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Ronald Blythe

  • A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature by Margaret Drabble
    Thames and Hudson, 133 pp, £10.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 500 01219 9

When Margaret Drabble says that, like Trollope, ‘Henry James admires the inimitable, unpurchasable gleam of time’, and describes his Poynton as ‘a Mentmore in miniature’, or when she writes of ‘the allegorical significance and sexual innuendo of the medieval garden’, or remarks that architectural irregularity, to English eyes, ‘seems to be a key, a touchstone, a mystic pledge of some indefinable authenticity’, or calls Dickens ‘the great poet of pollution’, or reminds us that, in Wordsworth’s time, ‘the love of nature seemed almost to replace the love of mankind,’ or says a thousand other such things as she wanders through the settings of our stories and poetry, it becomes obvious that we are in for a new look at this celebrated scenery. If one had to draw a single broad conclusion from the closing chapters of her book, it would be that contemporary fiction is under-set, and that much contemporary poetry is all setting. The latter has august precedents, of course. Such a conclusion would, however, be all too simple. What emerges from this long and lively tour of the lakes, moors, streets, fields, houses and shores of the literary imagination is proof that landscape has always been a complicating factor in our view both of life and of art. Where is the actual eroticism in the work of Emily Brontë and D.H. Lawrence? Where is the heaven of Milton, Wordsworth and Blake? Where is Dickens’s hell? Where is the social realism in Crabbe’s ‘Tales’ or Mrs Gaskell’s or Arnold Bennett’s novels? In men and women and angels and demons? No, in places. We move about in these little islands according to the statements listed in a double gazetteer: one from the AA, and the other begun by Celts and Saxons, or even by Romans, for Tacitus mentioned Colchester. If publishers’ lists are anything to go by, the second gets an added entry every hour.

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