The Reader’s Gazetteer: C

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Thomas Hardy makes it easy.  Casterbridge, Christminster, you’ll find them on the map inside the front of every Wessex novel. And you can lay the map of Wessex down over the map of south-west England and work out how to get to any of these places. At least, you could, if they were real. Which they sort of are, and sort of aren’t. Hardy calls Wessex “a merely realistic dream country”, or so Wikipedia tells me.

There’s a lot of travelling in Hardy’s books, whether it’s emigrating to Canada or going to market. People come from places and they go to places; they pass through places on their way. And the landscape is vividly described, and feels coherent:

So, stealing out of the hamlet he descended into the same hollow which had witnessed his punishment in the morning, never swerving an inch from the path, and climbing up the long and tedious ascent on the other side, till the track joined the highway by a little clump of trees. Here the ploughed land ended, and all before him was bleak open down.

Not a soul was visible on the hedgeless highway, or on either side of it, and the white road seemed to ascend and diminish till it joined the sky. At the very top it was crossed at right angles by a green ‘ridgeway’ – the Icknield Street and original Roman road through the district. This ancient track ran east and west for many miles, and down almost to within living memory had been used for driving flocks and herds to fairs and markets. But it was now neglected and overgrown.

From this, and other passages through the Wessex novels, one might almost be able to put the map together without knowledge of the real-world equivalents or a sight of the map of Dorset and Hampshire, Somerset and Berkshire and Oxfordshire and Devon.

Here are Susan and Elizabeth-Jane Henchard approaching Casterbridge:

‘What an old-fashioned place it seems to be!’ said Elizabeth-Jane, while her silent mother mused on other things than topography. ‘It is huddled all together; and it is shut in by a square wall of trees, like a plot of garden ground by a box-edging.’

Its squareness was, indeed, the characteristic which most struck the eye in this antiquated borough, the borough of Casterbridge – at that time, recent as it was, untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernism. It was compact as a box of dominoes. It had no suburbs – in the ordinary sense. Country and town met at a mathematical line.

To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles of rotund down and concave field. The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys and casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the belt of sunlit cloud in the west.

From the centre of each side of this tree-bound square ran avenues east, west, and south into the wide expanse of cornland and coomb to the distance of a mile or so.

And then we enter the town itself, and the impressionist bird’s-eye view resolves into detail, and the plot gets going. The social geography is slotted into the physical geography; we learn who drinks at which public house. Durnover; the market place; Mixen Lane: Casterbridge is very credible.

I’m trying to remember whether I’ve ever been to Dorchester and, if so, whether it looked like that. (Although the narrative explains later that Things Have Changed between the date of the action and the date of writing, so it probably wouldn’t have.) I thought I had, but on reflection I suspect I was thinking of Bridport.

I have, however, definitely been to Oxford. Here’s Jude Fawley’s first sight of Christminster:

Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.

Even without the map, even without the clue of the name (Oxford’s cathedral – ‘minster’ – doubles as the chapel of Christ’s College) it’s easy to make the connection with the ‘dreaming spires’ of cliché.

How to get there? A little find+replace, together with traveline.info, makes it easy enough. For Casterbridge, take the train direct from London Waterloo (ultimate destination Budmouth); alternatively, go from Paddington and change at Castle Cary or Westbury (again to a train heading for Budmouth). For Christminster, take the direct train from London Marylebone – or go from Paddington again, changing at Aldbrickham this time.

Other Cs on the map of Wessex are Chalk Newton, Chaseborough, Cliff Martin and Cresscombe, but they’re only bit players, mentioned in passing if at all.

You might ask why I’m using Casterbridge and Christminster now, rather than waiting for W for Wessex. The truth is, I’m not really convinced by the whole of Wessex as an entity, even broken up into North and Upper and Mid and South and Outer and Lower, but I can believe in the individual towns and villages, and the landscapes around and between them. Plus, C comes a lot earlier in the alphabet…

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That ammonite came from Charmouth, which does not have a Wessex equivalent, but is the right neck of the woods.

