What is it about literary landscapes that makes some of us want to be there? And when the places are fictional how can we still put ourselves in those spaces?
We’re familiar with the popularity of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and The Making of Harry Potter , environments created especially for fans to immerse themselves in J K Rowling’s books, but many want to actually be in the landscapes that inspired writers. Firms like UK Countryside Tours cater for those of us who seek to “read a landscape through the eyes of authors [so that] the words and stories of their greatest characters stay with us as we encounter those landscapes ourselves.” On their tour you can “visit elegant towns, timeless villages and rugged uplands, travelling in the footsteps of Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters through England’s most outstanding landscapes, and experience how the spirit of these inspiring places drove their creativity.”
Individual places also push the real or imagined links that exist, as in Nottinghamshire: “Why not take a walk around part of the historic Annesley Park estate, ancestral home of the Chaworth-Musters family. These really are literary landscapes and a major inspiration for both Lord Byron and DH Lawrence, two of the county’s most famous sons.” Countless blogs exist out there aimed at exploring the links between certain landscapes and literature, such as the appropriately named Literary Landscapes (which proclaims itself to be “a journey through the landscapes, literature & history of the British Isles”) and The Culture Map world travel blog.
These questions came out of Louise Johnson’s musings on her Big Boots and Adventures literary blog, in a post about ‘located’ inspiration. She noted a little “flurry of articles about the ‘real life’ landscapes that have ‘inspired’ literature” in The Guardian recently, which led her to pose two questions.
How do you spatially locate inspiration?
She notes the case of Whitby. A Bram Stoker Memorial Seat is positioned where the author looked out on a view which features in his most famous piece of fiction, Dracula. Robert Swindell’s YA novel Room 13 features a group of children who stay in a B&B on Whitby’s West Cliff, while Robin Jarvis sets his children’s novel The Whitby Witches in this same seaside town. Louise agrees that Whitby has “proven influential in certain aspects of their creation. Yet
I shy away from this idea of saying that X inspired Y. It’s a simplistic approach that in fact turns out to be a literary chicken and egg situation. Where does story begin? Where does the author end? If I write a story about a house by the sea and then, later, see a house by the sea that accords with my story, does that house inspire the story or am I asserting my story over that house?
Following on naturally from her first question comes the second: Do I fit the real landscape within the fictional, or is it the other way around?
Louise says she has “long been fascinated by how savvy tourist authorities (and it almost always is) attempt to lay a claim upon the franchise and argue for their location to be the ‘inspiration for’.” Various locations in the Harry Potter books, for example, are identified with ‘original’ real life equivalents, but as so many of these places — in the books and, especially, in the films — are composite creations drawing on existing places, possible memories and imagination, her conclusion is that “to claim that X inspired Y is problematic. In a way, to claim that link is more revealing about our role and attitude as readers.”
I had also read those articles in The Guardian reviews section that caught Louise’s eye, and a couple of points leapt to mind when I read her commentary on them, thoughts I mostly quote verbatim here. Those two points were magic and possession.
Many may know all about Sir James Frazer’s ‘laws’ of sympathetic magic in The Golden Bough (1890–1915). I’ll discount the branch that he defines as homoeopathic magic just for now and concentrate on the other branch, contagious magic. This of course is where contact with an object or aspect of a living creature is somehow supposed to transfer some of its inherent properties to the contactee, giving them power over the object or creature.
I suspect that with the supposed identification of a house, property or viewpoint the visitor to that place will, by means of Frazer’s Law of Contact, somehow imbibe or absorb the magic still inherent in that landscape — regardless if the association is fictitious or even false. It’s what draws people to places like Tintagel or a bench in an Oxford botanical garden: they want to picture King Arthur and his court wandering around the headland or imagine Philip Pullman’s Lyra communing with Will at the end of The Amber Spyglass.
The second point is related to the first and concerns either temporary possession or permanent ownership of the site in question, because of its inherent magic. It’s as if you’d bottled that supposed magic and were selling it at a lemonade stall at the side of a road. Louise referred to savvy tourist authorities; stately home guides also do this, parcelling out their knowledge titbits to visitors and relishing the power they have to detain the reluctant captives. We see it with the Land’s End visitor experience (pay to go onto the hallowed ground and enjoy the tacky exhibits) and with Westminster Abbey (hobnob with ancient royalty — for a fee). Ownership brings power and money, but even temporary possession of a particular spatial dimension as a day tripper allows you a whiff of the magic.
As readers we partake in the ‘magic’ of place, but for me knowledge that somewhere may have been inspirational is magical enough; I’m not enough of a Doubting Thomas to want to physically experience the magic through my five senses. Maybe I’m just too old to be fussed! Or perhaps I’m a devotee of homoeopathic magic, happy to have that vicarious experience at a distance, thanks to Frazer’s Law of Similarity — a description, an illustration, a map, or just my imagination will allow me the numinous feel of the place in question.
Louise wonders “if, when we assert the presence of a real world inspiration […] we’re attempting to find the human elements of literature. We’re trying to connect, trying to find the footholds in a landscape that’s located beyond us. A right to roam, perhaps, in a space that we can never wholly understand.” In answer to my comments on her post she wrote that she thinks “sometimes we almost forget the power – the currency – of cultural capital.” In a way this power — its use, its abuse — is the other side of the coin where literary landscapes are concerned, the dark side of the moon as it were. But still, that need to connect with others through the magic of imagination is what I draw from this discussion.
Perhaps, as Louise suggests, it’s only human.
Do you have an urge to make literary pilgrimages? Do you make a habit of standing in the steps of an author or their fictional creations? Do such actions make the books come more alive or do they take some of the shine off the magic?