Welcome to the city where Charles Dickens was born and where Arthur Conan Doyle first unleashed the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, on a grateful world.

Welcome also to a city whose literary stories go far beyond these more familiar examples – a city whose literary character and complex identity isn’t just about the past, but about a community of talented writers beavering away as we speak on so many inventive ideas.

The Portsmouth Literary Map project

Led by Dr Mark Frost and Dr Maggie Bowers of the English Literature team, the Portsmouth Literary Map project was launched in August 2019 out of a realisation that there was an amazing opportunity to publicise the stories associated with Portsmouth’s remarkable literary past and to tap into its existing literary community networks of poets, novelists, and short story writers.

But while the work of mapping Portsmouth’s fascinating literary stories goes on, the project has wider ambitions to forge strong and creative relationships with the wider communities of Portsmouth and Hampshire by reaching out to schools and libraries, authors and readers, to anyone interested in joining us to help fan the flames of the city’s literary energy. The launch of the Writing Literary Portsmouth blog is one part of our attempts to do just that – and you will hear more from us over the coming weeks and months about our work, our events, our projects, and about opportunities for you to be part of it all. 

Inside the Writing Literary Portsmouth blog

The blog will include regular feature articles by authors, famous and local, on their own literary relationships with the city. Look forward in the very near future to pieces by one of our most renowned detective novelists and one of our most celebrated local poets. It will have a ‘Poem of the Month’ feature, introducing you to the astonishing range and vibrant quality of Portsmouth verse, with an emphasis on verse about the city. 

Our On This Day features will take you back to significant, obscure, weird, or fascinating moments in the city’s literary pasts. In the coming months, we’ll introduce you to Charles Dickens’s reading tours in the city, and to another best-selling Victorian novelist, Walter Besant, also born in the city, whose Celia’s Arbour: A Tale of Portsmouth Town (1878) offers revealing glimpses of bygone Pompey.

And as if that weren’t enough, the blog will also bring you regular ‘Map Stories’, digging into the details of the authors who were born or lived here, the novels and poems set in the city, and the various things – complementary or otherwise – that people have said about the city. There will be so much for you to choose from, and so much for you to find out. 

How much do you know about Portsmouth Literature?

Before we say a little more about our aims for the map, why not test out your knowledge of literary Portsmouth with these ten questions? 

Click on each question to see the answer, along with some links to the map for those wanting to find out more.

A tale of two port cities

We can learn a lot by exploring literary Portsmouth.

Firstly, this is a city that packs a literary punch. It’s hard to think of another provincial British city of comparative size that has such an extraordinary range of authors who were either born here, lived here, or felt compelled to reflect on their experiences of the city. In that respect, Portsmouth fights well above its weight.

Secondly, this is a city that has always divided opinion, and continues to do so. For every person drawn into its peculiar charms, another is repelled. This was particularly true when Portsmouth was dominated by the dockyards, peopled by sailors, and characterised by the kinds of economic activities that sailors often prefer – drinking and prostitution (for more on this, see the sister project, led by our colleagues in the History team, The Port Towns and Urban Cultures Project). The Portsmouth Literary Map project offers endless and exciting opportunities to reflect both positive and negative responses to Pompey. 

Perhaps the most piquant observations on Portsmouth came from the illustrious General James Wolfe, billeted in the city against his will in 1758 prior to sailing to Canada to defeat the French in Quebec the following year. In a letter to a friend Wolfe certainly did not hold back in making his feelings plain:

Things have moved on quite a lot since the 1750s and the citizens of this fair city might argue that Wolfe’s characterisation is now obsolete. But it’s still the case that Portsmouth has a distinctive character, something apparent in the myriad literary responses that the map project is at pains to reflect, and that the poet, Tessa Foley, will address in her own distinctive and engaging way in her forthcoming blog for us. 

Writing Portsmouth

Clichés about the city endure, and it is of course part of our task to record them. But it is also our job to record the works of those who have tried to go beyond the stereotypes of a drunken, violent city, and to capture its fascinating hybrid identity, something that has become more and more clear to us as we have accumulated literary responses to Pompey.

On the one hand, Portsmouth is an outward-looking maritime city, a window or gateway to the world, a meeting-point of cultures and a place of movement. At the same time it’s the end of the (railway) line, and at times retains an insular and inward-looking personality. Flat, densely populated, and geographically isolated, it has an island mentality while also attracting visitors and inhabitants from diverse communities: quite a few of the poems featured on the map reflect, for example, on immigrant experiences of this port city. It is a naval town, marked in so many ways by its central place in the history of the Royal Navy (the Dockyards and the Hard are very well represented on the map), but it is by no means defined by that alone. If the map is for anything, it is first and foremost a way of mapping and reflecting upon the city’s complex and productively unstable identities.

There is so much more that we could talk about, and expect much more from us over the coming months, but perhaps it is best to allow you to find out more for yourself by visiting the map. The map is designed for use on mobile devices as well as laptops and computers, and we think you will appreciate its sophisticated interface. 

If you want to be more involved in the project, have suggestions for what to include, or if you would like to provide us with corrections or suggestions in relation to the map entries, please contact me, the Map Director, at mark.frost@port.ac.uk.

Mark Frost is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Map Director of the Portsmouth Literary Map.

The necessity of living in the midsts of the diabolical citizens of Portsmouth is a real and unavoidable calamity. It is a doubt to me whether there is such a collection of demons upon the whole earth. Vice, however, wears so ugly a garb that it disgusts rather than tempts.
General James Wolfe, British Army officer