The Reader’s Gazetteer: B

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Of course it has to be Barchester. Other fictional Bs that come to mind are bit-part players: Borduria in Tintin, or Belsornia in the Chalet School series. But Barchester is one of the big ones. In terms of its significance, that is; the whole point of it is that it isn’t exactly a bit city.

Anthony Trollope is a little bit vague about the precise location of Barchester at the beginning of The Warden:

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.

But that doesn’t matter; it’s all we need to get the story going. In The Warden, it’s the personalities and politics that drive things: the close, the clergy, the councillors.  Trollope shows us a city that’s been minding its own business, getting along quite happily in its own way, sorting out or ignoring its petty troubles and corruptions – until someone comes in from outside and shakes it all up. And ‘outside’ means, of course, ‘London’. John Bold, the reformer, is a Barchester man, but he has been away to London and come back again with ideas:

His passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses (he has got himself elected a town councillor of Barchester, and has so worried three consecutive mayors, that it became somewhat difficult to find a fourth), abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large.

In very broad terms, Barchester just has to not be London, and to be influenced by the events and people (Tom Towers, for example) that happen in or come from London. Nothing more than that is necessary, and, broadly speaking, that’s all we get. There is, however, one mention of a London terminal, and that terminal is Paddington.

As we work our way through the series, the location stabilises. We travel further afield around the city of Barchester. The internal geography of Barsetshire emerges, and is sufficiently consistent for the folk at Penguin to have produced the map on the endpapers of the Penguin Classics edition in the photograph. We learn in Framley Parsonage that Exeter exists in this universe, and so can’t be Barchester. Then, in The Small House at Allington, Johnny Eames also goes to London, and also arrives at Paddington. That puts Barchester firmly on the Great Western Railway, and certainly rules out Salisbury.

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(These were library copies, and it took me a while to realise that the disintegrating Gothic tracery on the cover of The Warden was down to wear and tear, rather than a comment by the cover designer. One could certainly read some symbolic significance into that…)

In my head Barchester lies south of the Severn rather than on it, but that might just be because I first read The Warden when I was at university in Exeter. Hereford just feels far too far north. The real-life scandal that inspired the plot of The Warden happened, of course, at Winchester: Hiram’s Hospital bears a remarkable similarity to the hospital of St Cross (where, oddly enough, I was baptised rather more than a century later). The reader will notice that Winchester is not mentioned at the beginning of The Warden. Then again, it’s even more hassle to get to from Paddington than Salisbury.

Later in this series I’ll be examining other cathedral cities, and I’ll be speculating just what it is about the West of England that makes it so attractive to the constructors of fictional towns. In the meantime, however, it’s only right to salute Anthony Trollope and the one that, in many ways, started it all.

Books referred to in this post

The Warden, Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope

The Small House at Allington, Anthony Trollope

King Ottakar’s Sceptre, Hergé

various Chalet School titles, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

 

The Reader’s Gazetteer: A

When I first started thinking about writing this series, I imagined that I’d be ignoring fantasy altogether. I wouldn’t be able to locate Narnia on a map of the world; at least, I couldn’t point to where it should be, so was it worth my while considering the genre at all?

But I realised pretty quickly that dismissing fantasy would rule out one fictional nation that definitely deserves its place in this gazetteer.

I’m talking about Alpennia, from the series by Heather Rose Jones.

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If I’d written a wishlist of all the tropes and themes that I most enjoy reading, and handed my specifications over to an author, I couldn’t have liked the result better than I like this. The series contains nights at the opera, women in breeches, swashbuckling, politics both national and ecclesiastical, relationships between women, and a sensitive portrayal of religious experience. And a fictional state somewhere in Europe. Which is why we’re here.

The worldbuilding is meticulous. Alpennia is made distinctive by physical geography, by history, by religious practice, and, perhaps most obviously, by language. Where some authors would have let matters carry on in assumed French or German, Jones gives Alpennia a language of its own, and it works remarkably well.

How do you get there? How do I get there? Because that’s my main criterion for including a place in this gazetteer. And if getting there had to involve magic, it wouldn’t make the cut.

In Daughter of Mystery, Alpennia’s location is established in relation to Switzerland:

Chalanz was well out of sight around a curve of the hills behind her but in the other direction, to the south, she could see all the way to where the mountains rose, snowcapped, on the southeastern border of Alpennia, guarding the roads to Switzerland and places beyond.

In The Mystic Marriage we get a fix on it from the other direction. Antuniet travels from Heidelberg to Rotenek, the country’s capital, via Basel.

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As it happens, magic in these books might impede travel, but it doesn’t seem to enable it in any meaningful sense. They’re set in the first half of the nineteenth century, and people travel on foot, or horseback, or coach. I imagine that there’s a railway line these days, and perhaps even an airport.

Leaving the realms of fantasy – or, since I’m now turning to Anne of Green Gables, perhaps not – and crossing the Atlantic brings me to Avonlea.

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I suspect that I’ll be writing a lot over the course of this series about how characters enter and leave fictional places, about outsiders and insiders are identified, and about how the established community is set up.