Books referred to in this post

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

and the other Wessex novels

The Reader’s Gazetteer: B

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Of course it has to be Barchester. Other fictional Bs that come to mind are bit-part players: Borduria in Tintin, or Belsornia in the Chalet School series. But Barchester is one of the big ones. In terms of its significance, that is; the whole point of it is that it isn’t exactly a bit city.

Anthony Trollope is a little bit vague about the precise location of Barchester at the beginning of The Warden:

The Rev. Septimus Harding was, a few years since, a beneficed clergyman residing in the cathedral town of ––––; let us call it Barchester. Were we to name Wells or Salisbury, Exeter, Hereford, or Gloucester, it might be presumed that something personal was intended; and as this tale will refer mainly to the cathedral dignitaries of the town in question, we are anxious that no personality may be suspected. Let us presume that Barchester is a quiet town in the West of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments than for any commercial prosperity; that the west end of Barchester is the cathedral close, and that the aristocracy of Barchester are the bishop, dean, and canons, with their respective wives and daughters.

But that doesn’t matter; it’s all we need to get the story going. In The Warden, it’s the personalities and politics that drive things: the close, the clergy, the councillors.  Trollope shows us a city that’s been minding its own business, getting along quite happily in its own way, sorting out or ignoring its petty troubles and corruptions – until someone comes in from outside and shakes it all up. And ‘outside’ means, of course, ‘London’. John Bold, the reformer, is a Barchester man, but he has been away to London and come back again with ideas:

His passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses (he has got himself elected a town councillor of Barchester, and has so worried three consecutive mayors, that it became somewhat difficult to find a fourth), abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large.

In very broad terms, Barchester just has to not be London, and to be influenced by the events and people (Tom Towers, for example) that happen in or come from London. Nothing more than that is necessary, and, broadly speaking, that’s all we get. There is, however, one mention of a London terminal, and that terminal is Paddington.

As we work our way through the series, the location stabilises. We travel further afield around the city of Barchester. The internal geography of Barsetshire emerges, and is sufficiently consistent for the folk at Penguin to have produced the map on the endpapers of the Penguin Classics edition in the photograph. We learn in Framley Parsonage that Exeter exists in this universe, and so can’t be Barchester. Then, in The Small House at Allington, Johnny Eames also goes to London, and also arrives at Paddington. That puts Barchester firmly on the Great Western Railway, and certainly rules out Salisbury.

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(These were library copies, and it took me a while to realise that the disintegrating Gothic tracery on the cover of The Warden was down to wear and tear, rather than a comment by the cover designer. One could certainly read some symbolic significance into that…)

In my head Barchester lies south of the Severn rather than on it, but that might just be because I first read The Warden when I was at university in Exeter. Hereford just feels far too far north. The real-life scandal that inspired the plot of The Warden happened, of course, at Winchester: Hiram’s Hospital bears a remarkable similarity to the hospital of St Cross (where, oddly enough, I was baptised rather more than a century later). The reader will notice that Winchester is not mentioned at the beginning of The Warden. Then again, it’s even more hassle to get to from Paddington than Salisbury.

Later in this series I’ll be examining other cathedral cities, and I’ll be speculating just what it is about the West of England that makes it so attractive to the constructors of fictional towns. In the meantime, however, it’s only right to salute Anthony Trollope and the one that, in many ways, started it all.

Books referred to in this post

The Warden, Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope

The Small House at Allington, Anthony Trollope

King Ottakar’s Sceptre, Hergé

various Chalet School titles, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

 

The Reader’s Gazetteer: A

When I first started thinking about writing this series, I imagined that I’d be ignoring fantasy altogether. I wouldn’t be able to locate Narnia on a map of the world; at least, I couldn’t point to where it should be, so was it worth my while considering the genre at all?

But I realised pretty quickly that dismissing fantasy would rule out one fictional nation that definitely deserves its place in this gazetteer.

I’m talking about Alpennia, from the series by Heather Rose Jones.

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If I’d written a wishlist of all the tropes and themes that I most enjoy reading, and handed my specifications over to an author, I couldn’t have liked the result better than I like this. The series contains nights at the opera, women in breeches, swashbuckling, politics both national and ecclesiastical, relationships between women, and a sensitive portrayal of religious experience. And a fictional state somewhere in Europe. Which is why we’re here.

