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 Gazetter Special: Alpennia

We’ve visited Alpennia before in this series, but I have a particular treat for you today. As part of the publicity around the release of her new Alpennia novel Floodtide, author Heather Rose Jones has written a guest post exploring why she chose to set her stories in a fictional location, and what she had to consider once she’d made that choice.

It’s worth noting that, while Floodtide is a standalone and you don’t need to have read any of the previous books in the series to enjoy it, Heather is Bella Books’ featured author until the end of the month, so this is an excellent opportunity to pick up all the other Alpennia books at 30% off.

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I’ve heard the question often enough: If you’re setting your story in actual history rather than a pure secondary world, why invent a country to set it in? Why not use a real location? What is the appeal of Ruritania?

Some of the reasons are practical. If your characters are major figures in their setting, maybe you don’t want to insert them into events and relationships that actually existed. Maybe no historic figures did the things or were the sorts of people you need. In my case, I started out thinking I was going to set my story in France, but I needed some specific legal and social structures to make my plot work, and those were impossible in a French setting. In order to give my imagination the space to work, I needed to remove the constraints of an existing historic society. Plot trumped history and so Alpennia was born. (The fantasy elements came later.)

Part of the appeal can be a type of laziness. Some authors are happy to break history and deal with the consequences when a subset of readers protest, “That’s not how it works! That’s not how any of this works!” Others may prefer the softer path–the ability to say, “That’s just how things are in this country.” Ruritania isn’t an excuse to create a society that isn’t internally consistent. There are limits to how lazy you can be and still write a good story. But the limits are more elastic, more forgiving.

An excellent reason to use an invented country is to be sensitive to the real-world cultures that inspired you. This is a sensitive topic, because borrowing elements you find inspiring can merge into appropriating the heritage of actual people while erasing their ancestors from the story. I’ve tried to make it clear that Alpennia is its own place, not an existing culture dressed up in a costume, but the approach has its own risks.

Sometimes inventing a country is a case of wanting to create a setting that could have existed but never did. To design realistic people and events that by chance never happened. Or ones that you suspect did happen but have been written out of history. The heart of my books is a focus on queer women. We know from the bits and scraps that were recorded (and for whom those records survived) that women have loved each other across the ages, but only certain types of stories have come down to us. Often the ones that ended badly. I don’t claim that Alpennia was some sort of queer paradise, but by creating my own society, I can integrate my queer characters without the charge “that’s unhistorical because these people aren’t in the history books.”

Once you’ve decided to invent your own country, the question becomes “how?”

I wanted a place that made sense within its context–that could have evolved naturally out of real historic settings and forces. The geography might be inserted sideways into the existing map of Europe, but the culture, the history, the economy needed to be unexceptional.

The original idea of setting the story in France had already shaped parts of the culture, so it made sense to place it on the border of that country. There were still plenty of small semi-independent duchies and principalities scattered through western Europe in the 18th century. For its simple existence, Alpennia makes as much sense as the Duchy of Savoy, straddling the modern border of France and Italy. In fact, the two are technically neighbors, though by the time of my stories, Savoy was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. But I digress…

Sitting on the intersection of France, Italy, and Switzerland, the recorded history of Alpennia would of course have begun as part of the Roman Empire. There are references to Roman ruins in Daughter of Mystery, and fans of Roman archaeology will be entertained by the discovery of an ancient Roman monument that plays a key role in Floodtide.

As a consequence, Alpennia will have a Romance language, but likely with a Germanic substrate entering during the Migration Era. When I needed to build a “look and feel” for Alpennian names and vocabulary, I wanted something that was recognizably central European but not quite like any existing Romance language. I settled on using the (fairly fragmentary) written records of the Langobardic language as inspiration for the appearance of the language and developed a set of sound-change rules to use in transforming Latin vocabulary and names into early modern Alpennian. Hey, I have a PhD in historical linguistics, don’t think I was going to gloss over this part!

