One of my favourite moments in life is that space between opening a novel and discovering yourself in another country, sliding from your comfortable sofa with your feet tucked up underneath you, to a new place, the landscape forming around you as you walk along with your protagonist.
Anticipation at the book’s threshold: The place where you stand on the edge and gaze in, assessing. The waiting breath and the question, will this be a good book? Will I make excuses to stop for lunch half an hour early?
Books Where I Live. I could write about Novels Set in Essex. Did you know The Turn of the Screw was set in Essex? I didn’t. I thought it was Sussex, I suppose because that’s where Henry James lived for a while. (No I wasn’t paying attention to that part like I should have been.) Or I could write about Novels Set in Pubs. There’s a lot of time spent in dark little pubs in the beginning of Treasure Island and although I can easily imagine those scenes now that I’ve been in plenty of dark little pubs, the pub I live in isn’t really pub-like anymore (apart from the fuse box). I would consider myself cheating if I went down that route for this themed post.
Instead, I decided on a more general approach: Novels set in England. I know! A million to choose from, but because I cannot deny the idealist within me (in matters of literature, she perfectly eclipses the disgruntled cynic and is much nicer to live with) I must today focus on the idyllic scenes of even the most depressing novels (if you love Tess of the d’Urbervilles or The Go-Between, my sympathies; I can assure you there are happier novels in the English canon for you to read.).
When I studied English novels and poems in English Literature at university, I built their landscapes in my mind before I ever landed at Heathrow–before I ever flew over the green and pleasant land peering down through wisps of clouds at the odd shaped fields, embroidered with hedgerows, looking at the miniature countryside of Miss Bennet, Lady Chatterley and lonely poets. And on landing and touring (walking the landscapes for real!), seeing the anonymous landmarks that lived like monuments in my mind—the old yew in a church yard, lichen covered stone walls arcing over steep hills, a row of willows trailing their fingers in a clear stream, were all part of the backdrop to the stories I read growing up in the American Midwest.
How…syrupy. But I won’t apologise. How sparkling and glorious to be standing on a hillside in a hay meadow, gazing down at the old mill, filling my lungs with the air of costume drama. I really want to grate the image for you, to scratch some part of the golden sheen off that surface so you can see what really lies beneath, but I’m afraid this will have to do. This is no veneer, this is real. It is a real amalgam of my romantic literature student’s imagination and the reality before me. How lucky I am to be able to walk through the backdrop of the annotated novels on my shelves!
(Side note: Please don’t call these landscapes bucolic. I hate that word. It sounds like a lung disease. It needs to disappear from the English language because it clashes so offensively against what it is trying to describe.)
Now, when I read an English classic, I can see first hand what the writers saw when they brought together a story and a setting. Do I experience the novel any differently? Perhaps my experience has become less about the thrill of experiencing new places and more about the deeper understanding of what it means to walk into the side entrance of a stately home, feeling the cool air rise up from the stone floor and smell the sweet mustiness, or what it means to walk through a beech forest and take shelter from the misty rain in the ruins of an old Abbey.
What about you, readers? Do you have any books that perfectly describe where you live or that give you a different angle, a different way of seeing where you live?
Tell me about them in the comments below, or link up!
(And guess what! Next Tuesday is another prize giveaway on the blog—this one will be open for everyone who leaves a comment or links up a post.)