The Reader’s Gazetteer: P

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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.

Books mentioned in this post

Castle Gay, John Buchan

Malafrena, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling

Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers

 

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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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