A few years ago motorists entering Coventry would be welcomed by a sign declaring "Welcome to the City in Shakespeare Country". At least that is how I rembember it. It couldn't have been "in Shakespeare's County" as we had long left Warwickshire to become part of the West Midlands. At the time I thought that the link was rather tenuous and a desperate attempt to link the Bard to our city. I now realise how wrong I was and shall be personally illustrating the links between Shakespeare and Coventry in my guided walk on the morning of Friday January 10th - "The Blitz, The Bard and the Tudors".
There were links between Shakespeare and the Berkeley family who were resident at Caludon Castle. It is believed that "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was written for a performannce at the wedding of Thomas Berkeley and Elizabeth Carey. Elizabeth's father was a patron of Shakespeare's players, "The King's Chamberlain's Men" and Thomas' maternal granfather Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey had introduced the sonnet to England and developed it into the form which later became known as the "Shakespearean Sonnet". Shakespeare also made reference to Thomas Nashe's work "The Terrors of the Night" which dealt with the theme of dreams and had been dedicated to Elizabeth Carey who showed a keen interest in the subject. Both Thomas and Elizabeth were godchildren of Queen Elizabeth I and Thomas' father Henry was godson to Henry VIII.
Caludon is referenced in Shakespaeare's Richard II as the base of Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk who rode out from there to fight (an ultimately aborted) duel with Henry Bolinbroke (later to become Henry IV and to feature in Shakespeare histories of his own) at Gosford Green. Both Henry IV and Henry VI held parliaments at Coventry and feature in Shakespeare's work).
Quite often if the name George Eliot is mentioned the Coventry link is played down - typically comments will include "but didn't she come from Nuneaton?" - mostly
due to that town's hospital carrying her name. Although much of her work is influenced by the towns and villages of North Warwickshire she spent most of her formative years in and around Coventry - living at Bird Grove (in what is now known as George Eliot Road in Foleshill), being educated in Coventry City Centre, attending Holy Trinity Church and being greatly influenced by Charles Bray's "Rosehill Circle" (more of this group to come in a future post).
Eliot's novel "Middlemarch" is based on Coventry and the location of the trial scene in "Adam Bede" is clearly based on St Mary's Guildhall.
My sister, Di, recently asked me if there were any connections between the artists of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and Coventry. Whilst doing some background reading for my upcoming guided walk "A stroll in Godiva's Footsteps", I learnt that John Collier, artist of one of the most impressive Godiva themed oil paintings (the work hangs in the Herbert Art Gallery) was considered as one of the pre-Raphaelite artists. He was also a writer (but shouldn't be confused with his American namesake) and was influenced by Alfred Lord Tennyson - the author of the Godiva poem which is quoted on the plinth of the statue in Broadgate.
My brief research also showed me that Collier's works were inspired by folklore and Arthurian legend which brought to mind another local literary connection - "Morte D'Artur". Although Tennyson also wrote a poem of this name he was himself influenced by Thomas Malory's work which was published by William Caxton in 1485 dealing with stories of King Arthur, Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. Despite the subject matter of his writings Malory was not famed for living a chivalrous life and spent time in jail and is on record of carrying out raids on and thefts from both Caludon Castle and Coombe Abbey.
In the run up to the recent genral election I discovered some more of Coventry's literary connections when researching MPs that have represented us over the years . Alfred Edward Woodley Mason represented the city from 1906 – 1910. As well as being a Liberal politician Mason was a novelist. His most famous work “The Four Feathers” deals with themes of bravery and cowardice in colonial times. Just days after discovering the link I watched the film of the story on free TV channel "Talking Pictures".
Another writer dealing with colonial themes with Coventry conections was E.M. Forster, author of "Howard's End", "Where Angels Fear to Tred","A Passage to India" and "Out of Africa". Forster was a humanist whose themes included attitudes to class differences. He died in Coventry aged 91 in 1970.
I shall be coming back to the subject of Coventry's literary connections of which there are many! In the mean time, a Happy New Year to all.