Literary Whitby

Beyond Bram Stoker, there are a select few unsung literary figures that deserve special mention.

Stories about Whitby have been prominent in the imagination since the reign of St Hilda. The iconic monastery has evoked praise and song since the days of Caedmon.

Whitby has an abundance of natural features and many manmade effects that lend the town an endearing charm that transcends the sum of its parts. From the pier to the 199 Steps to the Abbey across cobbled lanes and yards to the North Sea, Whitby has a lot to inspire, surprise and delight the writers of the world.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Known under her pen name, Mrs Gaskell wrote a bevy of novels in the 1800s that won critical acclaim. Sylvia's Lovers is the least well-known story and the one which is set in the fictional town of Monkshaven – aka, Whitby.

The book is set in 1790 Whitby and the whaling industry is in full swing. This is the backdrop for a romantic novel that charts the exploits of the press gang during the French Wars as two men attempt to win the favour of a beautiful young woman.

Mrs Gaskell stayed at No.1 Abbey Terrace for a brief visit in 1859. This was the foundation for her description of Whitby. The home belonged to the ‘Railway King', a man named George Hudson who had grand visions for Whitby as a tourist centre.

While not entirely factually correct, Sylvia's Lovers is well worth a read for the modern day Whitby lover.

Charles Dickens

Dickens's connection to Whitby begins with the dedication in the novel Domeby and Sons, which was serialised in monthly parts between 1846 and 1848. Charlie counted among his friends the Marquis and Marchioness of Normanby, it was to the Marchioness that the dedication was made.

On a visit to North Yorkshire to stay with the Marquis and Marchioness at Mulgrave Castle, Dickens found inspiration for characters and places in a number of his novels.

The counting house of Scrooge the protagonist of A Christmas Carol, is first encountered in Malton on Chancery Lane. He was in the town to visit another friend, Charles Smithson, a lawyer with a practice in Malton.

It was at the home of Mr Smithson, Easthope Hall, that Dickens encountered a lady on whom the alcoholic midwife and nurse, Mrs Sarah Gamp, is based. That novel of course being Martin Chuzzlewit.

After the funeral of Mr Smithson in 1844, Dickens was invited by the Lord of Normanby to stay once more at Mulgrave Castle. On this visit, the pair traveled the countryside around Whitby and dined at the White Horse and Griffin.

Dickens subsequently became an advocate for Whitby, encouraging his friend Wilkie Collins to visit in 1861. Collins and Dickens were both very popular and successful authors in the nineteenth century. Collins, less remembered than his counterpart, was in his day, the height of fashion to read.

Wilkie Collins

On his visit to Whitby, Wilkie Collins was accompanied by Caroline Graves. The Woman in White, published the year previous, was said to be based on her.

The reference to this inspiration was highlighted in a biography of Sir John Everett Millais. The account of a nighttime meeting between Wilkie and Charles Collins with a distraught woman is documented in the biography as being the same scene in The Woman in White.

Lewis Carroll

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a regular visitor to Whitby, staying at No. 5 East Terrace on at least seven occasions. Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician, is famously known as Lewis Carroll. The creator of the wonderful stories, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Literary Whitby, Alice In Wonderland Garden
The flower-bed hat is part of an Alice in Wonderland themed garden on land off Cliff Street overlooking a car park with views across to the East Cliff. Photo © Gerald England (cc-by-sa/2.0)

It is said that Whitby was where the poem ‘Walrus and the Carpenter' was first penned. On his visit in 1854 Carroll was likely experimenting with storytelling, and in particular, stories for children.

No.5 East Terrace is now run as a boutique hotel. La Rosa with its seafront views, literary pedigree, and quirky interior is a fine place to take an afternoon tea in a true Yorkshire style Mad Hatters Tea Party.

Let us know your thoughts on literary Whitby in the comments below.

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