This isn’t quite the oldest work I’ve referred to in this series: The Annals of the Parish has thirty-two years on it. Villette the book was published in 1853; Villette the city has the sense of a long history. ‘The great capital of the great kingdom of Labassecour,’ it’s famously based on Brussels, and Charlotte Brontë’s experiences as a teacher there. At the time of publication, this was only twenty-three years on from the revolution that established Belgium as a nation. This seems to have happened, if rather longer ago, and not in quite the same way, in Villette too:
In past days there had been, said history, an awful crisis in the fate of Labassecour, involving I know not what peril to the rights and liberties of her gallant citizens. Rumours of wars there had been, if not wars themselves; a kind of struggling in the streets – a bustle – a running to and fro, some rearing of barricades, some burgher-rioting, some calling out of troops, much interchange of brickbats, and even a little of shot. Tradition held that patriots had fallen: in the old Basse-Ville was shown an enclosure, solemnly built and set apart, holding, it was said, the sacred bones of martyrs.
Labassecour seems to have been existing uneventfully – dare one say, dully? – for rather longer than Belgium had. All the same, there’s plenty going on beyond the walls of the school where Brontë’s heroine Lucy Snowe teaches. For example:
a concert… a grand affair to be held in the large sall, or hall, of the principal musical society. The most advanced of the pupils of the Conservatoire were to perform: it was to be followed by a lottery “au benefice des pauvre;” and to crown all, the King, Queen and Prince of Labassecour were to be present.
And the place itself seems impressive enough. On her arrival, Lucy passes:
a magnificent street and square, with the grandest houses round, and amidst them the huge outline of more than one over-bearing pile; which might be palace or church…
There’s a lot of French in Villette, so much so that even this copy, printed in 1900, includes an apologetic appendix with all the translations. It’s effective, though: we never, ever, forget that we’re in a foreign country. Making it a language that we might be expected to know, or at least to be able to learn if we chose, makes it a country that we could plausibly visit. (Although even a little French reveals Villette to be ‘a little town’, and a little more makes Labassecour ‘the farmyard’. Which undermines things rather.)
And religion, my goodness. We are left in no danger of forgetting that Labassecour is a Roman Catholic country, and differences in religion are a major driver of the action in the second half of the book. Nor are we in danger of forgetting that this is something foreign to Lucy Snowe. I often found it uncomfortable reading, and I’m not even Catholic.
Which is all very well, but how do you get there? On impulse, from London. Lucy learns from a waiter that she can take a ship to the Continent landing at Boue-Marine, and boards one a few hours later. Landing in ‘the foreign seaport town’, she spends the rest of the night at a hotel, and then travels forty miles by road to Villette:
Somewhat bare, flat and treeless was the route along which our journey lay; and slimy canals crept, like half-torpid green snakes, beside the road; and formal pollard willows edged level fields, tilled like kitchen-garden beds.
Making allowances for Lucy’s pessimistic worldview, that’s a landscape I can recognise – from the Low Countries through which I was travelling last weekend, as much as from the Fens outside my back door.
And then she arrives in the dark, loses her trunk, and gets very lost: very easy to do in a new town, even if, pre-railways, she doesn’t share my propensity for exiting the wrong side of a station. Which has been one of the interesting things about reading this particular book. But I shouldn’t be surprised if the Eurostar stops in Villette these days.
My apologies for this unintended hiatus in our literary travels. I was planning a visit to Ullathorne. I reread Doctor Thorne, to discover what I’d forgotten: that the doctor spends the entire book at odds with his Ullathorne relations and never go there. (Still, I went to the trouble of getting a photo of the nice cloth-covered library copy, so here you go.)
I eventually tracked the place down to Barchester Towers and decided, very reluctantly, that if I’d excluded Netherfield and Qualling on the grounds that they were stately homes rather than settlements, I couldn’t really make an exception for Ullathorne. Or could I? After a generous description of Ullathorne Court, we get this:
The picturesque old church of St. Ewold’s stands immediately opposite to the iron gates which open into the court, and is all but surrounded by the branches of the lime-trees which form the avenue leading up to the house from both sides. This avenue is magnificent, but it would lose much of its value in the eyes of many proprietors by the fact that the road through it is not private property. It is a public lane between hedgerows, with a broad grass margin on each side of the road, from which the lime-trees spring.
And then I just ran out of steam. I’d like to say that I’ve spent the last six months frantically looking for fictional places beginning with U, but it wouldn’t be true. I just got stuck in a not reading/not posting circle, at least as far as this series goes.
John Buchan, however, is always helpful, so let’s fall back on a trip to Unnutz ‘in the Tirol’. Or maybe not:
You’d simply loath it. A landscape like a picture postcard. Tennis and bumble-puppy gold and promenades, all in smart clothes.
Such is Alison Westwater’s assessment of the place. But what about the geography?
Above the Waldersee, in the Firnthal?
(Also fictional, both of them. But those are both plausibly Tyrolean, and I had to Google to make sure.)
Unnutz was mainly villas and hotels, but there was an old village as a nucleus – wooden houses built on piles on the lake sure, and one or two narrow twisting streets with pumpkins drying on the shingle roofs. There was a bathing-place there very different from the modish thing on the main promenade, a place where you dived in a hut under a canvas curtain into deep green water, and could swim out to some fantastice little rock islets.
Alison is out of there by the end of the chapter (see K, T, M, and E for where), so that, I’m afraid, is all I can offer for U. See you for V. When we get there.
Books mentioned in this post
Barchester Towers (and Doctor Thorne), Anthony Trollope
Tarta is purely a place to spend the night, so I return to The House of the Four Winds and Evallonia for the sake of the inn, which is another of those wonderful Buchan establishments:
Part of it was as old as the oldest part of the Schloss, and indeed at one time it may have formed an outlying appendage of the castle. In the eighteenth century, in the heyday of the Odalchinis, it was a cheerful place, where great men came with their retinues, and where in the vast kitchen the Prince’s servitors and foresters drank with the town folk of Tarta. It still remained the principal inn of the little borough, but Tarta had decayed, and it stood on no main road, so while its tap-room was commonly full, its guest-rooms were commonly empty. But the landlord had been valet in his youth to the Prince’s father, and he had a memory of past glories and an honest pride in his profession; besides, he was a wealthy man, the owner of the best vineyard in the neighbourhood. So the inn had never been allowed to get into disrepair; its rambling galleries, though they echoed to the tread of few guests, were kept clean and fresh; the empty stalls in the big stables were ready at a moment’s notice for the horses that never came; there was good wine in the cellars against the advent of a connoisseur. It stood in an alley before you reached the market-place, and its courtyard and back parts lay directly under the shadow of the castle walls.