Alpennia sits on the edge of several large-scale cultural patterns. As a vast oversimplification, these patterns include falling on the Catholic side during the Reformation, an emphasis on “honor culture,” and tending to follow southern European marriage patterns.

Not having a direct sea port, I didn’t see Alpennia as participating strongly in colonial expansion (not for any virtuous reason, just lack of opportunity), and their water-based foreign trade is dependent on access to the Mediterranean through French ports. Alpennia’s major river, the Rotein, is a sort of shadow-twin of the Rhône (which might be guessed from its name) and the positioning of the capital of Rotenek is implied to be at the farthest upriver that commercial barge traffic can reliably go. When I first started plot-noodling the seasonal spring floods that give Floodtide its name, I envisioned the snow-melt of a fan of Alpine tributaries hitting the flatter country around Rotenek in potentially disastrous ways. News images of urban flooding in Europe in the last couple decades have been very inspiring for what the results might look like.

The most fun part of developing the physical environment of Alpennia is how the architecture of human spaces reflects the layered history of the country. The heart of the “upper town” (both upper in elevation and as the heart of upper class culture) is the plaza between the palace and the cathedral. But Floodtide centers more around the marketplace between the church of Saint Nikule (the patron of sailors and merchants) and the old river landing–a relic of a time when the shipping trade was no longer in the hands of the merchant families living along the Vezenaf (whose houses are now the most prestigious in the city) but before it moved to the south side of the river where land was less dear. The simple existence of the Nikuleplaiz summarizes the merchant history of the city. I created the remnants of an old public market building there, now only a covered arcade where the charmwives sell hope and magic, and a secular bell tower that chimes for fogs and floods.

I like to find inspiration in the quirks of real spaces that break the illusion of cleanly planned buildings in the past. The charity housing built into the spaces between the buttresses of Saint Nikule’s church are inspired by actual medieval structures of that type still standing around a church in Deventer in the Netherlands, where I was visiting a friend several years ago. I love details that imagination alone couldn’t create–details that reflect the messy and contradictory relationship of people to their surroundings.

We currently have a wealth of resources for envisioning environments of the past, from easy online access to art, texts, and publications, to reconstructed virtual environments. I find these things invaluable in fleshing out the Alpennian landscape, but my heart always goes back to the time I’ve spent traveling and living in older European cities. That sense of place and presence made a big impact on me when I was a ten-year-old California girl traveling to Europe for the first time–the year that inspired my ongoing love of history. Alpennia is my chance to share that love without laying claim to a heritage that doesn’t belong to me.


Floodtide

The streets are a perilous place for a young laundry maid dismissed without a character for indecent acts. Roz knew the end of the path for a country girl alone in the city of Rotenek. A desperate escape in the night brings her to the doorstep of Dominique the dressmaker and the hope of a second chance beyond what she could have imagined. Roz’s apprenticeship with the needle, under the patronage of the royal thaumaturgist, wasn’t supposed to include learning magic, but Celeste, the dressmaker’s daughter, draws Roz into the mysterious world of the charm-wives. When floodwaters and fever sweep through the lower city, Celeste’s magical charms could bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor of Rotenek, but only if Roz can claim the help of some unlikely allies.

Set in the magical early 19th century world of Alpennia, Floodtide tells an independent tale that interweaves with the adventures.

A stand-alone book in the Alpennia series (Alpennia #4)


Heather Rose Jones is the author of the Alpennia historic fantasy series: an alternate-Regency-era Ruritanian adventure revolving around women’s lives woven through with magic, alchemy, and intrigue. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chronicles of the Holy Grail, Sword and Sorceress, Lace and Blade, and at Podcastle.org. Heather blogs about research into lesbian-relevant motifs in history and literature at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and has a podcast covering the field of lesbian historical fiction which has recently expanded into publishing audio fiction. She reviews books at The Lesbian Review as well as on her blog. She works as an industrial failure investigator in biotech pharmaceuticals.

Website: http://alpennia.com

Twitter: @heatherosejones

Facebook: Heather-Rose-Jones-490950014312292/

HRJ

The Reader’s Gazetteer

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