Anne of Green Gables does all of those things within the first few chapters. A typical opening would see the orphan Anne arriving on a train, to be met by Matthew Cuthbert and escorted into Avonlea.

And in fact that’s what happens. But it doesn’t happen until Avonlea has been introduced to us. The novel opens with Mrs Rachel Lynde seeing Matthew leaving Avonlea, and wondering why. It’s a clever move to get the best of both worlds: Avonlea may never have seen anything like Anne, but we can’t understand the significance of that unless we understand a little bit about Avonlea.

In passing, we get a geographical clue:

Mrs Rachel found abundant time to sit for hours at her kitchen window… keeping a sharp eye on the main road that crossed the hollow and wound up the steep red hill beyond. Since Avonlea occupied a little triangular peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of St Lawrence, with water on two sides of it, anybody who went out of it or into it had to pass over that hill road and so run the unseen gauntlet of Mrs Rachel’s all-seeing eye.

Then we follow Matthew out of Avonlea. There’s a little hint of the lyrical descriptive note that the narrative voice shares with Anne, but it’s nothing to what hits the page when we meet Anne herself and she meets Avonlea:

They were on the crest of a hill. The sun had set some time since, but the landscape was still clear in the mellow afterlight. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley, and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it, in the stainless south-west sky, a great crystal-white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.

This alternation continues throughout the book. Marilla Cuthbert takes over the more prosaic point of view, while Anne keeps the descriptions. (Matthew continues not to say very much.) It’s effective: in the reader’s mind, Avonlea becomes a very beautiful place, but one that’s the creation of a very human community.

How to get there? I refer you to this thoroughly evidenced page matching the locations in the books with real-world settlements. Find your way to Charlottetown, and off you go. Actually, I’m not sure whether, growing up, it ever occurred to me to doubt that Avonlea was real.

Books referred to in this post

Daughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones

The Mystic Marriage, Heather Rose Jones

Mother of Souls, Heather Rose Jones

Anne of Green Gables (and, obliquely, much of the rest of the Anne series), L. M. Montgomery

hear the prayer we offer (and the one we don’t)

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I have a rather tiresome cough at the moment, which has made singing in the church choir… interesting. On Sunday I’d got to the point where the singing was mostly OK, but I was paying for it in the spoken bits. I don’t understand the physiology enough to explain why I could force my way through the Gloria (sung) but was having to miss whole chunks of the Creed (said) in order to cough.

Anyway, I suspect nobody in the congregation actually noticed, particularly over the sound of the rain, but I was aware that it must have sounded rather as if I was having theological objections to some of the least controversial bits of the Creed. I coughed through ‘and was buried’, for example, but managed ‘and the Son’, ‘the holy, catholic and apostolic Church’, and ‘the communion of saints’ with no problems at all.

That reminded me of someone I knew at a previous church who refused to say the line about ‘the resurrection of the body’, because she didn’t believe in it, which then reminded me of a story the rector of that church told about a couple whose thoughts about Firmly I believe and truly used to be very audible, because they just stopped singing when they got to a bit they didn’t believe in.

Personally I can do most of Firmly I believe and truly, though I do mentally cross my fingers when I get to ‘and her teachings as his own’.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike a hymn beside theological or moral objections. Clumsy use of language. A melody line that goes too high or too low (I cannot tell manages to be both, for a lot of people), or is simply banal. (Brother, sister, let me serve you, I’m looking at you.)

There are various different ways to deal with the discovery that a hymn you really dislike is coming up next. You could walk out (though you probably won’t). You could sing the bits you agree with and keep your mouth shut for the bits you don’t. You could spend the whole thing looking for cash for the collection. You could rewrite the words on the fly. I’ve used all those tactics except the first one on the second verse of In Christ Alone.

I try to avoid altogether any kind of service where there’s a danger of I vow to thee, my country. I refuse to offer my country ‘the love that asks no question’: that kind of idolatry is how we end up with the mess we’re in now. And Thaxted is a tune that wasn’t written for the human voice, and it shows.

So far, so uncontroversial. Or, I suppose, so predictably controversial. But my own particular peeve is a hymn that’s sung a lot in ordinary Church of England parish churches, particularly during Lent. Father, hear the prayer we offer.

It’s the first verse that annoys me: Not for ease that prayer shall be/But for strength…

The subtext of this hymn is: I could cope with this, if only you would make me stronger. I don’t know much about the life of Love Maria Willis, the writer: it’s quite possible that it wasn’t easy; that she had to put up with a lot and not complain about it. But this – like I vow to thee, my country, in fact – is mixing up the human values of a bygone century with the values of the kingdom of heaven.

I want to ask: what’s wrong with praying for ease? What’s wrong with praying for things to be easier? That prayer may not be answered, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy prayer.

The assumption that there is something wrong with it drives me up the wall. I think it’s picky and prideful; it’s that old human fault of telling God how to fix things.

What would happen if, rather than assuming that we aren’t strong enough, we entertained the possibility that actually, this situation is intolerable?

