North, South, East, West Cardinal points and regions
in contemporary British literature and arts

International conference SEAC / CECILLE
Université de Lille, 19-20 October 2023
Organized by Claire Hélie

Keynote speaker: Prof. Katy Shaw (Northumbria University)

Geographical issues are central to the SEAC, whose works have recently focused on themes such as the horizon (2011), the imaginaries of space (2014), confluences (2017), or even landscapes (2018). In this continuity, the next conference will focus on the way North, South, East, and West are imagined, told, and written. If in astronomy the cardinal points are necessary for human beings to find their bearings and orientation in the world, British writers and artists question the preconceived ideas that underpin the use of these landmarks in the collective imagination. Indeed, the cardinal points bear a semantic load that prevents any definitive assignment, which is reflected in the language itself, be it French or English: if you are about to “perdre le nord”, you run the risk of “être à l’ouest”; while if you are « too far north », « to go west » is not inevitable; conversely, to « head south » may take you « east of Eden », which is not so bad, because “à l’ouest, rien de nouveau”… « from east to west », authors redefine the cardinal points in their writings.

The very number of these cardinal points is debatable. Indeed, not only does the compass rose show a myriad of intermediate directions, but the zenith and the nadir may also be considered as cardinal points that constitute a third dimension. Besides, to quote Michel Viègnes in Imaginaires des points cardinaux (2005), « Is the center […] a distinct direction, or should it be seen as the primary omphalos from which unfolds the quaternity of directions, like the quinta essentia which contains the four elements of undifferentiated aspect?”. Seamus Heaney’s Northern omphalos may come to mind; at least it was used as a touchstone for The Poetry Society to bring together texts by poets from very different regions such as Colette Bryce, Bhanu Kapil, Simon Armitage… Another question is that of the size (from the Global North to South London) and the borders of said regions, where everything is a matter of perspective. For instance, the North is an administrative region of England; it is also Scotland, north of England; it is a cultural region inherited from Northumbria; it is also a vast northern basin that includes the Scandinavian countries.

Be they four, five or more, the cardinal points work as springboards for the imagination. Auden’s moral compass serves as a fitting example: “North – cold, wind, precipices, glaciers, caves, heroic conquest of dangerous production, privacy. South – heat, light, drought, calm, agricultural plains, trees, Rotarian crowds, the life of ignoble ease, spiders, fruits and desserts, the waste of time, publicity. West and East are relatively neutral. West is more

favourable, i.e., more northern, but conjures up the unheroic image of retired couples holding hands in the sunset; East is definitely southern and means dried figs and scorpions.”1 Erected as a system, the cardinal points provide a division of the world that is immediately recognizable by the reader. For example, playwrights like Alan Bennett, Shelagh Delaney, Andrea Dunbar, Peter Flanery, John Godber, Lee Hall, Alan Plater have depicted a North of England steeped in working-class culture, social realism, and the reversal of stigma; while Antony Gormley synthesized that spirit in his monumental sculpture “The Angel of the North”.

Conversely, fantasy and science fiction create imaginary worlds that draw heavily on the representations of the North, the South, the East and the West, as evidenced by The Chronicles of Narnia, Northern Light, or Lord of the Rings. Travel literature also uses the cardinal regions to (re)discover other places while dystopian fiction uncovers them, like Orwell’s 1984 which divides the Eastern and Western blocs of the Cold War into three fluctuating federations dependent on temporary alliances.

To analyse these political, cultural and literary constructions, criticism is rife with neologisms (nordicity, westerness, orientalism, the Global South…) which aim to go beyond the supposedly essentializing character of the cardinal points. Indeed, North, South, East and West can only be understood in relation to each other. Thus, in his preface to The South Country, Edward Thomas clarifies the region he is going to poeticise: « the name is given to the south of England as distinguished from the Midlands, ‘North England’, and ‘West England’ by the Severn. The poet is thinking particularly of Sussex and of the South Downs. »2 The cardinal points are often reduced to a notional pairing based on a radical antagonism. The OED describes the northern countries as « the industrially and economically more developed countries of the world, typically located to the north of the less industrialized nations » and the southern countries in diametrically opposed terms: « The countries of the southern hemisphere, viewed as industrially and economically less developed than those of the northern hemisphere; the developing world.” The « North-South divide » became conceptually known thanks to Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel and there have been many variations since.

