The Reader’s Gazetteer: R

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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.

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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)

The Tin Princess, Philip Pullman

 

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The Reader’s Gazetteer: K

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K is a much easier letter than J. People might get stuck on the th or the ee in my name (in any sensible language that would be an i or an í) but they always get the k right.

I wanted to say something about place names beginning with K having a sense of exoticism that proclaims to us that we’re abroad without subjecting us to the embarrassment of not knowing how to pronounce them. Then I remembered that I grew up between Knighton and Kingsland, with Kington not that far away. And indeed, there are some fictional British places beginning with K: Thomas Hardy has Kennetbridge (it’s about an hour from London Paddington) and Kingsbere (take the train from Waterloo and then the bus from Casterbridge) and Knollsea (train to Anglebury, and then there’s a bus).*

I suppose I must have been thinking of Sophy of Kravonia. It feels wrong to deal with that one before The Prisoner of Zenda, but hey, that’s the way the alphabet works. Kravonia also doesn’t quite meet my requirements in that I still have only the haziest idea of where it actually is:

Kravonia was a rich country, and its geographical position was important. The history of the world seems to show that the standard of civilization and morality demanded of a country depends largely on its richness and the importance of its geographical position.

The neighbour on the west had plenty of mountains, but wanted some fertile plains. The neighbour on the east had fertile plains adjacent to the Kravonian frontier, and would like to hold the mountain line as a protection to them. A far-seeing statesman would have discerned how important correct behavior was to the interests of Kravonia! The great neighbours began to move in the matter, but they moved slowly. They had to see that their own keen sense of morality was not opposed to the keen sense of morality of other great nations. The right to feel specially outraged is a matter for diplomatic negotiations, often, no doubt, of great delicacy.

The publication date of 1906 might provide a clue, but then again it might not. Any ideas?

I’ll look at the careful placing of Ruritania, Strelsau and Zenda later in the series. In the meantime, I do rather get the sense that Anthony Hope had been asked for another Zenda and was phoning it in. Or sending himself up. (Sophy, the Rudolf Rassendyll analogue, is a kitchen maid from Essex with a flair for languages, which I suppose makes her exactly as qualified to run a country as an idle younger son of the aristocracy. The prince is interested in one thing, and that one thing is big guns.) Never mind.

We return to The House of the Four Winds to visit Kremisch and Krovolin. Kremisch is just this side of the border from Evallonia – which border isn’t specified, since John Buchan has gone to quite a lot of trouble to get us there without knowing, or really caring, where exactly we are. And, like many places in Buchan’s oeuvre, it has a really, really good pub:

The inn at Kremisch, the Stag with the Two Heads, has an upper room so bowed with age that it leans drunkenly over the village street. It is a bare place, which must be chilly in winter, for the old casement has many chinks in it, and the china stove does not look efficient, and the rough beechen table, marked by many beer mugs, and the seats of beechwood and hide are scarcely luxurious. But on this summer night to one who had been tramping all day on roads deep in white dust under a merciless sun it seemed a haven of ease. Jaikie had eaten an admirable supper on a corner of the table, a supper of cold ham, an omelet, hot toasted rye-cakes and a seductive cheese. He had drunk wine tapped from a barrel and cold as water from a mountain spring, and had concluded with coffee and cream in a blue cup as large as a basin. Now he could light his pipe and watch the green dusk deepen behind the onion spire of the village church.

Krovolin is the monarchist headquarters in Evallonia, and a good distance from the border:

The great forest of St Sylvester lies like a fur over the patch of country through which the little river Silf -the Amnis Silvestris of the Romans – winds to the Rave. At the eastern end, near the Silf’s junction with the main river, stands the considerable town of Krovolin; south of it stretch downs studded with the ugly headgear of oil wells; and west is the containing wall of the mountains. It is pierced by one grand highway, and seamed with lesser roads, many of them only grassy alleys among the beeches.

