.

9. Liz Trenow

Essex-based Liz Trenow’s family history is woven into her novels. She was born and brought up in a house next to the family silk mill – indeed the company, Colchester-based Stephen Walters and Sons Ltd was founded nearly 300 years ago – and the textile industry is a recurring motif in her work.

Liz has worked as a journalist for local and regional newspapers and in radio and television. Her debut novel was The Last Telegram and The Forgotten Seamstress reached the New York Times top 20 and USA Today best seller lists. Her other books are The Poppy Factory, The Silk Weaver, In Love and War, The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane, and, most recently, Under a Wartime Sky.

10. Rachel Hore

Rachel Hore’s novels include The Dream House, The Glasspainter’s Daughter and A Gathering Storm, which were both shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Historical Novel of the Year award, A Week in Paris, Last Letter Home and, most recently, The Love Child. She lives in Norwich with her husband, DJ Taylor, who is also an author, and teaches creative writing and publishing at UEA.


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