You could come by horse, as implied here, but it’s the 1930s and this party is travelling by car. Start in the Tirol (more on that next time), drive all day, cross the Rave, pass through the village of Zutpha, and follow the boundary of the Odalchini estate. Dinner will be worth it.
Alyssa Cole’s Thesolo takes us to Africa for the first time in this series. (In fact, reading her Reluctant Royals series earlier would have solved my problem finding a place for the letter N, since we also visit a country called Njaza.)
I have to say that I think the way that Cole introduces the country is absolute genius: our heroine Naledi receives an email headed Salutations from the Royal Family of Thesolo. No wonder she thinks it’s a scam. The reader, more familiar with the conventions of the genre, knows better, and into that gap between the character’s suspicions and the reader’s knowledge Cole slips an entire country.
Much of the action takes place in the USA, and we learn about Thesolo little by little. It’s in the south of Africa. (In fact, a little anagram work makes it seem plausible that it’s modelled on Lesotho.) There is ‘an above ground light rail system in the main city’. (This is the sort of detail I like. I am always here for fictional public transport infrastructure.)
It’s at about the two thirds mark that we arrive in Thesolo, and it is perhaps not what we expect:
Your current location is fifteen hundred feet above sea level, nestled in the mountains, and it is winter. It’s ski season here.
You can get there by private jet, getting a good view of the mountains and waterfalls, if you are a reluctant royal. There seems to be a reasonable commercial service, too. And of course the longer we spend there the more we learn about the culture, the scenery – and the politics. Of which there are plenty. Delicious.
And T has a cathedral city, too, in Torminster. Elizabeth Goudge says in the foreword to my edition:
Torminster is not an entirely accurate picture of Wells in Somerset, where I was born and spent the first eleven years of my life, but I think it is an accurate picture of a small west-country cathedral city in those safe, motorless days.
I have a soft spot for Wells; I was there for a week with a visiting choir in the summer of 2013, and spent most of the time when I wasn’t rehearsing finally getting Speak Its Name into a coherent shape. Here is Torminster in the narrative:
The train swung round a bend, the blue hills parted like a curtain and the city of Torminster was visible. Seen from a little distance it had a curiously insubstantial air, as though it were something real yet intangible, a thing you could see but not touch. It lay in a hollow of the hills like a child in its mother’s lap, and it seemed that as it lay there it slept. It looked so quiet that it was hard to believe the ordinary life of men and women went on in its streets. Rather it seemed a buried city sunk at the bottom of the sea, where no life stirred and no sound was heard but the ringing of the bells as the tide surged through forgotten towers and steeples. Jocelyn could see a confused mass of roofs and chimneys and church spires, some high and some low, weather-stained and twisted by age into fantastic shapes. The smoke from the chimneys went straight up into the windless air and then seemed to dissolve into a mist that lay over the city like the waves of the sea that had drowned it, and out of this sea rose a grey rock with three towers… The cathedral… It stood there gloriously, its majesty softened by the warm day but not diminished, its towers a little withdrawn in the sky but no less watchful.
Something of a departure from the main scope of this series, Inventing Ruritania is, despite the title, about real places. And it’s non-fiction. However, it’s very relevant to the theme. I was very pleased to receive a copy of this for Christmas, and ambled through it a chapter at a time.
I don’t read much academic writing these days, but found this perfectly easy to follow. The main thrust of Vesna Goldsworthy’s argument is that the global understanding of the Balkans has been shaped by Anglophone, primarily British, literature about the region, arguably to the detriment of its standing. The subtitle tells the story: the imperialism of the imagination. Because our primary interaction with the Balkans is in fiction in which the public-school-educated British traveller sorts the country out – or finds the task impossible – we assume that the real thing needs sorting out by us, too. Something that of course rings particularly hollow at the moment, when the public-school-educated British men appear incapable of running their own country.
(I’m paraphrasing severely here. But this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I work – or don’t – on my own Ruritanian effort.)
Goldsworthy’s examples are wide-ranging; she begins with Byron’s account of Greece and progresses through nineteenth century British political interest in Bulgaria before getting to the popular fiction from which she gets her title. The Prisoner of Zenda and Dracula are joined by a whole library’s worth of books that didn’t make it to Penguin Classics. Moving into the twentieth century, we get Buchan and Christie, the ‘comic’ literature of Durrell and Waugh, and the non-fiction of Rebecca West and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Some of these books set their action in a fictional country that is explicitly located in the Balkans. Some are set in real-life Balkan countries.
While writers all over the world are prone to appropriating other people’s cultures to make an exotic backdrop (nothing that I have heard about Red, White and Royal Blue, for example, persuades me that I would be able to read it without throwing the book at the wall), it’s true that the dominance of the English language puts what one might now call ‘own voices’ Balkan literature at a disadvantage. It’s true, too, that I know embarrassingly little about the region, and much of what I do know comes from English literature. (For years, all I knew of Romania was from Song For A Tattered Flag.) I’ve learned rather more just from reading this book.
‘Ruritania’ is perhaps a bit of a misnomer: as we established a few posts ago, and as Goldsworthy points out herself, going on the evidence that Anthony Hope gives us, the place can’t be any further south than real-life Bohemia. Still, it can’t be denied that when most people say ‘Ruritania’ they mean ‘somewhere in the Balkans’. My own feeling is that many authors, particularly contemporary ones, who use Ruritanian settings, do so to avoid appropriating real-life cultures while still having a government and maybe a monarchy to play with: the number of fictional tiny principalities squeezed in between real-life borders, I would argue, bear me out. Many seem to be borrowing Monaco or Liechtenstein rather than anywhere further south and east. But of course Goldsworthy’s talking about books that explicitly set their action either in named Balkan countries or in countries explicitly stated to be in the Balkan region: in this, the book doesn’t fit quite so well into this blog series after all.
More seriously, I do not have the author’s confidence that ‘the sort of generalised, open condescension [applied to Albanians, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians] would appal [the authors] if applied to Somalis or the peoples of Zaire’. In my experience, white people who are racist about other white people are perfectly capable about being racist about black people too.
However, I can’t truthfully say that either of these nitpicks undermine Goldsworthy’s point to any significant extent, and it’s left me with plenty to think about. And a few more books to add to my reading list.
The fact that I’ve arrived at S just when I have a Stancester book to promote is less a tribute to my skills as a publicist and more a testimony of my inefficiency as a blogger. Nevertheless, here we are, and I’ll talk a little bit about Stancester after I’ve dealt with the work of some considerably more venerable authors.
And I will start with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince, and Samavia. (I always got The Lost Prince mixed up with The Silver Sword, probably because they came in Puffin editions of about the same thickness with a teenage boy on the cover, albeit wearing very different clothes. The Silver Sword does not fall within the scope of this project.)
