I’ve always had a thing for fictional countries. Ruritania, Evallonia, Syldavia, you name it. Gondal, Gaaldine and Angria. Slavonia. (Points if you can name the works they appear in.)
More recently – fine, over the last fifteen years – my focus has narrowed and I’ve become interested in fictional cathedral cities. Fictional English cathedral cities. I’m not aware of examples from outside my own country, but I may not have been paying attention.
There seem to be two main ways to create one.
You can rename an existing city and all its environs, as Susan Howatch does to make Salisbury into Starbridge. Or, to take a more extreme example, you can rename everything in an entire region, as Thomas Hardy does. Even Oxford – sorry, Christminster – isn’t safe.
Or you can be a little bit fuzzy about geography. You can imply that you’re referring to a real city –
The Rev. Septimus Harding was, a few years since, a beneficed clergyman residing in the cathedral town of ––––; let us call it Barchester. Were we to name Wells or Salisbury, Exeter, Hereford, or Gloucester, it might be presumed that something personal was intended; and as this tale will refer mainly to the cathedral dignitaries of the town in question, we are anxious that no personality may be suspected. Let us presume that Barchester is a quiet town in the West of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments than for any commercial prosperity; that the west end of Barchester is the cathedral close, and that the aristocracy of Barchester are the bishop, dean, and canons, with their respective wives and daughters.
The Warden, Anthony Trollope
– or you can swear that you’re not . You can stretch the map and squeeze in an extra county or two:
The diocese of Lindchester is not large, squashed as it is between Lichfield to the south and Chester to the north; so don’t worry, we will not be travelling far.
Acts and Omissions, Catherine Fox
(Incidentally, I’m convinced that this is the only possible way to fit Ruritania in where Anthony Hope puts it: between Germany and Bohemia. Most adaptations make it far too small and far too far east. Roll up that map of Europe: this is fiction.)
My own approach is somewhere between the two. I plonked Stancester down on top of a real town (Ilchester – the crossroads is a dead giveaway if you look at a map of Roman Britain, though I appear to have drawn the below map of Stancester before visiting Ilchester and writing the chapter headings that deal with its history). The geography is plausible, but the rest is pretty much all made up. I suppose I think of it as a slightly alternate universe, where the railway went through there instead of through Yeovil, though I still haven’t worked out what that means for the Great Western line. I may have inadvertently erased Wells in the process. I didn’t mean to, but I’m not sure it’s plausible to have two cathedrals of such antiquity so close to each other.
Or, of course, you can borrow somebody else’s, as Angela Thirkell did.
Or not put any thought into the matter at all, supplying no identifying detail. Kate Lace, I’m looking at you. And your Westhampton. Look, I know The Chalet Girl is filed under ‘romance’ or ‘chicklit’, but if you’re going to do Barchester you might put a little effort in. And do some research, and by ‘do some research’ I mean ‘not sending your Bible-bashing eco-warrior fundie bishop to a fundraising event wearing a “soutane”.’ I’m comparatively High Church – I once went to Sainsbury’s wearing a cassock – and I had to Google ‘soutane’. Turns out it’s a cassock.
Sorry, rant over.
For some reason there’s a lot more going on in the south and west than there is in the north and east, and if one assumed these cities all existed in the same universe England would have to reach further out into the Channel than it currently does. The Archbishop of Canterbury* (even Thomas Hardy didn’t overwrite Canterbury, so far as I know) has far more fictional dioceses to look after than does the Archbishop of York**. ‘Write what you know.’ Or, rather, ‘overwrite what you know’.
But where are they really? They’re not anywhere really, because this is fiction. Even if they started out being based on somewhere ‘real’, they become very different in their passage through the author’s head. Even if they keep the original name – Morse’s Oxford, for example – they remain a portrait of a city of thousands of souls as seen through a single pair of eyes.
And authors get things wrong, and so do readers. A recent reviewer thought that Speak Its Name had a very convincing Oxford atmosphere. I fear that Oxford would disagree. In fact, the point of Stancester is rather that it isn’t Oxford. Of current British students, only an extremely bitter Cambridge one would mistake Stancester for Oxford, and even they would only be pretending.
Besides, if I’d meant to write about Oxford, I’d have called it Christminster. Or would I? Never mind. The lovely thing about fictional places is that they aren’t real. You can write them any way you like, and write anything you like about them. Just make sure you get your soutane straight.
*Barchester; Christminster (plus everywhere else in Wessex); Starbridge; Westhampton (I would guess, unless maybe it’s meant to be somewhere in the Midlands?); Stancester, sorry…
** Lindchester… er, that’s it.