The worldbuilding is meticulous. Alpennia is made distinctive by physical geography, by history, by religious practice, and, perhaps most obviously, by language. Where some authors would have let matters carry on in assumed French or German, Jones gives Alpennia a language of its own, and it works remarkably well.

How do you get there? How do I get there? Because that’s my main criterion for including a place in this gazetteer. And if getting there had to involve magic, it wouldn’t make the cut.

In Daughter of Mystery, Alpennia’s location is established in relation to Switzerland:

Chalanz was well out of sight around a curve of the hills behind her but in the other direction, to the south, she could see all the way to where the mountains rose, snowcapped, on the southeastern border of Alpennia, guarding the roads to Switzerland and places beyond.

In The Mystic Marriage we get a fix on it from the other direction. Antuniet travels from Heidelberg to Rotenek, the country’s capital, via Basel.

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As it happens, magic in these books might impede travel, but it doesn’t seem to enable it in any meaningful sense. They’re set in the first half of the nineteenth century, and people travel on foot, or horseback, or coach. I imagine that there’s a railway line these days, and perhaps even an airport.

Leaving the realms of fantasy – or, since I’m now turning to Anne of Green Gables, perhaps not – and crossing the Atlantic brings me to Avonlea.

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I suspect that I’ll be writing a lot over the course of this series about how characters enter and leave fictional places, about outsiders and insiders are identified, and about how the established community is set up.

Anne of Green Gables does all of those things within the first few chapters. A typical opening would see the orphan Anne arriving on a train, to be met by Matthew Cuthbert and escorted into Avonlea.

And in fact that’s what happens. But it doesn’t happen until Avonlea has been introduced to us. The novel opens with Mrs Rachel Lynde seeing Matthew leaving Avonlea, and wondering why. It’s a clever move to get the best of both worlds: Avonlea may never have seen anything like Anne, but we can’t understand the significance of that unless we understand a little bit about Avonlea.

In passing, we get a geographical clue:

Mrs Rachel found abundant time to sit for hours at her kitchen window… keeping a sharp eye on the main road that crossed the hollow and wound up the steep red hill beyond. Since Avonlea occupied a little triangular peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of St Lawrence, with water on two sides of it, anybody who went out of it or into it had to pass over that hill road and so run the unseen gauntlet of Mrs Rachel’s all-seeing eye.

Then we follow Matthew out of Avonlea. There’s a little hint of the lyrical descriptive note that the narrative voice shares with Anne, but it’s nothing to what hits the page when we meet Anne herself and she meets Avonlea:

They were on the crest of a hill. The sun had set some time since, but the landscape was still clear in the mellow afterlight. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley, and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it, in the stainless south-west sky, a great crystal-white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.

This alternation continues throughout the book. Marilla Cuthbert takes over the more prosaic point of view, while Anne keeps the descriptions. (Matthew continues not to say very much.) It’s effective: in the reader’s mind, Avonlea becomes a very beautiful place, but one that’s the creation of a very human community.

How to get there? I refer you to this thoroughly evidenced page matching the locations in the books with real-world settlements. Find your way to Charlottetown, and off you go. Actually, I’m not sure whether, growing up, it ever occurred to me to doubt that Avonlea was real.

Books referred to in this post

Daughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones

The Mystic Marriage, Heather Rose Jones

Mother of Souls, Heather Rose Jones

Anne of Green Gables (and, obliquely, much of the rest of the Anne series), L. M. Montgomery

New blog series: The Reader’s Gazetteer

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Earlier this week I updated my ‘About’ page to add a little about what visitors can expect to find on this site. I wrote that the blog is largely about ‘other people’s books, travel, and the writing process’.

This blog series is going to deal with two of those things. I’m going to do an abedecedarium – an A to, I hope, Z of fictional places in other people’s books, and speculate as to how one might find them if they were real. Ever since my father read me The Prisoner of Zenda I’ve been fascinated by places that sound as if they might exist, but don’t, by books that convince me that I could take a train or just walk over the border into somewhere that’s only real in the author’s head, and now mine.

How am I going to choose these places? It’s going to come down to these two questions:

Do I believe in the place? Do geography and politics seem plausible?

