Did you know that there are four levels of ghostly encounters in Shropshire? First we have “Summat to be sid” [seen]. These are things like ghostly animals, headless pigs, dogs with glowing red eyes—non-human apparitions. If you find yourself faced with a purposeless terror such as a headless ghost or mysterious indelible bloodstains, then you’ve been subjected to a “frittening”. Come face to face with a revenant—a ghost of someone who can’t rest or has unfinished business—and you’ve either met someone who has “come again” or “come again very badly”, depending how malicious the ghost might be. Did you also know that the large hill dominating the area—The Wrekin—was created when a cobbler tricked a vengeful giant into dropping his load of rocks just outside Wellington, instead of using them to destroy Shrewsbury?
The reason we know all this is because of a remarkable woman, Charlotte Sophia Burne, who lived in Edgmond, just down the road from Harper Adams University. If you get the time to go for a walk through Edgmond, look out for this blue plaque on Newport Road, marking her home. Not much is known of her life now, apart from the facts recorded on the plaque: she lived in Edgmond from 1854 until 1875, and became the first woman president of a leaned society—the Folklore Society. Yet she must have been a remarkable woman. At a time when learned societies were dominated by men—and men living in London, to make matters even more difficult for a provincial woman—she not only gained entry to the council of the Folklore Society, but became its president. The work she is most famous for is editing the four-volume “Shropshire Folk-Lore: A Sheaf of Gleanings”. As you can tell from the precision with which she records the different levels of ghostly sightings, she not only collected and wrote down folk-lore, but classified it, showing the hierarchy of beliefs underpinning Shropshire society.
As a writer of historical fiction, I’m fascinated by folklore. If anything can give us a glimpse into the minds and imaginations of the people of the past, it has to be through the tales they told. Most of my stories have been set in Shropshire and the Welsh Marches, so I’ve turned to Burne’s work many times, to help build up the layers of the world my heroes and heroines inhabit. Even though she’s unknown today, many writers are indebted to her, and that’s why I’ve included her in this mini-series on notable literary connections of this part of Shropshire.
With the annual RNA conference fast approaching—this time just a couple of miles from my home in Newport, Shropshire—it seems like a good idea to write a few posts featuring the literary figures associated with the area to whet your appetites. One day—who knows?—people might describe Newport as the home of Tora Williams, the well-known romance author. There’s a space on the wall of my house just right for a blue plaque… But even without my inclusion on the local literary roll of honour, it includes some illustrious names.
If you drive through Newport on your way to Harper Adams, you'll pass a large house on Chetwynd End. It's now been converted into flats, but back in the nineteenth century it was a grand residence called Chetwynd House. It was occupied by Sarah Parker, a spinster who had been jilted on her wedding day. Local legend has it that on hearing the news, she locked the door to the room set up for her wedding feast, allowing no one to enter it again. Sixty years later the door was broken down to reveal the preserved wedding decorations, all draped with cobwebs.
Does that sound familiar? If so, you won't be surprised to learn that Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to Newport, and stayed at the Bear Hotel—now Barclays Bank. It's almost certain he would have heard the sad tale of Sarah Parker while he was there; according to local tradition, she's the inspiration for Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations.
On researching this tale, I've discovered that other places also claim to be the home of the ‘real’ Miss Havisham. It seems you couldn't move in nineteenth-century England without tripping over an ageing jilted spinster slowly rotting in her wedding finery. However, call me biased, but I'm convinced Sarah Parker is the original. Have a look for her house as you drive past. Incidentally, it’s now part of Havisham Court, although I think it received that name after the fact. What do you think? Can you see Miss Havisham mouldering away inside, or do you think Dickens’ inspiration came from elsewhere?
My writing, research and any other randomness that seems like a good idea at the time.