Later in this series I’ll be writing about the imaginative landscape in children’s play, but it bears mentioning here because the way that the boys interact with the idea of Samavia is so important in establishing it as a place.
A good half of the book takes place in London, with the idea of Samavia built up through stories told by Marco and newspapers read by the Rat and maps drawn in flagstones in chalk and in the games that the boys play. Even Marco Loristan, who has been studying Samavia all his life, only knows it in theory. And that fact makes it possible for the the Rat and his gang to know it, too. Similarly, so can we.
He who had pored over maps of little Samavia since his seventh year, who had studied them with his father, knew it as a country he could have found his way to any part of it if he had been dropped in any forest or any mountain of it. He knew every highway and byway, and in the capital city of Melzarr could almost have made his way blindfolded. He knew the palaces and the forts, the churches, the poor streets and the rich ones. His father had once shown him a plan of the royal palace which they had studied together until the boy knew each apartment and corridor in it by heart. But this he did not speak of. He knew it was one of hte things to be silent about. But of the mountains and the emerald velvet meadows climbing their sides and only ending where huge bare crags and peaks began, he could speak. He could make pictures of the wide fertile plains where herds of wild horses fed, or raced and sniffed the air; he could describe the fertile valleys where clear rivers ran and flocks of sheep pastured on deep sweet grass…
The map of Europe into which Samavia is inserted is at first a very rough one:
“You know more about geography than I do. You know more about everything,” [the Rat] said. “I only know Italy is at the bottom and Russia is at one side and England’s at the other. How would the Secret Messengers go to Samavia? Can you draw the countries they’d have to pass through?”
Because any school-boy who knew the map could have done the same thing, Marco drew them. He also knew the stations the Secret Two would arrive at and leave by when they entered a city, the streets they would walk through and the very uniforms they would see; but of these things he said nothing. The reality his knowledge gave to the game was, however, a thrilling thing.
When Marco and the Rat eventually leave London, they travel through Paris, then Munich, then Vienna, before at last reaching Samavia. Because the game is, of course, real.
(Incidentally, The Lost Prince also gives me a solution to my J problem: Samavia borders a country called Jiardasia, but since that’s literally all we know about it I still wouldn’t have had much to write about.)
Many of these fictional countries signal a location somewhere in central or southern Europe with this combination of an S and a V suggesting ‘Slav…’ or ‘Slov…’ Which is rather lazy and, as we shall see in a little, occasionally even embarrassing.
Between Northumberland and London, the Sadler’s Wells books have a very strong sense of place. Revisiting them as an adult, I find that I can’t believe in Slavonia in quite the same way (I think it was actually the Swiss mountains that caught my imagination), but I’ll include it for the sake of my thirteen year old self.
… one of those pocket-sized countries in Europe which have still managed to retain their monarchies or principalities. The capital of Slavonia is Drobnik, and it is about as big as a good-sized English village, but of course all on a very grand scale. Dominating the capital is the royal palace, all in white and pink stone, with pepper-box turrets at the corners. Then there is the Royal Opera House, which is upholstered in red plush and white satin, like the inside of a jewel-box. This building is situated on the banks of the river Juno, which rushes through the city under a succession of little bridges, all covered with sloping roofs to keep off the snow in winter. The cathedral, where the rulers of Slavonia are crowned, is made of rose-coloured quartz, and it stands in the main square, in the middle of which a fountain, designed by one of Europe’s well-known sculptors, plays night and day, and is floodlit on the King’s birthday and other important occasions.
No, at the age of 35 I really can’t believe in a cathedral made of rose-coloured quartz. Ah, well. Still, it gets points for having a national flower, which is a nice detail. This is all from Principal Rôle, which I adored. I didn’t have a copy of The Secret, the other book that deals with Slavonia. Maybe I’ll get a copy some day (yes, I know Girls Gone By are reprinting it, but for these it’s an Evans hardback or nothing).
As for how you get there, well, Lorna Hill carefully doesn’t identify ‘the adjoining country’, and the only people who go there in the course of the book fly, but, though a couple of nice vintage planes (a twin-engined Dakota; a Constellation airliner) are mentioned, they’re going to and from Switzerland. There’s a region of Croatia with that name. Maybe it’s somewhere around there.
While we’re (probably) somewhere in the Balkans, we might as well visit Syldavia. I mentioned its neighbour Borduria earlier in the series; Syldavia is very much the sinned-against party in the relationship between the two. It’s a reasonably coherent entity, though its continued existence is hampered by its being lumbered with a liability of a McGuffin for a sceptre. The Tintin wiki supplies a whole lot more detail, much of which I don’t remember. There’s a shocking dearth of Tintin books in this house.
We were in Ruritania last time, so I’ll only mention Strelsau briefly:
The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new. Spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and embrace the narrow, tortuous and picturesque streets of the original town. In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts, lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a poverty-stricken, turbulent and (in large measure) criminal class.
(Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)
Part of the reason for all these S places is the proliferation and plausibility of places named for saints (real or fictional). Hergé obliges again with San Theodoros. Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead springs immediately to mind. I want to look, though, at St Loo, which she uses in her Mary Westmacott persona as well as in the Poirot series.
In Peril at End House there isn’t much more to St Loo than the Majestic Hotel, where Poirot and Hastings are staying, and the titular house. It exists as a seaside resort:
It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera.
In The Rose and the Yew Tree it turns out to have a lot more going on:
There were… three separate worlds. There was the old fishing village, grouped round its harbour, with the tall slate-roofed houses rising up all round it, and the notices written in Flemish and French as well as English. Beyond that, sprawling out along the coast, was the modern tourist and residential excrescence. The large luxury hotels, thousands of small bungalows, masses of little boarding houses – all very busy and active in summer, quiet in winter. Thirdly, there was St Loo Castle, ruled over by the old dowager, Lady St Loo, a nucleus of yet another way of life with ramifications stretching up through winding lanes to houses tucked inconspicuously away in valleys beside old world churches.
This isn’t just a place where people stay. It’s a place where people live. And what that means is politics. The bulk of the book deals with the General Election (I do like a good election): our anti-hero, Major John Gabriel VC, is standing as the Conservative candidate, and the pettiness of small town gossip and politics, the uneasy interaction between the different strands of society, drives the action.
The narrator wonders how John Gabriel, ‘an opportunist, a man of sensual passions and great personal charm’ could have become Father Clement, a man of ‘heroism, endurance, compassion and courage’. Personally, I think that at least part of the answer is that he’s jumped genres.