Do I believe that I, a normal human being with no powers more sophisticated than being able to hold a map the right way up and knowing how to use the Deutsche Bahn app, could get to the place?

I am not going to be fussy about genre. This series will range across detective stories, fanfiction, teen books, thrillers, classics, possibly even the occasional school story. Sci-fi and fantasy are less likely to be included, for obvious reasons: if I need a spaceship to get there, it’s not going in. Portal fantasy is out, as well. With (at time of planning) one honourable exception.

I am restricting myself to textual canons, though I’m throwing in Tintin for old times’ sake. Much as I adore The Merry Widow, you will not find Pontevedro here (or even Marsovia, as the first English translation had it). Nor am I including the deliberately silly. Barataria and Pfennig-Halbfennig would be out anyway under the ‘book canons’ rule, but you also won’t find Norman Hunter’s Kumdown Upwardz, Gadzooks, or Urgburg-under-Ug. (Which is a pity, because it’s a bit of a struggle to find fictional places beginning with U.)

Inevitably, I will miss some places, and it will probably be because I haven’t read their books. If it turns out that one of them is your favourite, I apologise. I’ll be inviting people to add their own recommendations in comments every week.

I’ll be sharing pictures of the books, and maps where they have them, and I’ll be talking about what makes me believe in the place. I’ll probably also wander onto byways involving my own travels in real places, and my own travails coming up with fictional ones.

Want to join me? You’d be very welcome. Grab a toothbrush and your passport, and I’ll see you back here next Saturday.

Book meme

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It’s a wet Saturday afternoon, so let’s have a meme! Comment with a number and I’ll answer the question.

1: What book did you last finish? When was that?

2: What are you currently reading?

3: What book are you planning to read next?

4: What was the last book you added to your tbr?

5: Which book did you last re-read?

6: Which book was the last one you really, really loved?

7: What was/were the last book/books you bought?

8: Paperback or hardcover? Why?

9: YA, NA or Adult? Why?

10: Sci-Fi or fantasy? Why?

11: Classic or modern? Why?

12: Political memoirs or comedic memoirs?

13: Name a book with a really bad movie/tv adaption

14: Name a book where the movie/tv adaption actually was better than the original

15: What book changed your life?

16: If you could bring three books to a deserted island which would you bring and why?

17: If you owned a bookshop what would you call it?

18: Which character from a book is the most like you?

19: Which character from a book is the least like you?

20: Best summer read?

21: Best winter read?

22: Pro or anti e-readers? Why?

23: Bookdepository or Amazon?

24: Do you prefer to buy books online or in a bookshop?

25: If you could be a character from a book for just one day who would you be and why? (Bonus: any specific day in the story?)

26: If you could be a character from a book for their entire life who would you be and why?

27: If you could change one thing about mainstream literature what would you change? (i.e. more diversity, better writing, better plot etc.)

28: How many books have you read so far this year?

29: How do you sort your shelves? (i.e. by color, author, title etc.)

30: Who’s your favourite author?

31: Who’s your favourite contemporary author?

32: Who’s your favourite fantasy author?

33: Who’s your favourite Sci-Fi author?

34: List five OTPs

35: Name a book you consider to be terribly underrated

36: Name a book you consider to be terribly overrated

37: How many books are actually in your bookshelf/shelves right now?

38: What language do you (most often) read in?

39: Name one of your favorite childhood books

40: Name one of your favorite books from your teenage years

41: Do you own a library card? How often do you use it?

42: Which was the best book you had to read in school?

43: Are you the kind of person who reads several books at once or the kind of person who can only read one book at a time?

44: Do you like to listen to music when you read?

45: What is your favorite thing to eat when you read?

46: What is your favorite thing to drink when you read?

47: What do you do to get out of a reading slump?

48: Where is your favorite place to read?

49: When is your favorite time to read?

50: Why do you love to read?

Fall In Love: autumn sale at I Heart Lesfic

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A heads up for fans of f/f fiction: I Heart Lesfic is hosting a very large sale over the next few days. There are over one hundred books up there, by more than sixty authors. Enjoy!

