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Uncovering the longstanding literary culture of North East England

When the Arts Council of Great Britain set up its first regional boards across the country in 1960, officials in London came to the conclusion that the North East of England was a “cultural desert”. Today, thanks to the works of Laurence Sterne and John Cleland, Dr Helen Williams, Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth Century Literature, and her colleagues at Northumbria University are adding to a large body of evidence showing that this inaccurate generalisation ignores a strong history of literary culture and artistic patronage in the region. And the research is attracting a broad range of audiences, influencing public outreach programmes nationally and abroad, and encouraging authors to reflect on Sterne’s experimental legacy.

A large part of Dr Williams’ work centres on the Laurence Sterne Trust, which is based at Shandy Hall in North Yorkshire – an historic house museum where Sterne, an eighteenth-century novelist, humourist and vicar, lived and wrote. Having helped secure Heritage Lottery funding for the Trust, Dr Williams has been collaborating with this small charitable organisation as they draw on Sterne’s creative legacy of experimentation to reach out to a diverse range of audiences and provide educational outreach programmes to communities that would otherwise have been excluded.

The Heritage Lottery-funded project, The Good Humour Club, explored the concept of humour through this eighteenth-century gentleman’s club, which met weekly in a tavern in York. Using modern technology to bring the club to life, the project team digitised the club’s unique manuscript minute book, which is currently held within the Trust, and recorded members of the club on a geomapping webapp, enabling visitors to have an audio and visual experience of this historical period.

The team also worked with stand-up comedians to deliver new sets to comedy audiences, and commissioned playwright Michael Eaton to create a period drama podcast that imagined the club meeting the night that Sterne’s controversial novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was published. The podcast not only formed the basis of a widespread education programme for primary schools across Yorkshire, but also attracted funding from Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities.

Wheelworks, a Northern Irish youth arts organisation, adapted the podcast, including elements of local humour. Young people who were not in education, employment or training (NEETs) were involved in the set design and the resulting rehearsed reading was performed by a local community theatre group based in Armagh.

To celebrate the 250th anniversary of Sterne’s Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, Dr Williams co-edited a new edition of this novel with the Laurence Sterne Trust. Illustrated by the famous cartoonist Martin Rowson, the book was named ‘book of the week’ by London Review Bookshop, where it was launched, and Sterne ‘author of the month’. Not only does this latest edition raise funds for the Laurence Sterne Trust’s outreach programmes, it is the focal point of an exhibition on the Sentimental Journey’s illustration history, displaying Rowson’s original drawings alongside rare nineteenth-century artwork.

In other related work, Dr Williams has been editing previously undiscovered letters by John Cleland, an English novelist/pornographer renowned for Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known as Fanny Hill. Despite his ‘infamy’, little is known about his life. The letters reveal a surprising connection with Seaton Delaval Hall, which is located in Northumberland and was acquired by the National Trust in 2009: John Delaval, an MP and Baron, was Cleland’s major literary patron.

At a local level, the Delaval family’s support for Cleland’s creative endeavours provides a new cultural narrative for the National Trust property, which will influence how the historic house is curated for visitors. On a national level, his work, together with that of Sterne, offers an indelible panoramic of eighteenth-century literary culture – a culture shaped by notable characters from the North East of England.

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