“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”L P Hartley, ‘The Go-Between’ (1953)
The famous opening sentence of The Go-Between is such a powerful statement, not only because it’s undoubtedly true but also because it taps into our profoundest perceptions of living in the here and now while retaining a sense of the past as being somehow alien.
‘Alien’ is itself a word freighted with several values — sometimes meaning something extraterrestrial, or in a pejorative sense as somehow wrong or unwelcome — unsurprising when we consider it derives from the Latin alienus indicating “of or belonging to another; not one’s own; foreign; strange.” That quality of otherness, of difference in kind, is thus added to the notion of distancing, as suits alienus deriving from an Indo-European root meaning “beyond”.
Hartley’s phrase therefore combines our perceptions of difference and distance while expressing much that both attracts and repels us about even our own history. And it may explain why we have a fascination for stories that take us out of ourselves, and which deliberately confront us with what may be very unfamiliar.
These thoughts have risen while I have been reading Katherine Addison’s The Witness for the Dead, a gaslamp fantasy that combines late Victorian ambience with a borderline Byzantine geography, while at the same time including elves and goblins behaving in very human ways. Here is a story that combines difference with distance in both time and space, though not in quite the same relationships as in Hartley’s dictum: the novel depicts an alternative past in a different country, Ethuveraz, and while some aspects are recognisable to us — there are airships, trams, gas lighting, frock coats, opera houses, all of which wouldn’t be much out of place in fin de siècle Europe or North America — what is done differently here is what undoubtedly makes this a fantasy.
This is not a review — that is yet to come — but there are some things that can be usefully discussed which might otherwise feel overdetailed or like padding in a general critique. These might include for example customs, language, landscape, and the supernatural. Thus Ethuveraz is a country where people not only believe in ghosts and ghouls but where these entities really do exist; it’s also a land where certain sensitives are able to pick up the final emotions, thoughts and beliefs of the dead, especially those who’ve been killed unlawfully, and thereby legitimately ‘witness’ for them. Ethuveraz moreover tolerates a multiplicity of sects dedicated to different divinities, whose efficacy is never doubted and who appear to respond to prayer; only in rare cases are sects proscribed for being too extreme.
If belief systems of Ethuveraz are unfamiliar they are at least rooted in urban and rural environments that would be familiar to readers of Victorian literature and to students of the period. And when we look at a wider geography we similarly find the familiar mixed in with the unfamiliar. A rough map which the author sketched out for this novel’s predecessor, The Goblin Emperor, allows us to orientate ourselves. Centred this time on the provincial city of Amalo in the northeast, we can see mountains and steppes to the north, reminiscent of the Ural Mountains and plains of the Russian landscape; tributaries debouching into a river which flows southwards through the neighbouring country of Barizhan down to the Chadevan Sea may put us in mind of the river Dnieper or Dniester leading to the Black Sea.
The Witness for the Dead is peppered with strange names and terms which may result in differing reactions from viewers. First it may put the potential reader off, meaning the novel is soon abandoned as too much hard work; secondly the reader may go with the flow and hope to pick up the gist of who’s who and what’s what along the way; or, like me, the reader will sense that amongst the careful worldbuilding the author has made the effort to construct a credible terminological system based on logical linguistics, and so pay appropriate attention.
Here are some characteristics of what Sarah Monette, writing as Katherine Addison, has created for personages and their roles. Unlike modern languages owing many of their conventions to Latin and ancient Greek, the Ethuveraz language reverses expectations for personal names. Names and status for males often end in ‘a’ for example, while female forms may finish with an ‘o’ — for instance Maia from The Goblin Emperor is definitely male.
Meanwhile Ethuveraz society is very formal, using singular thou and I to familiars but you and we to strangers and superiors. There is also great care taken in using honorifics: othala / othalo for prelates, Min / Minnoi for Miss / Misses, Mer for Mr and Merrem for Mrs, and so on. There are also descriptive forms of names such as for family groupings and sects, shrines and cemeteries.
Does all this complex worldbuilding matter? Because after all it’s the story and people that really count, right? Well, I’d say that it all matters: worldbuilding counts for nothing if the novel turns out to be a de facto encyclopaedia, while narrative and characters work best in an environment which the reader can believe in, where the scenery doesn’t wobble and the props look fake.
In other words, that the ‘past’ of a foreign country like Ethuveraz exists in a reality of our imaginations where, though elves and goblins may do things a little differently, still convinces and engages us. It’s not something that can be said of every fantasy or even every ‘realistic’ novel I’ve read.