Because The Rose and the Yew Tree isn’t just a Barchester novel. Its framing device is distinctly Ruritanian. Slovakia(not the Slovakia we know; its capital is Zagrade, suggesting a portmanteau of Belgrade and Zagreb, rather than Bratislava) gets a scant chapter, hastily daubed with unsavoury characters and assassinations in the name of local colour. And the first we hear of any of these places or people, we’re in Paris.
Yes, Paris again. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done a post on the importance of Paris as a staging post in the Ruritanian novel. We saw Marco and the Rat pass through on the way to Samavia; Rudolf Rassendyll, of course, takes his Great-Uncle William’s advice and spends twenty-four hours there before heading east into Ruritania and the action; Conway Carruthers attempts to see the head of the Sûreté on his way through.
Of course, before air travel you’d be hard pressed to get to anywhere in mainland Europe from Great Britain without passing through Paris sooner or later (probably sooner) but I think there’s more to it than that. Paris occupies a unique place in the Anglo-Saxon imagination: foreign, yet accessible; faintly naughty (both Lord Peter Wimsey and James Bond lose their virginity there); instantly recognisable; a known point from which to triangulate our unknown destination.
Asia no longer begins at the Landstraβe, but travel back in time via the medium of the novel, and you’ll probably find that you have to change in Paris for Ruritania.
Back to Cornwall. Jill Mansell’s St Carys has featured in a couple of books now. It has cafés and hotels, whitewashed cottages, huge private houses, estate agencies, newsagents, holiday lets, everything you’d want in a seaside town, really. And a map.
Finally, I do have to mention Stancester. We’re definitely in Barchester country now, with characters who can only negotiate their relationships with the Church and academia, not dictate terms. In Speak Its Name I was able to write the Students’ Union rules the way I needed them; in The Real World I was working with stricter constraints. I had more freedom with the geography, however. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the park at Woking one sunny Tuesday, with my notebook and a map of Roman Britain, trying to work out where would be a good place to put a city with a cathedral and a university. I did dreadful things to the railway (either diverted it to the north, away from Yeovil or to the south, away from Somerton) but there are a couple of clues that remain intact. The A303 is in the right place, and, if you happen to have a copy of that map of Roman Britain, this is a dead giveaway:
The harshest critic would struggle to fault the setting of Stancester cathedral. Built on the site of a Saxon minster, presiding over the crossing of two Roman roads, it dominates the north side of the city. Its honey-gold hamstone is echoed all around the old town, and, should one be fortunate enough to visit on a sunny afternoon, the overall effect is charming.
If not, I’ll tell you. I put it down on top of Ilchester, having moved a few hills around. I borrowed the church with the octagonal tower, too.
There’s something very enjoyable, making up new places (and then writing about them in the voice of pompous local historians – don’t worry, he doesn’t get any more than that chapter heading). But it turned out that there was a little more to it than that. I’d had the name for Stancester in my head long before I fixed on its location. And I was a long way into a redraft when I went to Wells with my choir and, in the cathedral museum, found a relief map that showed me that in fact I was a lot closer than I thought.
Books mentioned in this post
The Lost Prince, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Peril at End House and The Rose and the Yew Tree; various Miss Marple novels, Agatha Christie
King Ottakar’s Sceptre and Tintin and the Picaros, Hergé
The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope
Speak Its Name and The Real World, Kathleen Jowitt
Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay, The Unpredictable Consequences of Love, and It Started With A Secret, Jill Mansell
Ruritania is, for me, where it all started. My father read The Prisoner of Zenda to me when I was perhaps ten or eleven, and it’s stuck.
Anthony Hope presents the kingdom of Ruritania as if we already know about it, introducing his narrator, Rudolf Rassendyll, and the Rassendylls in general with reference to
an highly interesting and important kingdom, one which had played no small part in European history, and might do the like again
The journey to Ruritania occupies the first half of chapter 2. Rudolf goes via Paris and Dresden – a city from which, in the reality we currently inhabit, one can go east into Poland or south into Czechia. (The train in the photo at the top of this post is waiting at Dresden Hauptbahnhof before heading south to Prague.) South feels more likely to me. Ruritania is implied to be, if not huge, reasonably expansive in terms of territory: Zenda is ten miles from the frontier, and Strelsau, the capital, fifty miles further than that. And there’s no suggestion that Strelsau is very close to any other frontier.
In fact, Hope uses a pretty light touch all round. The descriptions in The Prisoner of Zenda are reserved for smaller geographical features – woods, castles, cities – which I’ll come to later in the series. Paradoxically, that’s part of what makes Ruritania feel real. You don’t need to be told what it looks like. It isn’t Anthony Hope’s fault that you weren’t paying attention in Geography. Or History. But the imaginative landscape is huge.
Philip Pullman doesn’t stray so very far either from this locale or from this model for Razkavia, in The Tin Princess. He shies away from doing anything drastic to the map of Europe, squeezing it in between Prussia and Bohemia, and making it ‘hardly bigger than Berkshire’.
But he has put some thought into other aspects of geography:
The country wasn’t especially prosperous. There had once been rich mines in the Karlstein mountains, producing copper and a little silver, but as long as two centuries before they had begun to run out, at least of copper. There was plenty of some ore that looked like copper but wasn’t, and which poisoned the miners who worked it. It was so useless and unpleasant that they called it Kupfer-Nickel, or devil’s copper, and left it well alone. Much later someone discovered that Kupfer-Nickel was a compound of arsenic and a new metal, which they called nickel, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century they’d found some uses for it, so the mines of Karlstein began to work again.
This will, of course, be important later, but in the meantime:
The people milked the cows that grazed on the upland pastures, made wine from the grapes that grew on the slopes of the Elpenbach Valley, and hunted the game in the forests. In the capital, Eschtenburg, there was an opera house, where the composer Weber had once conducted; there was a theatre and a cathedral and a pretty baroque palace, all fantastic columns and fountains and icing-sugar plasterwork; and there was a park with a grotto-pavilion built by Razkavia’s one mad king, who had been fairly harmless, as mad kings went. In the 1840s, the younger set of the aristocracy, tired of the stuffy life around the king and his conservative court, tried to establish a little spa called Andersbad, down the Elpenbach Valley, as a centre of fashion. There was a casino; Johann Strauss had played there with his orchestra and they’d even paid him to write an Andersbad Waltz, although it wasn’t one of his best.
I should have used this book for A and E, as well. Never mind. Here’s Weber, in Dresden again.
I’ve mentioned Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia a few times in this series, but it seems remiss not to talk about Rotenek and, in particular, the Rotein. The river shapes the city, and the society, and, quite often, the plot. The social calendar is driven by the flooding; so is religious observance; so is public health (or lack of it).
