Hrynick on Turner, 'Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire'
Derek Turner. Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire. London: Hurst, 2022. Illustrations. xxi + 446 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78738-698-3.
Reviewed by Tobias Hrynick (Fordham University) Published on H-Environment (January, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58475
Derek Turner’s Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire is not entirely a book of history, and it would not be fair to review it as one. Rather, it is an amalgamation of history, memoir, and travel literature. The primary organization is spatial, with successive chapters covering the offshore Doggerland (chapter 2), the Fens (chapter 3), the Lincolnshire Marsh (chapter 4), the River Ouse (chapter 5), the Humber Estuary (chapter 6), northwest Lincolnshire (chapter 7), the city of Lincoln (chapter 8), the Wolds (chapter 9), and the county’s southwest (chapter 10). The internal chapter organization is also generally spatial, with individual places prompting a discussion of related people and events, described both from historical sources and from the author’s personal experience, in an almost stream-of-consciousness style. The quality of Turner’s prose does much to hold together individual chapters, despite their lack of chronological narrative or thematic argumentation; even so, chapters are sometimes patchwork and transitions jagged. The discussion of the town of Grantham, for instance, catapults a reader directly from a conventional deified account of Isaac Newton to a slightly more cautious discussion of Margaret Thatcher, on the basis of their mutual “understated Protestantism” and interest in “sound money” (p. 375).
Such juxtapositions are more than an artifact of the book’s underlying organization: they represent an aspect of the book’s core philosophy. Early in the book, Turner extolls the virtues of the popular scientist and historian Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Land (1951), noting particularly its extremely wide scope, in a way that simultaneously offers a prospectus of Turner’s own work: “It was scorned by scholars, but unlike those desiccated specialists, Hawkes knew of the commonality between all generations and all living things, and an imaginative but profound connection between places and the people who live in them” (p. 21). And indeed some of the strongest sections of Edge of England draw on the emotional resonances between people and places; chapters 2 through 4, which discuss the history and prehistory of inundation in Lincolnshire wetlands in the context of global sea-level rise, are particularly remarkable, with an evocation of place that brings to mind Aldo Leopold. Elsewhere, when the connections between past and present are less compellingly drawn, the effect is more like being taken on a tour of Lincolnshire by an enthusiastic local after an unusually thorough blue plaque-laying campaign by the English Heritage Trust—still pleasant, but occasionally disorienting and not up to the lyric power of Turner’s strongest passages.
Edge of England is a self-consciously nostalgic book, presenting Lincolnshire not only as a subject of study for its own sake but also as a representation of England’s past more broadly. That the book opens with an (excellent and useful, if odd) map of the county drawn by Dan Bell in the style of J. R. R. Tolkien is suggestive of the general sentiment. The book is explicitly modeled on antiquarian county histories, which Turner feels had neglected Lincolnshire. Unfortunately, while Turner manages to capture some of the breadth and liveliness that made his antiquarian models such enjoyable reading, he also has perpetuated some of the chronic problems of that genre. The majority of the book is a succession of elite biographical snatches and notable anecdotes, which are sometimes presented without the sufficient context to make them meaningful. So, for example, St. Hugh of Lincoln’s repeated thefts of relics from other religious institutions is amusingly recounted, but it is presented as an individual eccentricity rather than an example of a broader religious practice. Readers may also regret the general lack of engagement with social history. Even obvious opportunities to engage with ordinary lives from the past are sometimes sidestepped. A passage from Edward Gillet’s History of Grimsby (1970) praising medieval court rolls as sources for the everyday vernacular speech is recontextualized by Turner as evidence of the violence and depravity of medieval “night life”—forging a connection between present social troubles and the past but at the cost of failing to engage more fully with the past on its own terms (p. 180). More generally, the inconsistent engagement with primary source material and reliance on weakly contextualized quotations are problems, compounded by the inevitable difficulty of any broad survey, where no author could be expert in all the topics raised. In one particularly uncomfortable passage, Turner catalogs various medieval community upsets “often caused by women,” before attempting to summarize the whole complex issue of coverture—the legal practice whereby men were legally responsible for their wives under most circumstances—with a quotation from a book published by Frances Page in 1934 calling it a convention “favourable to the virago, if humiliating to her sex as a whole” (p. 148). One wishes some desiccated specialist might have warned Turner off here.
For a book whose stated purpose is to remedy history’s neglect of a marginal group—Lincolnshire’s inhabitants—Turner’s work is curiously hostile to anything that might be perceived as historical revisionism. The issue of British profiteering from Atlantic slavery is touched on twice, once reluctantly when the need to mention it in the context of the history of Stamford is portrayed as an unfortunate necessity of Stamford’s proximity to London and vulnerability to London’s “complexes,” as if acknowledging the history of slavery was a uniquely metropolitan pastime (p. 354); Turner quickly deflects to examples of people from Lincolnshire subject to captivity elsewhere in the world. On the second occasion, Turner deplores any attempt to depict Newton as a profiteer of colonialism, though he fails to engage with—or, indeed, to mention—why anyone might have thought he was. Naturally, there is no particular reason Turner should engage with Newton’s investment in a slave trading company in a general county history, but neither is there any obvious reason, in a work so miscellaneous, that he should exclude it, except that he finds that fragment of history uncongenial. In much the same way, by cutting his history of Lincolnshire’s military contributions sharply at the amalgamation of the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment into the 2nd East Anglian Turner conveniently avoids any activities of Lincolnshire soldiers in any war more recent or controversial than World War II.
Edge of England is well worth reading. It is consistently well written, and the breadth of the project means that almost any reader will find things of interest. As a piece of travel literature, or a means of appreciating the Lincolnshire landscape, it is excellent. As a work of history narrowly defined, it is less consistently successful.
Citation: Tobias Hrynick. Review of Turner, Derek, Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58475This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.