Settings

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.

This book doesn’t attempt a full list, but it does take us on all the important excursions and on scores of ancient and modern bypaths besides. The reason it all works so well may be that Margaret Drabble has a well-stocked mind rather than a well-stocked notebook. She has been scrupulous in going to the best authorities on her geography-making authors, but both the pleasure and the value of her essay derive from the fact that she had read her way into this enthralling territory from childhood onwards and has a natural aptitude for knowing how the land lies. Here is the Britain she has received from those who created it, whether it be Matthew Paris or Sylvia Plath. Like many novelists, she has an acute sense of association and she is able to come very close to the regional influences which formed – or deformed – certain talents. She understands what it is like for a writer to have to work in the wrong place, or to recognise that he may have to endure the pressures of staying at home, or of being rootless, in order to write at all. And she is good at describing that great tradition of our literature, from Caedman to R.S. Thomas, which transforms the parochial into the universal. A highly literate Church has not limited itself to the Word, but has scribbled its brilliant way into drama, poetry, science and fiction. Miss Drabble’s map is sign-posted all over with cloisters and rectories.

Their effect on us has been profound, although often enough it was not an effect intended by their inhabitants. Take Tintern, Valle Crucis, Fountains and Rievaulx. They stand in what their founders believed to be harsh and outlandish situations, far from the distracting world, where nothing, in St Bernard’s phrase, was ‘beautiful to the eye, soft to the ear, agreeable to the smell, sweet to the taste and pleasant to the touch’. If we reflect that, as is the case with the majority of our finest monastic buildings, their sitings have altered little during the centuries, and that the first abbots of Valle Crucis saw much the same scenery as still surrounds this lovely structure, we immediately understand what a drastic change there has been in ways of looking at the countryside. Vast stretches of its wildness, so cherished by us, were a penance to our medieval ancestors, if not an anathema. Equally paradoxical was the eventual result of the deliberate destruction of these lonely prayer houses. While they were whole, they sheltered the sacred few. Ruined, they continue to develop the sensibility of generation after generation. And entirely – as St Bernard would have been disgusted to know – by virtue of an aesthetic.

Margaret Drabble traces a most unhackneyed path from Gothic to Gothick, and then on to fresh assessments of the 19th century’s rich and wistful interpretation of the Middle Ages. She says something about Tennyson which I found intriguing and memorable. Due, no doubt, to its superb monochrome photography as much as its decorum, I have always retained a childish picture of Victorian England as a restrained grey world – melancholy, formal and yet at the same time beckoning. My reaction is caused by, or is traceable to, I am told, Tennyson’s first inspirational scenery, that at flat Somersby: ‘He was very short-sighted, which one might guess from the writing alone, for it is marked by extremely precise, close descriptions – of black ash buds, of flecks of sea foam, of pebbles, of caterpillars – and by huge, vague, misty horizons. The prevailing mood is one of melancholy and heaviness … the characteristically Tennysonian world is one of dying swans, decaying flowers, dark rooks in elm trees, dark wolds, desolate creeks, dim meres, and dew-drenched wood walks … The languid atmosphere that breathes from the poems is overwhelming.’ She adds that it was pure flat Lincolnshire coast weather that blew through Camelot – and even into Dickens’s Bleak House. The great literary landscapes break their original bounds and spread in countless artistic and social directions. In Tennyson’s case, they have toned down an age.

It would not be possible to produce a book like this without some reference to the idyll and the anti-idyll – Thomson on one side, and Crabbe on the other. Miss Drabble is far more robust and far less mealy-mouthed than most on the subject, and she sharply condemns the cruel fantasies of the Pastoral. She writes magnificently about Clare, ‘the poet of the commonplace, and near at hand’, and, less expectedly, about Milton’s rural actuality. With the nerve which comes from wide and confident reading, she brackets Clare’s overwhelming ‘Remembrances’ with Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’, to startling effect, describing the former as a poem of stunning originality. Wordsworth, she writes, ‘forged a new relationship between man and the natural world; he lived in a new communion, and when he was young he found the language, in Shelley’s phrase, like clay in his hands.’ Wordsworth ‘painted place as it had never been painted before’. He is her place hero, Clare her place victim.

One would expect her to guide us briskly and entertainingly through the lanes and courts of the novel, and she does. Hardy reigns in this sphere – there is none to equal him. Although all his novels share the harmonic whole of Wessex, they each possess what Hopkins called an ‘inscape’ which gives them their individual interpretation of the region. Everything occurs in a working landscape. The moods pass from terror to ecstasy. The inhabitants are constructed from the earth they till and the air they breathe. The literary creation of Wessex is one of the master achievements of the English novel.

The peregrination ends with trips to Larkin land, Angus Wilson’s New Town (artistically, still a mainly unrealised subject), Ted Hughes’s Devonshire, rather than his native Elmet, Dylan Thomas’s half-loved Wales, Hartley’s sexy Norfolk, the Georgians’ self-conscious shires, Housman’s country of the broken heart. Grahame’s pagan Thames Valley and Orwell’s lost Oxfordshire village in Coming Up for Air – ‘one of the most powerful novels ever written about the threat to what we now call the environment’. Jorge Lewinski has supplied a wide and thoughtful range of fine photographs to accompany this guide to the spots where landscape has become language.