The Reader’s Gazetteer: F

Back to England, and back to Barsetshire and Framley. Framley Parsonage provides some more detail of the geography of Barsetshire in general.

… that letter went into Barchester by the Courcy night mail-cart, which, on its road, passes through the villages of Uffley and Chaldicotes, reaching Barchester in time for the up mail-train to London. By that train, the letter was sent towards the metropolis as far as the junction of the Barset branch line, but there it was turned in its course, and came down again by the main line as far as Silverbridge; at which place, between six and seven in the morning, it was shouldered by the Framley footpost messenger, and in due course delivered at the Framley Parsonage exactly as Mrs. Robarts had finished reading prayers to the four servants.

The further I get through this abecedarium, the more I’m coming to appreciate the importance of plausible fictional systems as a component of plausible fictional locations.

Because novels are about humans, and humans create systems, and are part of systems, and are influenced by the systems that contain them and are around them. A village is a system; a town is a system; a country is a system.

One doesn’t necessarily need pages of infodumping explaining how it all works. The odd snippet of details can be enough to convey the idea of a coherent universe. In the Framley Parsonage extract above, it’s the postal system (which of course Trollope knew a lot about), which intersects with the rail system, and, here, meets the class system and the religious system. Framley Parsonage is not about the post or the trains. The systems that it’s really looking at are politics and money and friendship and marriage. But that little excursion along the Barset branch line situates it in a geographical system.

It’s where systems meet landscape – are imposed upon a landscape, shape landscape, are shaped by a landscape – that we get the kind of place that I’m looking at in this series. Different landscapes mean different systems. Which brings us to The Nine Tailors, and Fenchurch St Paul. The landscape here is fen – reclaimed from the sea, flat and prone to flooding, dotted with churches built with wealth from the wool trade – and the system is drainage.

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“… Ah! look – over to the right – that must be Van Leyden’s Sluice that turns the tide up the Thirty-foot Drain – Denver Sluice again on a smaller scale. Let’s look at the map. See, here’s where the Drain joins the Wale, but it meets it at a higher level; if it wasn’t for the Sluice, all the Drain water would turn back up the Wale and flood the whole place. Bad engineering – but the seventeenth-century engineers had to work piecemeal and take things as they found ’em. That’s the Wale, coming down through Potter’s Lode from Fenchurch St Peter. I shouldn’t care for the sluice-keeper’s job – dashed lonely, I should think.”

This is a system that’s been put in place by humans, and is therefore vulnerable to the shortcomings of those humans.

“Nobody knows whose job this here sluice is, seemin’ly. The Fen Drainage Board, now – they say as it did oughter be done by the Wale Conservancy Board. And they say the Fen Drainage Board did oughter see to it. And now they’ve agreed to refer it, like, to the East Level Waterways Commission. But they ain’t made their report yet.”

It could be argued that we hear more than we strictly need to about the drainage around the Fenchurches. But I think it contributes to the book as a whole. Certainly I would find it difficult to describe what drains into what and where floods or doesn’t flood as a result, but I come away with a sense of a vast landscape imperfectly controlled, and when, at the climax of the book, it plays its part, I believe in it unreservedly. (I feel much the same about the bell-ringing; I let my eyes pass over the page without feeling any particular need to understand what’s going on.)

Fenchurch St Paul itself has two pubs and a Big House and, set a little way off, on a hill (this is important later), a church, and it’s a very plausible fenland village. I’m quoting the description of the church, because it’s lovely:

At the first glance he felt himself sobered and awe-stricken by the noble proportions of the church, in whose vast spaces the congregation – though a good one for so small a parish in the dead of a winter’s night – seemed almost lost. The wide nave and shadowy aisles, the lofty span of the chancel arch – crossed, though not obscured, by the delicate fan-tracery and crenellated moulding of the screen – the intimate and cloistered loveliness of the chancel, with its pointed arcading, graceful ribbed vault and five narrow east lancets, led his attention on and focused it first upon the remote glow of the sanctuary. Then his gaze, returning to the nave, followed the strong yet slender shafting that sprang fountain-like from floor to foliated column-head, spraying into the light, wide arches that carried the clerestory. And there, mounting to the steep pitch of the roof, his eyes were held entranced with wonder and delight. Incredibly aloof, flinging back the light in a dusky shimmer of bright hair and gilded out-spread wings, soared the ranked angels, cherubim and seraphim, choir over choir, from corbel and hammer-beam floating face to face uplifted.

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Later we learn that the angels have in the current vicar’s tenure been restored with new gilt, which made me raise my eyebrows a little. I would be surprised to hear of a church doing that these days; but then fashions in church upkeep change – which is itself an important point.

Detective stories often oblige the reader with a plan of important locations. My copy of The Nine Tailors has three: the two showing roads and drains, and the church:

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They’re particularly useful in detective fiction because they allow readers to follow the action and authors to make sure that all the characters are in the right place at the right time. Some people use them to make a fictional location seem more real. But Fenchurch St Paul feels quite real enough already.

Books referred to in this post

Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers

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