These ‘imaginative geographies’ raise the question of the polarisation of regions (which is structuring in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and Ford Madox Ford’s Provence, and which is deconstructed in Ayub Khan-Din’s East is East and its sequel West is West, or in Salman Rushdie’s East, West for example), a polarisation which is challenged by the search for new arrangements, as in Brian Chikwava’s Harare North, in which London and Zimbabwe are basically the same place for those who experience migration (errare). This dual construction of spaces is at the heart of Edward Said’s Orientalism and postcolonial literature, but also of decolonial thinking that tries to go beyond the polarities which imply a hierarchy of values.

Because the literature dealing with North, South, East and West highlights the sociological and historical roots of the representations of these regions, they also question the system of literary representation and its cultural and political foundation. Language is therefore central: what do we hear, phonetically and symbolically, when the narrator or a character speaks a regional variety of English? What does the West sound like? The literature dealing with the cardinal points, which is palimpsestual and metatextual in nature, raises very vast questions that this conference proposes to address in the British field (which will not prevent us from taking an interest in diasporic writers).

Papers (in English only) may take as their focus British literature and visual arts of the 20th and the 21st centuries.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to: – poetics of the cardinal points
– landmarks and their blurring
– genre, gender and the cardinal points

– all points north. Or does it?
– relevance and evolution of the concepts (Nordicity, easterness, Global South, westernization…)
– aesthetics of the polarization and fragmentation of the regions
– representation of the departure, drift and diaspora from one region to the other
– the fluidity of the frontiers
– geolocation: from research to writing to researching the writing
– the representation of regional languages


Cockin, Katharine (ed.). The Literary North. Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2012.
Delmas, Catherine.“When West Meets East in E. M. Forster’sHill of Devi.Études britanniques contemporaines 37 (2009): 15-26.
Duperray, Max.Gothic N.E.W.S.: Exploring the Gothic in Relation to New Critical Perpectives and the Geographical Polarities of North, East, West and South. Michel Houdiard, 2009.
Gee, Gabriel. Art in the North of England, 1979-2008. Routledge, 2017.
Honeybone, Patrick, and Warren Maguire (eds.). Dialect Writing and the North of England. Edinburgh University Press, 2020.
Korte, Barbara, et al. Facing the East in the West: Images of Eastern Europe in British Literature, Film and Culture. Rodopi, 2010.
Mazierska, Ewa. Heading North: the North of England in Film and Television. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Oueijan, Naji B. The Progress of an Image: the East in English Literature. Peter Lang, 1996.

Reynier, Christine. “Mapping Ford Madox Ford’s Provence in Provence”. Davison, Claire, etal.. Provence and the British Imagination. Ledizioni, 2013. (pp. 193-202)
Russell, Dave. Looking North: Northern England and the National Imagination. Manchester University Press, 2004.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, 1978.
Toudoire-Surlapierre, Frédérique, Alexandra Ballotti and Claire McKeown. De la nordicité au boréalisme. Éditions Universitaires de Reims, 2018. Viègnes, Michel. Imaginaires des points cardinaux. Imago, 2005.

This conference will be convened by Dr Claire Hélie (Université de Lille – CECILLE). It will be held at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities on the University of Lille’s campus in Villeneuve d’Ascq, on October 19th-20th, 2023.

Proposals of 300 words, together with a short biographical note, should be sent to Claire Hélie ( by May 31st, 2023. Notifications of acceptance will be sent by June 30th, 2023.

A selection of peer-reviewed papers will be published in the SEAC’s journal Études britanniques contemporaines: