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  • Online publication date: December 2014

3 - At Work and at Play: Charles Lee's Cynthia in the West


They have no time to sit and look at Nature. Their life is one long fight with her. I am ashamed sometimes. This painting as a life-work – it is playing at living. They live.

So says Mr Forrester in Charles Lee's novel Cynthia in the West. Published in 1900, the novel is set in the fictional Cornish fishing village of Tregurda. ‘They’ are the local inhabitants whose lives and livelihood is entirely dependent on the sea. Being both a local man and a painter, Forrester occupies a unique position in the novel – his perspective on the workers is sympathetic and, as can be seen above, makes him question painting as an occupation. Yet within the novel he socializes with a colony of painters who have descended on Tregurda from London. They view the local inhabitants with scorn, distrust and as an ‘alien race’ and it is the complex relationship between the two groups which Lee's novel explores.

Charles Lee was a popular novelist in his own lifetime but he and his work have largely dropped out of cultural consciousness. He has received a small amount of recognition in the last twenty years with the republication in 2003 of his anthology of bad verse The Stuffed Owl.