High in the mountains to the east and south of Alpennia, spring rains and warming winds wash the winter’s snow from the peaks and send it tumbling down the valleys. The melt gathers in rivulets; rivulets turn to streams; streams feed rivers. The Esikon, the Tupe and the Innek swell the Rotein, which flows through the heart of the city of Rotenek. And the city flows through the Rotein: in barges bringing goods up from French ports, in riverboats rowing passengers along the banks and up the narrow chanulezes that thread through the neighborhoods of both the upper and lower town.
They celebrate floodtide in Rotenek when the waters turn muddy and rise along the steps of the Nikuleplaiz as far as the feet of the statue of Saint Nikule, who watches over the marketplace. Sometimes the floods come higher and wash through Nikule’s church and along the basements of the great houses along the Vezenaf. Then the streets of the lower town merge with the chanulezes, and all the putrid mud from the banks and canals is stirred up, bringing the threat of river fever. For those who can leave the city, floodtide signals an exodus to the pleasures of country estates. Those who remain light a candle to Saint Rota against the fever.
But sometimes floodtide fails to come. […]
This ambivalent relationship between the river and the citizens is so central to the books that it took me a while to find a passage that encapsulated it. It makes the series. And it makes the city.
Finally, I’m heading back north and west. I commented over at Licence To Queer how muted in tone Casino Royale feels in contrast to the rest of the Bond books – a result, I think, of its being the first of the series, where Fleming’s still finding his way in, and its having been written and published so soon after the end of the Second World War, in a Europe that was still working out how it was going to rebuild itself. And Royale-les-Eaux typifies that. This isn’t the Côte d’Azur, it’s the opposite side of France, and it’s grey and shabby:
Royale-les-Eaux, which lies near the mouth of the Somme before the flat coast-line soars up from the beaches of southern Picardy to the Brittany cliffs which run on to Le Havre, had experienced much the same fortunes at Trouville.
Royale (without the ‘Eaux’) also started as a small fishing village and its rise to fame as a fashionable watering place during the Second Empire was as meteoric as that of Trouville. But as Deauville killed Trouville, so, after a long period of decline, did Le Touquet kill Royale.
At the turn of the century, when things were going badly for the little seaside town and when the fashion was to combine pleasure with a ‘cure’, a natural spring in the hills behind Royale was discovered to contain enough diluted sulphur to have a beneficent effect on the liver. […]
It did not long withstand the powerful combines of Vichy and Perrier and Vittel. There came a series of lawsuits, a number of people lost a lot of money and very soon its sale was again entirely local. Royale fell back on the takings from the French and English families during the summer, on its fishing-fleet in winter and on the crumbs which fell to its elegantly dilapidated Casino from the table at Le Touquet.
Here Fleming uses not only familiar names and places in which to ground his fictional town (some of them with ominous resonances), he gives it a mineral water too. And, more importantly, a plausible past. I always have a soft spot for a run-down seaside town. Though the 2p machines are more my level.
Books mentioned in this post
Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope
Alpennia series, Heather Rose Jones (passage quoted is from Mother of Souls)
You get ten points for putting down this Scrabble tile, because Q is a tricky one.
I don’t think I can give myself Qualling (which we knew only as Q- for the first few years of The Comfortable Courtesan) – while the residence of the Duke of Mulcaster is undoubtedly very fine, I said the other day that I wasn’t going to allow Netherfield Park.
Thank goodness, then, for Thomas Hardy, and Quartershot. True, he only uses it twice. The first time, he’s triangulating another location, and dismisses it as an ‘important military station’, but I’ll take that. Later in the book, we learn that it has a music hall. Jude has been doing some masonry work there.
Quartershot is a beautifully apposite name; better, I think, than the original Aldershot. Not only does ‘quarter-‘ pick up the sense of ‘barracks’, but, echoing ‘quarterstaff’, it doubles the martial allusions. Of course, the ‘-shot’ is a gift.
The last time I was in Aldershot was for a hen party last summer. I spent quite a long time sitting on the wall outside the station after the coffee shops closed, waiting for an AirBnB owner to come down from London to let me in. It was a strange couple of hours, watching the minibuses full of care assistants arrive and depart, wondering if my host was going to arrive before I finished reading One Day, trying not to notice that I was getting chilly. I didn’t go looking for any music halls.
We were in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Orsinia for the last post in this series, and we’re going to stay there for a little while, in Portacheyka:
… whose peaked slate roofs and climbing streets lay under the windows of the monastery school… The town was set in a deep gap between Sinivya and San Givan Mountains; framed by the towering slopes, Portacheyka’s northward view had a quality of vision. It seemed as if the shadowed pass could not lead out to those remote and sunlit, azure hills, but only look down on them as if on fabled kingdoms across the barrier of possibility. When clouds gathered full of thunder on the peaks and hung low over the town sometimes the view of the lower hills shone out in a clear, golden light, an enchanted realm, free of the storm and the darkness of the heights.
Those lovely mountains! I’m living in a very flat land at the moment, and have to find my gradients where I can. Fiction is as good a way to get there as any.
Idling by the Golden Lion Inn, Itale saw the coaches of the Southwestern Post set off for distant cities or come in, high, swaying, dusty, from their journeys; and Portacheyka, the gateway of his province, had for him the glamor of voyage and the unknown that a seaport has for one whose country’s border is the sea.
Indeed, there’s nothing to stop characters from a fictional location to find their way into less fictional ones. In John Buchan’s Castle Gay some mysterious foreigners turn up in Scotland, which is real enough, and the town of Portaway, which isn’t, and find it a lively place.
The town of Portaway lies on both banks of the Callowa, which there leaves its mountain vale and begins its seven miles of winding through salty pastures to the Solway. The old town is mostly on the left shore; on the right has grown up a suburb of villas and gardens, with one flaring Hydropathic, and a large new Station Hotel, which is the resort of golfers and anglers. The capital of the Canonry is half country market town, half industrial centre, for in the hills to the south-east lie the famous quarries, which employ a large and transient population. Hence the political activities of the constituency centre in the place. The countryside is Tory or Liberal; among the quarrymen is a big Socialist majority, which its mislikers call Communist.
To tell the truth, it didn’t occur to me until I started this blog series that Portaway and the Canonry were made up by Buchan. Having had the Dickson McCunn books read to me as a child, it didn’t occur to me to doubt any of the Scottish bits. I understood of course that there wasn’t any such place as Evallonia, because you can’t very well have your characters meddle in the affairs of real monarchs, but what’s a by-election here or there? When I was eleven, Portaway was as real as London, and both were a very long way from where I was, just on the English side of the Welsh border.
Actually, this is a really good example of how to introduce a fictional location in half a paragraph. We have the physical geography, contextualised with a real-world feature, and then, more importantly, we learn about the people: the residents, the visitors, the workers, the politics (and those take us back to the physical geography: no quarries, no workers). The casual ‘famous’ is doing a lot of work, here; if we haven’t heard of this place before, it implies, then that’s an accident, because it’s been there all along. The politics will turn out to be useful a few chapters later, but here it’s doing the equally important job of telling us what this town is like some time in the 1930s.
