M is another of those built-up letters. Hardy gives us Marygreen, Melchester and Mellstock. Wikipedia tells me that there was a Maltovia in one of the Biggles books, but if I read it (and I read a lot of Biggles, back in the day) then I don’t remember it. Helena Fairfax gives us Montverrier, and a dedicated exploration of the Ruritania series takes us to Mittenheim. (Well, it doesn’t really; a Grand Duke comes from there, but we never really learn much about it.)
Then there’s Maycomb. Google supplies a wealth of maps (extrapolating them from To Kill A Mockingbird seems to be a popular school activity) but I’m going to quote this lovely train journey from Go Set A Watchman:
The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful.
The station at Montgomery nestled in an elbow of the Alabama, and when she got off the train to stretch her legs, the returning familiar with its drabness, lights, and curious odors rose to meet her…
For no reason an ancient fear gnawed her. She had not been in this station for twenty years, but when she was a child and went to the capital with Atticus, she was terrified lest the swaying train plunge down the riverbank and drown them all. But when she boarded again for home, she forgot.
The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gaily painted bell-funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited could have swallowed it whole with room to spare. Greenville, Evergreen, Maycomb Junction.
Although even this train doesn’t quite get us there, and the journey is completed by car:
No trains went there – Maycomb Junction, a courtesy title, was located in Abbott County, twenty miles away. Bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.
To reach Middlemarch these days you’d take a train out of London Euston and you’d be there in about an hour. But at the time that the action is set, the railway has not quite made it. In fact, we see it being built.
It’s not connections or landscape that make Middlemarch a place we can believe in. It’s the people. It’s the systems. It’s the systems in which the people live and move, and the people who make up the systems. There’s the class system, the minute gradations of commerce, the churches and the hospitals, the vain attempt to move up a rung, or at least keep oneself from moving down one, to escape it entirely, and the pettiness of the whole thing…
I know how to get to Middlemarch because I believe the introduction when it tells me it’s basically Coventry with the serial numbers filed off. (Which makes me wonder whether anyone’s written anything set in post-war Middlemarch. Or anything about the Middlemarch bicycle industry…) But I believe in Middlemarch because I believe in the people who live in it and around it.
Books mentioned in this post
Middlemarch, George Eliot
In the Mouth of the Wolf, Helena Fairfax
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
The Heart of Princess Osra, Anthony Hope
Biggles Goes To War, Capt. W. E. Johns
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee