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The City Built on Books

7 May 2016

Revelations of Divine Love

How Norwich became a literary capital...

At the close of the 14th century, while the Black Death was ravaging the country, a woman in Norwich dreamed of God. Her visions were so intense that she vowed to cloister herself from the world and devote her reclusive life to religion. From then on she spent her waking hours in a cell built onto the side of a small church known as St Julian in Norwich.

In that cell she wrote two books: the first a short text about her visions, the second a longer version of the first that came thirty years later, after much prayer and contemplation. She called it Revelations of Divine Love, and it remains to this day the oldest surviving book written by a woman in English. Of the woman herself, there is only mystery. Her real name lost to the pages of time, she is known simply as Julian of Norwich, after the church where she spent her cloistered life. The church still stands, and people from all over the world travel there every year to visit Julian of Norwich’s shrine, marked with a blue plaque.

Fast-forward 400 years. It’s 12th June 1802, and in Gurney House on Norwich’s Magdalen Street, the very same place where Elizabeth Fry came into the world twenty-two years earlier, a baby girl is being born. She is christened Harriet Martineau, and she will go on to become one of the most important literary figures of her generation. She will write political and sociological texts that not only change the way people view economics, education and slavery, but also the way women are viewed intellectually. As the first female journalist, Martineau will defy the gender roles of her society and succeed. So great will be her literary impact that, centuries later, the Writers’ Centre Norwich will hold an annual lecture in her honour.

Malcolm Bradbury

Malcolm Bradbury, UEA's Professor of American Studies

It’s 1970. The University of East Anglia with its stunning zigurrat buildings is turning seven, and two of its professors are planning something that will change the literary world forever. Malcolm Bradbury, UEA’s newly appointed Professor of American Studies, and Angus Wilson, professor of English Literature, have something in common. They are both fiction writers as well as academics, the former with the germ of his third novel perhaps already in his mind, the latter fresh from winning an award for his most recent book. Their shared passion for fiction and literary criticism is leading them towards the same groundbreaking goal: to set up the first Creative Writing Masters degree in the country.

Today the UEA Creative Writing course initiated by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson is renowned across the world as the most prestigious and successful in England. It has been taught by the likes of Angela Carter, Andrew Motion and WG Sebald, and attended by Ian McEwan, Anne Enright, Kazuo Ishiguro (all three of whom can call themselves Booker Prize Winners), Rose Tremain, Tracy Chevallier and Andrew Cowan among many others. In addition, each spring and autumn some of the greatest writers in the world come to UEA and speak in its twice-yearly literary festival.

And this passion for literature doesn’t just stay within campus walls. The Writers’ Centre Norwich at Dragon Hall is constantly pushing the boundaries of creative writing, with new projects and collaborations with Norwich writers. This September sees the third Writers’ Centre’s Noirwich Festival, a four-day celebration of crime writing and noir fiction.

On the corner of London Street you’ll find Jarrolds. One of the oldest family-run independent department stores in the country, Jarrolds had a successful publishing department that printed the first edition of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell in 1877. Though no longer publishing, Jarrolds Book Department continues to be a hub for bookworms in Norwich, and puts on a wide range of literary events throughout the year.

book hive

The Book Hive

Norwich also has plenty of second-hand bookshops, such as Tombland Bookshop, whose stacks contain an ever-changing collection of rare, antiquated, specialist and academic books that demand to be perused.Wander through the Norwich Lanes and you’ll stumble across the Book Hive, a true independent bookshop whose warm atmosphere will draw any unsuspecting bookworm in off the street to peruse the array of titles, all of which have been personally chosen by the owner, Henry Layte. You can be sure he has an eye for a good book: when no other publisher would touch Norwich writer Eimear McBride’s experimental novel ‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing,’ Henry Layte did, publishing it via the independent publishing outfit Galley Beggar Press. The book went on to win the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize and the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Finally, we come to Norwich’s Millennium Library: thousands of books housed within the impressive glass-fronted Forum overlooking Norwich’s covered market. For the last six years, this public library has been the most visited in the UK, a testament to the enduring love the people of Norwich have for books.

The Forum

Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library at The Forum

These are just some of the many things that make Norwich a light in the literary landscape, a place where thinkers, readers and writers have and always will feel at home. In May 2012, UNESCO World Heritage Sites recognized this by awarding Norwich the title of a UNESCO City of Literature. It was the first English city to achieve this accolade, and one of just eleven in the world.​