In the same decade, we can travel through a little cluster of English villages along with Lord Peter Wimsey and his new bride, previously Harriet Vane, on the way to their Busman’s Honeymoon. After a day that’s taken them from Oxford (apologies: that map was the best I could find) to London, in an epistolary prologue composed of the first person narratives of various friends and relations, we follow Peter and Harriet (and, of course, Bunter) into Hertfordshire:
A town with a wide stone bridge, and lights reflected in the river…
‘Are we getting anywhere near?’
‘Yes – this is Great Pagford, where we used to live. Look! that’s our old house with the three steps up to the door – there’s a doctor there still, you can see the surgery lamp… After two miles you take the right-hand turn for Pagford Parva, and then it’s another three miles to Paggleham, and sharp left by a big barn and straight on up the lane.’
It’s an expansive, disjointed, chapter, with the time of the journey filled with memories: earlier in the day; earlier in the week; earlier in Harriet’s life. Paggleham is perhaps too much a stereotype of an English village, or perhaps the problem is more with its residents. I rather think that’s meant to be a feature, not a bug, at least in Harriet’s eyes:
In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village – no matter what village – they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son, and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares.
And of course it undercuts itself: usually dukes’ sons don’t marry doctors’ daughters. But that happened in London. I’m still very fond of this book, though, and ended up rereading the whole thing the day I looked up that passage.
Finally, further west, J. K. Rowling has another Pagford. I’m not sure that I would want to reread The Casual Vacancy – partly for the appalling fatphobia, partly because the whole thing is intentionally pretty bleak – but it definitely deserves its place in this series. It’s a fairly typical English village, in both appearance and culture:
They drove down Church Row, the steeply sloping street where the most expensive houses stood in all their Victorian extravagance and solidity, around the corner by the mock-Gothic church, where he had once watched his twin girls perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and across the Square, where they had a clear view of the dark skeleton of the ruined abbey that dominated the town’s skyline, set high on a hill, melding with the violet sky.
But what makes it particularly credible is the politics, of which there is plenty. I’m not sure that I can find a particular passage to quote, because the whole novel is saturated with the pettiness, the power games, the paranoia, of local politics; it informs everyone’s actions and character, usually not for the better. Some of Rowling’s characters are as much caricatures as Sayers’ are, and as susceptible to Funetik Aksents, but the overall impression is depressingly convincing. It’s the people that make Pagford what it is: a small-minded, suspicious, affluent, Nimbytown. You might want to live there, but you wouldn’t want to think about it too hard.
I’ve been reading a lot of travel writing lately, as well as novels set in places that are quite a way away from where I am. Most of it’s several decades old: I’m finding it quite reassuring, in a contrary kind of way, to read about places that wouldn’t be there any more, or wouldn’t be the same, even if I could get to them. When I went to Vienna, it was nothing like the way Eva Ibbotson describes it (though I was in a dreadful mood, and should probably go back there and stay longer). At the moment my bedtime book is My Family and Other Animals. Was Corfu ever the way Durrell describes it? I’m sure it isn’t now. I’m not in the mood for Bill Bryson, though I might move on to Paul Theroux. The exception is the latest edition of Hidden Europe magazine, which describes travel only a few months old, trips that I might replicate some day.
Anyway, here’s another place we can’t get to.
Orsinia is the setting for Ursula K. Le Guin’s Malafrena, and the supplemental Orsinian Tales. Le Guin had such a wide range that it seems meaningless to say, this isn’t what you’d normally expect from her. What I mean is, this isn’t sci-fi or fantasy: it’s a historical novel. It’s a portrait of the same doomed idealism as Les Misérables, and a fierce love of home.
In actual fact I read Orsinian Tales first, and might almost recommend that others do that too. Malafrena is very immersive, locked into the events and attitudes of one particular point in history. Orsinian Tales roves several centuries in either direction, across several social classes, and, I suppose, genres.
Orsinia breaks one of the ground rules of this blog series, in that it’s difficult to triangulate its geographical location. Some people on the internet seem pretty sure it’s meant to be on top of Hungary, others, (what would have been at the time of writing) Czechoslovakia. Personally, I think of it as being Slovenia. There’s a story in Orsinian Tales that’s set on the karst, which in my head is a Slovenian thing.
But I’m short on places beginning with O, and what Le Guin does do is tie it very firmly into European history. The events of Malafrena are informed, driven almost, by the country’s relationship with the Austrian empire. The first story in Orsinian Tales is actually set in Paris, during the Cold War, and follows an Orsinian’s decision to defect. The next one jumps back eight hundred years, to the uneasy introduction of Christianity, in a locality that’s recognisable, or will become recognisable, from Malafrena. The internal consistency of Orsinia feels trustworthy, and its external relationship with the Europe we know is plausible, and really, once you’re over the border, why worry?
Across one night of March the wind from the frozen eastern plains dropped and a humid wind rose up from the south. The rain turned warm and large. In the morning weeds were pushing up between the stones of the courtyard, the city’s fountains ran full and noisy, voices carried further down the streets, the sky was dotted with small bluish clouds. That night Lisha and Givan followed one of the Rákava lovers’ walks, out through the East Gate to the ruins of a guard tower; and there in the cold and starlight he asked her to marry him. She looked out to the great falling darkness of the Hill and plains, and back to the lights of the city half hidden by the broken outer wall.
Or, in another story,
The road led east from Krasnoy through farmlands and past villages to a grey-walled town over which rose the fortress-like tower of an old church. The villages and the town were on maps and he had seen them once from the train: Raskofiu, Ranne, Malenne, Sorg: they were real places, none over fifty miles from the city. But in his mind he walked to them on foot and it was long ago, early in the last century, perhaps, for there were no cars on the road nor even railroad crossings. He walked along in rain or sunlight on the country road towards Sorg where at evening he would rest. He would go to an inn down the street from the stout six-sided tower of the church.
And here’s Itale, the hero of Malafrena:
The road led up and over one of the long, low rises of land that made up the immense level of the plain. So gradual was the ascent that slope and summit were all one. Itale stopped and looked back. Aisnar lay five or six miles away, made entire by distance, tile roofs red in the declining light, the calm towers of the cathedral rising above blue shadow. Near where he stood was the ruin of a hut, a few stones and rain-rotted planks. He sat down there on what had been a doorstep or a hearthstone, between the city and the sun. The blowing of the country wind had finally blown his thoughts away.
I have many more pages bookmarked, but I think perhaps I’d better stop there, and really, all of them show the same thing. There’s history in the geography, and geography in the history, and stories in both of them.