We spend quite a lot of the book getting there, and then get a somewhat fragmentary picture of the town, fitted in around the action:

The cars turned along the edge of the water over vile cobbles, and presently wove their way into a maze of ancient squalor. This was the Krovolin of the Middle Ages, narrow lanes with high houses on both sides, the tops of which bent forward to leave only a slender ribbon of sky.

There’s a Street of the White Peacock, and a hotel called the Three Kings of the East. Which, by the way, has a ‘pleasant restaurant’, but there’s no word on the menu. Maybe one would do better to stay in Kremisch after all. On the other hand, we haven’t got to Tarta yet…

Books mentioned in this post

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

The Hand of Ethelberta, Thomas Hardy

Sophy of Kravonia, Anthony Hope

*I should say that I’m relying on the Wikipedia page for Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and Traveline for this guidance. The author of this blog takes no responsibility etc etc. Besides, do you really want to end up in a Hardy novel?

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The Reader’s Gazetteer: G

For some reason, certain letters of this gazetteer are much easier to populate than others. G is a case in point. The fictional map of Europe is chock full of countries whose name begin with G. Here are a few of them.

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I gave up on the Princess Diary series before we ever visited Genovia – the princess in question lives in New York, and has only just discovered her royal status – but even from a distance it was pretty convincing. In The Princess Diaries: Take Two, Mia describes it as:

a small country in Europe located on the Mediterranean between the Italian and French border

The history, as Mia tells it, seems a little bit unlikely, taking no account of Italian unification, and claiming a much nobler backstory than Genovia’s real-life equivalent Monaco, but the geography is plausible enough. How to get there? On your million-pound yacht, or don’t bother.

I can’t quite believe in the Brontës’ Gaaldine and Gondal, but a brief foray into Sherlock fanfiction allows me to bring in A. J. Hall’s Queen of Gondal series, which relocates them from an African island to somewhere in the Balkans and makes them into quarrelsome, complicated, plausible nations.

In The Heart of Princess Osra we have a visit from the Prince of Glottenberg, which I don’t propose to spend too much time on, given that I can’t actually tell where it is and I’ll be devoting a lot of attention to Anthony Hope when we get to Ruritania (and probably Strelsau and Zenda, too).

And I have to admire Robert Louis Stevenson’s bold assertion in Prince Otto that the reason you can’t find Grünewald on your map of Europe is that you’re looking at the wrong map; the one that would actually show you where it is has been long since rolled up:

You shall seek in vain upon your map of Europe for the bygone state of Grünewald. An independent principality, an infinitesimal member of the German Empire, she played, for several centuries, her part in the discord of Europe; and, at last, in the ripeness of time and at the spiriting of several bald diplomatists, vanished like a morning ghost. Less fortunate than Poland, she left not a regret behind her; and the very memory of her boundaries has faded.

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There’s a good sense of physical and political geography, too, if one allows for some creative licence in the inclusion of The Winter’s Tale‘s Bohemia:

North and east the foothills and Grünewald sank with varying profile into a vast plain. On these sides many small states bordered with the principality, Gerolstein, an extinct grand duchy, among the number. On the south it marched with the comparatively powerful kingdom of Seaboard Bohemia, celebrated for its flowers and mountain bears, and inhabited by a people of singular simplicity and tenderness of heart. Several intermarriages had, in the course of centuries, united the crowned families of Grünewald and Maritime Bohemia; and the last Prince of Grünewald, whose history I purpose to relate, drew his descent through Perdita, the only daughter of King Florizel the First of Bohemia.

I can’t help wondering if that’s meant to be the same Gerolstein as the one in La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, which I haven’t included because it’s not a book. In fact, I rather suspect that Stevenson is having a good deal of fun with other people’s fictional locations. Which is, as is probably apparent, a favourite pastime of my own.

Books referred to in this post

The Princess Diaries and sequels, Meg Cabot

Queen of Gondal series, A. J. Hall

The Heart of Princess Osra, Anthony Hope

Prince Otto, Robert Louis Stevenson

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