The eagle-eyed will notice that none of those authors is me. This is because Amazon refuses to recognise that I set Speak Its Name to free (in ebook form, at least) several weeks ago. Lulu, Kobo, the iBookstore and Barnes & Noble have all caught on, though, so help yourself. (And if you’re dithering, here’s a recent review to help you make up your mind.)

Charity vs piracy: my take on the second-hand books question

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As usual, I’m late to the controversy. As usual, I only have a hazy idea of what actually went down. But I think it was something like this:

  1. A site went up which shared pirated ebooks in PDF format
  2. Authors and publishers protested
  3. Users of the pirate site protested in turn
  4. Conclusions were jumped to (authors do not want people to read their books for free!)
  5. Assumptions were made (authors do not want people to read their books in any way that doesn’t involve buying the book new!)
  6. Somewhere in the middle of this, the site was taken down
  7. But the controversy kept running

If you happened to look at Twitter at the wrong moment, you might well be forgiven for concluding that authors disapprove of: libraries, charity shops, jumble sales, second-hand bookshops, those shelves you find in cafés and staff rooms and railway stations.

(Although if you looked a bit harder you’d find plenty of authors who’d disagree.)

There simply aren’t enough hard copies of my books out there in the wild for this to affect me. If there’s somebody currently scouring the charity shops of Britain in the hopes of picking up a paperback of Speak Its Name, then all I can say is, good luck to them. They’ll spend more on the petrol or the train fare than they would just buying the thing new.

So really, I’m talking as a reader here, as a browser, as a purchaser.

I’m talking about charity shops here, and about libraries, and about bricks-and-mortar second-hand bookshops. I’m talking about places with actual shelves. I’ve spent a lot of time in that sort of place over the years. And I have picked up books by authors I’d never heard of. My eye has been caught by a title, a cover picture, a half-remembered name.

And I wouldn’t have spent nine pounds ninety nine on this whim, but fifty pence, two pounds, seems like a decent gamble. Because it is a gamble. I might abandon it after one chapter. On the other hand, I might end up devoting the next five years of my life to finding everything else that author wrote and buying it – yes! perhaps even new!

And I have never felt remotely guilty about any of that; nor do I intend to start now. I am pleased to support a small business or a charity. (Well, most charities – but that’s another story.)

If I like a book, I might keep it and re-read it. If I don’t like it, am I expected to throw it away? Because I certainly don’t want it around my house. No. I will pass it on to a charity shop, or leave it on a swap shelf, or BookCross it, and if someone ends up selling it for fifty pence or five pounds, then they’re welcome to it. And, if I’m honest, the implication that all books should be new books (because that’s where the other way of thinking leads leads) appalls me on ecological grounds, quite apart from anything else.

Many of my clothes came from charity shops, and many have gone back to others. I don’t see the difference when it comes to books. Nobody apart from me can wear the dress that I am wearing. (They can wear a dress very like it, but that’s another story.) But I can lend, give, or sell it to somebody else without the manufacturer having any reasonable grounds for complaint. Likewise, nobody except me can read (for example) the particular copy of The Birthday Party (Veronica Henry) that’s currently on top of my chest-of-drawers. But I could lend, give, or sell it to you, and then you could read it.

And I don’t think that’s depriving Veronica Henry of any income that she could reasonably have expected, because I’d never heard of her before a BookCrosser sent me that book. On the other hand, if I were to start making and handing out copies of it to anyone who asked – people who were actively looking for her book, say – then that would be illegal and immoral. And that’s what the PDF distribution site was doing.

But the existence of any physical copy of any book implies that at some point, perhaps way, way back in the dim and distant past, the author (or the author’s estate, or whoever managed to get the rights off the author**) has been paid for that copy of that book. That is what makes the difference for me between the second-hand trade and piracy.

Incidentally, if you do happen to want a free ebook, then my Speak Its Name is free on Kobo, the iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Lulu until the end of September. And if anyone tells you off for downloading it, well, you can tell them that I wrote it and I published and I’m the one who gets to set the price. My apologies to Kindle users: I’m waiting for Amazon to catch up. If you don’t want to wait, you can get an EPUB copy and run it through Calibre with my blessing.

 

* I also make extensive and enthusiastic use of Project Gutenberg, on the grounds that the authors represented there are far too dead to care, and for the most part, so are their heirs.