This is a surprisingly difficult letter. I struggled. Wikipedia’s List of fictional countries and List of fictional towns in literature both look hopeful, but a closer inspection of the N sections reveals that most of the locations either appear in a medium that I’m not including, or don’t pretend to exist in the world as we know it.
The exception is Norland, in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which has little identifying detail beyond a sufficiently substantial submarine division to be a credible threat in the early 1920s. Even Thomas Hardy’s Wessex can only come up with Narrowbourne, in a short story I haven’t read. Novel-length works featuring settlements beginning with N? The internet fails me.
Why? New and North between them ought to yield plenty of plausible towns. I wonder whether calling anything fictional ‘New’ is a bit too much of a lampshade for something that’s meant to be set in the world as we know it. Perhaps it draws attention to the fact that the place has existed mere months, or, at the outside, decades, in the author’s head. (Or, conversely, one or more fictional Newports is slipping past me because I’ve mixed them up with the real ones.)
However, my father was able to point me at North Bromwich, and so it’s back to the fictional West Midlands, perhaps a little bit further west of where we were last time. He has a lovely set of blue-and-gold Francis Brett Young hardbacks, which no doubt I’ll read my way through at some point, but in the meantime Project Gutenberg came up with a couple. Of these, I’m reliably informed that The Young Physician spends the most time in North Bromwich, so off I went.
In fact, most of the first half of the book finds our hero, Edwin, at school in Sussex, with occasional visits home. And there’s a lovely train journey to get him there, which I can’t resist including at length, even though the Home Counties and Victoria and Paddington stations and Reading and Oxford are real enough. I’m going to say that it’s the careful positioning of the fictional place with reference to the real ones that makes it work:
By this time the region of downs had been left far behind. They were gliding, more smoothly, it seemed, through the heavily-wooded park country of the home counties. Stations became more frequent, and the train began to fill with business people hurrying to London for their morning’s work. They settled themselves in their carriages as though they were confident that their seats had been reserved for them. They were all rather carefully, rather shabbily dressed: the cuffs of their coats were shiny, and the cuffs of their shirts fringed, and one of them, a gentleman with a top-hat half-covered by a mourning-band, wore cuff-covers of white paper. They all read their morning papers and rarely spoke; but when they did speak to each other they used an almost formal respect in their addresses which implied that they were all respectable, God-fearing people with responsibilities and semi-detached houses. Edwin they ignored—not so much as a wilful intrusion as an unfortunate accident. He began to feel ashamed that, by starting from the terminus, he had occupied a corner seat to which the gentleman with the paper cuffs had an inalienable right.
In a little while the villas from which this population had emerged began to creep closer to the track, and by the seventh station their backs were crowding close to the embankment with long, narrow gardens in which the crimson rambler rose seemed to have established itself like a weed. The houses, too, or rather the backs of them, grew more uniform, being all built with bricks of an unhealthy yellow or putty colour. Soon there were no more buildings semi-detached. The endless rows seemed to be suffering some process of squeezing or constriction that made them coalesce and edged them closer and closer to the railway line. Soon the gardens grew so small that there was no room in them for green things, only for a patch of black earth occupied by lean cats, and posts connected by untidy pieces of rope on which torn laundry was hung out to collect the smuts or flap drearily in a night of drizzle. Then the gardens went altogether; and the beautiful and natural love of green things showed itself in sodden window-boxes full of languishing geranium cuttings or mignonette. The very atmosphere seemed to have been subjected to the increasing squeeze; for the mild air of the downs had here a yellow tinge as though it were being curdled. To complete the process the train plunged, at last, into a sulphurous tunnel, emerging amid acrid fumes in a sort of underground vault where the door was opened by a ticket-collector with a red tie, tired already, who shouted “Tickets, please.”
None of the respectable suburban gentlemen took any notice of him, for by purchasing season tickets they had rendered themselves immune from his attentions; but he glared at Edwin, and Edwin passed him his ticket, which was handed on as if it were a curiosity and a rather vulgar possession by the gentlemen on his side of the compartment. The door was slammed. The man with the top-hat placed it carefully on his head and adjusted the paper cuffs. Others folded their morning papers and put them in their pockets. One, apparently recognizing a friend who was sitting opposite to him, for the first time, said “Good-morning,” and the train passed amid thunderous echoes under the arch and into Victoria Station. All his fellow-passengers were adepts at evacuation, and before he knew where he was Edwin was alone in the carriage.
He was very lonely and yet, somehow, a little important. Usually, at term end, he had crossed London with Widdup, whose westward train also started from Paddington. He hailed a hansom, and one that was worthy of its name: a shining chariot, all coach-builders’ varnish, with yellow wheels and polished brass door-handles and clean straw that smelt of the stable on its floor. The cabman was youngish, mahogany-complexioned, and ready to be facetious. He called Edwin “My lord,” and Edwin hardly knew whether to treat him seriously or not. “Geawing to the races, my lord?” he said. The Lord knew Edwin had had enough of races for a bit. He said “Paddington.” “Ascot or Newbury?” said the cabby, climbing to his seat.
It was a great moment. The movement was all so swift and luxurious, the hansom so delicately sprung that it swayed gently with the horse’s motion. The polished lamps on either side were filled with wedding rosettes. Inside on either hand were oblong mirrors in which Edwin could almost see his own profile: a subject of endless curiosity. There was even a little brass receptacle for cigar-ash. A Cunarder of a cab! The cabby whistled “Little Dolly Daydreams” with a ravishing tremolo. The cab, which had jolted a trifle on the setts of the station-yard, passed among a flight of feeding pigeons out of the iron gates into the bowling smoothness of the Palace Road. My word, this was life. . . . …
The streets were so wide and clean, the green fringe of the park so pleasant: through the railings he could see men and women on horseback taking an early ride, enjoying, like him, the coolness of the morning air. He wondered at the great white stucco houses of Park Lane, standing back from the wide pavement with an air of pompous reticence. Before one of them, remnant of a summer dance the night before, a tented portico, striped with red and white, overstretched the pavement. Edwin did not know what kind of people lived in these houses, but in the light of this morning it seemed to him that theirs must be an existence of fabulous happiness, all clean and bright and shining as the morning itself or the rubber-tired hansom, spinning along with its yellow spokes beside the neat park railings.
