Place in literature

Note, I’m looking at poetry separately

Having struggled to find many examples of insects in literature last month, this time my struggle is to know what to include as so much will have to be omitted.

Place has long inspired writers as well as being described, created, represented and invented by writers and I’m going to look separately at place as inspiration and place as literary tool.

Place as inspiration

One of the aspects of place and literature I find fascinating is the eternally circular nature of it. Place inspires writers and artists and in turn, writing and art shape how we see and interact with our environment which has the consequence of altering the land. One example that springs to mind is the landscape which inspired Tarka the Otter and which now features a Tarka trail and train line. In celebrating the land that was captured in literature, we have very clearly changed the land.

I think we would all agree and understand why place has inspired so many creative endeavours for so many years so I am not going to attempt to unpick that, I think that is probably a question that belongs to philosophers and psychologists, not me. Instead I want to share a few quotes from writers about place:

“Frequently I have noticed that whatever a writer’s subject, landscape often features in the process or the product. Childhood environments, the natural world, place and memory are all part of the rich compost of prose and poetry…. Most of [the biographers Dunbar has spoken to] have said that they need to explore the personal landscapes of their subjects. Without knowing the places that have mattered to them, they can’t form a complete sense of their biographees.”
– Kay Dunbar

“The Greeks call it Artemis: the feeling of sanctity in that place you love, deep in the woods. Find a place where its spirit and yours are in tune, and you will be abundantly creative. You will have reached your homeland…The more I dig into the earth here to uncover the stories and voices, the more I find I belong to this place… I am made to see again and again what really matters – a feeling of belonging to a particular landscape, a feeling of belonging to the natural world.”
– Rosalind Brady

“The landscape means different things to different people. As a writer and landscape poet I have always been fascinated by the way that we interpret and exploit the landscape, and indeed how the term ‘landscape’ itself evolved linguistically ad culturally…. The term ‘landskip’ originated in Holland as a painter’s term to differentiate between ‘land scapes’, portraits and ‘sea scapes’… What is also interesting is the word ‘scape’ linked to the Old English word ‘gesceap’ that means to create or form, or in old Teutonic ordain. These meanings recognise that land could be made or ordained… Landscape is therefore an integral part of our language and culture. And yet is is very personal.”
– James Crowden

“The places where we make our lives, and the ways in which these spaces themselves change, impacts us irreversibly. All work is written from someplace.”
Sara Perez

Place as a literary tool

There are very few novels or stories which don’t involve place, without it there is no stage for the characters to move about in. Some literature clearly has a much stronger sense of place than others but I am struggling to think of any books which lack place all together. However place can be used differently by different authors in different novels.

Place can act as an anchor for stories, a way of holding them in the world and making them recognisable. Edward Casey noted that being is synonymous with being somewhere, being in place, and “it is by our bodies that we belong to the place-world”. Therefore, by extension, our characters must belong to a place-world, real or imagined, in order to convey the feeling of their existing to the reader. This is echoed by Dunbar above when she talks of the need to know the relationship between person and place when she is writing biographies.

Place affects interactions as well as the experiences and actions of characters. To include a walk in the woods would be very different if a character was placed in England to Africa, for example. Just by knowing location, we move our minds from a gentle, leisurely stroll to a dangerous, tense narrative.

“Place, then, has the most delicate control over character too: by confining character it defines it”
– Eudora Welty

The characteristics of a place chosen by the author limit and restrict what actions the characters can take. A character in a landlocked mountain region has very different options to one at sea. An interesting exercise to explore place in literature would be to take a familiar book and try to see what would have happened in a contrasting place. Take Heidi out to sea and put Ishmael from Moby Dick in the desert.

Landscape and place do not exist in isolation. They are mediated by culture and events and as such can be used to create a short cut for the writer and reader, as in the example of the walk in the woods. Embedded with meaning, use of place can make a novel feel more real and give the reader a more powerful experience.

“Landscape is a strong character in a lot of British literature”
– Robert MacFarlane

As well as being a character, place also shows up in the language that is used by characters and by narrator. Regional dialogue can add depth to characters as well as reiterate the sense of place. Language and words tune us into the particularity of the environment we are in.

Place has been so important in literature that we have a language for it. We talk of the sublime; the experience of being overwhelmed by something powerful, being made to feel insignificant in the shadow of something great. Some of Wordsworth’s poetry (although I did say poetry was for another post…) speaks to this. Other writers, such as Jane Austen in Northhanger Abbey, focus on the beauty, the aesthetic appeal of place and the picturesque, idealised landscape. Similarly, we have pastoral writing which is nostalgic for the unreal simplicity and joy of rural life.

In sharp contrast is the gothic style, more associated with urban areas due to its architectural link, this is often focused on a more cultural nostalgia – idealising chivalry, the antique, the supernatural. In gothic literature we find ruin, decay, haunted houses, abbeys, castles, places abandoned by humans and taken over by spirits. There is a yearning for a past that never was and setting, as well as weather, are important to constructing the atmosphere.

Interestingly I’ve just finished reading an issue of Mslexia which had an article about crime novels:

“Great crime writing leaves readers with a tangible sense of the place in which the crime played out: we feel we have walked the streets of Colin Dexter’s Oxford, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles… A powerful evocation of place is key to strong crime fiction but a new trend in thrillers has pitted women against their environment.”

Place as character could be about to get a whole lot scarier…! Either way, I think it’s definitely clear that place in literature is a lot more than just a backdrop.

One thought on “Place in literature”

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