I know.

But we worship one whose strength was made perfect in weakness, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. God does not tell us to put up and shut up, but Come unto me, ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Our insistence on our own strength is risible in the face of that almighty understanding.

No, give me the steep and rugged pathways and the green pastures. To be fair, the rest of the hymn does; it’s just the first verse that I object to.

Fortunately, it’s easily fixed:

Father, hear the prayer we offer:
Both for ease that prayer shall be,
And for strength that we may ever
Live our lives rejoicingly.

New blog series: The Reader’s Gazetteer

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Earlier this week I updated my ‘About’ page to add a little about what visitors can expect to find on this site. I wrote that the blog is largely about ‘other people’s books, travel, and the writing process’.

This blog series is going to deal with two of those things. I’m going to do an abedecedarium – an A to, I hope, Z of fictional places in other people’s books, and speculate as to how one might find them if they were real. Ever since my father read me The Prisoner of Zenda I’ve been fascinated by places that sound as if they might exist, but don’t, by books that convince me that I could take a train or just walk over the border into somewhere that’s only real in the author’s head, and now mine.

How am I going to choose these places? It’s going to come down to these two questions:

Do I believe in the place? Do geography and politics seem plausible?

Do I believe that I, a normal human being with no powers more sophisticated than being able to hold a map the right way up and knowing how to use the Deutsche Bahn app, could get to the place?

I am not going to be fussy about genre. This series will range across detective stories, fanfiction, teen books, thrillers, classics, possibly even the occasional school story. Sci-fi and fantasy are less likely to be included, for obvious reasons: if I need a spaceship to get there, it’s not going in. Portal fantasy is out, as well. With (at time of planning) one honourable exception.

I am restricting myself to textual canons, though I’m throwing in Tintin for old times’ sake. Much as I adore The Merry Widow, you will not find Pontevedro here (or even Marsovia, as the first English translation had it). Nor am I including the deliberately silly. Barataria and Pfennig-Halbfennig would be out anyway under the ‘book canons’ rule, but you also won’t find Norman Hunter’s Kumdown Upwardz, Gadzooks, or Urgburg-under-Ug. (Which is a pity, because it’s a bit of a struggle to find fictional places beginning with U.)

Inevitably, I will miss some places, and it will probably be because I haven’t read their books. If it turns out that one of them is your favourite, I apologise. I’ll be inviting people to add their own recommendations in comments every week.

I’ll be sharing pictures of the books, and maps where they have them, and I’ll be talking about what makes me believe in the place. I’ll probably also wander onto byways involving my own travels in real places, and my own travails coming up with fictional ones.

Want to join me? You’d be very welcome. Grab a toothbrush and your passport, and I’ll see you back here next Saturday.

Book meme

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It’s a wet Saturday afternoon, so let’s have a meme! Comment with a number and I’ll answer the question.

1: What book did you last finish? When was that?

2: What are you currently reading?

3: What book are you planning to read next?

4: What was the last book you added to your tbr?

5: Which book did you last re-read?

6: Which book was the last one you really, really loved?

7: What was/were the last book/books you bought?

8: Paperback or hardcover? Why?

9: YA, NA or Adult? Why?

10: Sci-Fi or fantasy? Why?

11: Classic or modern? Why?

12: Political memoirs or comedic memoirs?

13: Name a book with a really bad movie/tv adaption

14: Name a book where the movie/tv adaption actually was better than the original

15: What book changed your life?

16: If you could bring three books to a deserted island which would you bring and why?

17: If you owned a bookshop what would you call it?

18: Which character from a book is the most like you?

19: Which character from a book is the least like you?

20: Best summer read?

21: Best winter read?

22: Pro or anti e-readers? Why?

23: Bookdepository or Amazon?

24: Do you prefer to buy books online or in a bookshop?

25: If you could be a character from a book for just one day who would you be and why? (Bonus: any specific day in the story?)

26: If you could be a character from a book for their entire life who would you be and why?

27: If you could change one thing about mainstream literature what would you change? (i.e. more diversity, better writing, better plot etc.)

28: How many books have you read so far this year?

29: How do you sort your shelves? (i.e. by color, author, title etc.)

30: Who’s your favourite author?

31: Who’s your favourite contemporary author?

32: Who’s your favourite fantasy author?

33: Who’s your favourite Sci-Fi author?

34: List five OTPs

35: Name a book you consider to be terribly underrated

36: Name a book you consider to be terribly overrated

37: How many books are actually in your bookshelf/shelves right now?

38: What language do you (most often) read in?

39: Name one of your favorite childhood books

40: Name one of your favorite books from your teenage years

41: Do you own a library card? How often do you use it?

42: Which was the best book you had to read in school?

43: Are you the kind of person who reads several books at once or the kind of person who can only read one book at a time?

44: Do you like to listen to music when you read?

45: What is your favorite thing to eat when you read?

46: What is your favorite thing to drink when you read?

47: What do you do to get out of a reading slump?

48: Where is your favorite place to read?

49: When is your favorite time to read?

50: Why do you love to read?