Once again the resorts of elegance were left behind. The hansom, heaving heavily, was checked on the slope of the gradient descending to the departure platform at Paddington. Opposite the booking-office it stopped, and Edwin was released from this paradisaical loosebox. The cabby, wishing him the best of luck at Goodwood, patted his horse, whom he had christened Jeddah, and climbed up again to his seat whistling divinely. Edwin was disgorged upon the long platform at Paddington that rumbled with the sound of many moving trollies below a faint hiss of escaping steam, and smelt, as he had always remembered it, of sulphur mingled with axle grease and the peculiar odour that hangs about tin milk-cans. He was thankful to be free of it, sitting in the corner of a third-class carriage opposite a stout woman with eyes that looked as if she had been crying all night, and a heavy black veil, whose hat was surmounted by coloured photographs of the Memorial Theatre at Stratford and Brixham Trawlers waiting for a Breeze.
This train ran out of London more easily than the other had entered it. The area of painful constriction seemed more narrow, and in an incredibly short time he found himself gliding along the Thames valley with the ghostly round tower of Windsor Castle on his left.
At Reading, where the sidings of the biscuit factory reminded him of teas which he had “brewed” with Widdup, the woman opposite took out a crumpled paper bag, and began to eat sandwiches.
The sun, meanwhile, was climbing towards the south, and the railway carriage began to reflect the summery atmosphere of the green and pleasant land through which the train was passing. It made golden the dust on the window-pane at Edwin’s elbow and discovered warm colours in the pile of the russet cloth with which the carriage was upholstered.
It was a country of green woods and fields of ripening mowing-grass from which the sound of a machine could sometimes be heard above the rumble of the train. It all seemed extraordinarily peaceful. A cuckoo passed in level flight from one of the hedgerow elms to the dark edge of a wood. In the heart of the wood itself a straight green clearing appeared. It reminded Edwin of the green roads that pierced the woods below Uffdown, and he remembered, poignantly, the walk with his mother in the Easter holidays when they had reached the crown of the hills at sunset… another sight fell upon his eyes and filled him with a new and strange excitement: a small cluster of spires set in a city of pale smoke, and one commanding dome. He held his breath. He knew that it was Oxford.
This, then, was the city of his dreams. Here, in a little while, he would find himself living the new life of leisure and spaciousness and culture which had become his chief ambition. This was his Mecca: “That lovely city with her dreaming spires,” he whispered to himself. It was indeed merciful that the vision of his second dream should come to cheer him when the first became so perilously near extinction.
Yes, you say, but what about North Bromwich? We’ll get there, I promise.
“This rack is intended for light articles only. It must not be used for heavy luggage. This rack is intended for light articles. Only it must not be used for heavy luggage. While there’s life there’s hope. While there’s life there’s hope. While there’s life there’s hope.”
So, in the pitiful whirl of Edwin’s brain, foolish words re-echoed, and in the end the empty phrase seemed to attach itself to the regular beat of the train’s rhythm as the wheels rolled over the joints in the rails. Mesmerised by the formula he only dimly realised that they were now roaring, under a sky far paler and less blue, towards the huge pall of yellowish atmosphere beneath which the black country sweltered.
Soon the prim small gardens told that they were touching the tentacles of a great town. A patch of desert country, scarred with forgotten workings in which water reflected the pale sky, and scattered with heaps of slag. A pair of conical blast furnaces standing side by side and towering above the black factory sheds like temples of some savage religion, as indeed they were. Gloomy canal wharfs, fronting on smoke-blackened walls where leaky steampipes, bound with asbestos, hissed. The exhaust of a single small engine, puffing regular jets of dazzling white steam, seen but not heard. A canal barge painted in garish colours, swimming in yellow water, foul with alkali refuse. A disused factory with a tall chimney on which the words Harris and Co., Brass Founders, was painted in vertical letters which the mesmeric eye must read. Another mile of black desert, pools, and slag heaps, and ragged children flying kites. Everywhere a vast debris of rusty iron, old wheels, corroded boilers, tubes writhen and tangled as if they had been struck by lightning. An asphalt school-yard on a slope, with a tall, gothic school and children screaming their lungs out, but silent to Edwin’s ears. Endless mean streets of dusky brick houses with roofs of purple slate and blue brick footpaths. Dust and an acrid smell as of smoking pit heaps. More houses, and above them, misty, and almost beautiful, the high clock tower of the Art Gallery. A thunderous tunnel. . . . The clamour of the wheels swelled to an uproar. “While there’s life there’s hope. While there’s life there’s hope.” Under the gloom of the great glass roof the train emerged.
The art gallery gives us the clue to the real-world equivalent of North Bromwich. Later we discover that the Mayor has presented it with an ‘unrivalled collection of Madox-Jones cartoons’. I went on a school trip to Birmingham Art Gallery, to look at the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Botanic Gardens, to look at plants, when I was twelve. I don’t remember much about it, except for a rather magnificent Lady of Shalott (not that one, a different one) who was on loan from somewhere else. Since then I’ve only ever been through Birmingham on the train, or changed at New Street. (By the way, the obvious London station to leave from would be Euston; I’m not really sure why Edwin goes via Oxford. Any ideas?)
As Edwin settles back in, and starts shuttling between his home of Halesby and the city of North Bromwich, we get to know it better, from, shall we say, various different points of view:
The city of iron stands upon three hills and its valleys were once watered by two rivers; but since the day when its name was humbly written in Doomsday these pastoral features have disappeared, so that the hills are only known as tramway gradients that testify to the excellence of the Corporation’s power station, and the rivers, running in brick culverts, have been deprived not only of their liberty but even of their natural function of receiving a portion of the city’s gigantic sewage. The original market of North Bromwich has been not so much debauched from without, in the manner of other growing towns, as organised from within by the development of its own inherent powers for evil. It is not a place from which men have wilfully cast out beauty so much as one from which beauty has vanished in spite of man’s pitiful aspirations to preserve it. Indeed, its citizens are objects rather for pity than for reproach, and would be astonished to receive either, for many of them are wealthy, and from their childhood, knowing no better, have believed that wealth is a justification and an apology for every mortal evil from ugliness to original sin.
The narrative is quite concerned with water and where it goes, and what goes into it. Earlier in the book Edwin meets a labourer who’s working on the pipeline getting water from Wales into North Bromwich. (This, too, sparks vague childhood memories for me. I think we had a picnic next a Welsh reservoir somewhere.) Now:
the rain of the Savaddan watershed, which geology had destined for the Wye and later for the Atlantic, must now traverse eighty miles or more of conquered territory, and after being defouled by the domestic usages of North Bromwich, must find its way into the Trent, and so to the German Ocean, as the Romans thoughtlessly labelled the North Sea. “Water,” said the Mayor, who was also known as Sir Joseph Astill, the brewer, “water is one of the necessities of life. It is our duty to the public to see that they have it, and that they have it pure and unadulterated.”
Actually, I think he has a very good point. People need water. This fictional city, overlaid on a real one, needs its fictional plumbing and fictional sewers (not to mention its fictional railway lines) to make it function.