IT has become accepted to talk about places both real and imaginary in novels as characters. The most recent example of this was a tweet from a well-respected Scottish literary organisation which declared that the landscape described in The Thirty-Nine Steps is as much of a ‘character’ in John Buchan’s evergreen ‘shocker’ as any of its human cast. One’s faith in this assertion was dented when the novel’s backdrop was described as ‘the Highlands’. This will come as a surprise to Buchan’s many fans who will not need to be reminded that when Richard Hannay must flee London from ne’er-do-wells he heads for the ‘blessed, honest-smelling hill country’ that is Dumfries and Galloway.
The location of the action in The Thirty-Nine Steps is of course important, you might even say critical. The terrain is hilly, but not too much so, and mostly free of trees. Roads are few, there are many more sheep than folk, and boundaries are marked by dry-stane dykes that are in constant need of repair. For Hannay, it seems that it is the perfect bolt-hole in which to lie low until he must return south and unmask the evil men who are his pursuers. But the openness of much of the terrain leaves him exposed, especially from on high. Like a field mouse stalked by a hawk, he is in a perilous position. He can run but – unlike the wee courin’, timorous beastie – he can’t easily hide. All he can do to save his skin is adopt a disguise or call upon strangers to help him. ‘The immediate thing to do,’ he muses at one point, as if he were on the M8, ‘was to get to the loneliest roads.’
Buchan’s depiction of the south-west countryside is one of the most attractive features of The Thirty-Nine Steps but to call it a character is to misrepresent its role in the novel. It is as it is because it serves the purpose of the plot. But unlike the protagonist Hannay, it is not – pace Chambers – ‘the aggregate of peculiar qualities which constitutes personal or national individuality’. It can’t speak, eat, drink, travel from A to B, think, procreate, shop, work, ride a bicycle, address a political gathering in Peebles, pretend to be something it is not, change from male to female and vice versa, diet, fire a gun, jump into a river or fly a kite. Rather, it is a backdrop, a prop, like the Tuscan scene in a Piero della Francesca fresco. It is a place in which things happen rather than a person who can make things happen or have them happen to him or her.
Where these things occur is undoubtedly key. Nothing any of us does takes place in a vacuum. It is hard to imagine, for example, Dickens’ Bleak House – my favourite of his novels – being situated anywhere other than London with its wonderful opening threnody: ‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.’ It is both celebration and condemnation. In thus depicting what used to be known as ‘the Great Wen’, Dickens is introducing us to the milieu in which his characters go about their business. The fog, it goes without saying, is symbolic, especially of the High Court of Chancery where its majordomo sits with ‘a foggy glory round his head’ and where the interminable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has ground to a halt, like the befogged traffic on the Thames.
The same goes for War and Peace which would be quite different were it set not in Moscow but in, say, Markinch or Motherwell. Such novels become so entwined in the place in which they’re based that the real place begins to feel like its fictional counterpart. This is true, for instance, of Edinburgh post Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Mearns after it was renamed Kinraddie and hymned by Grassic Gibbon. After a place is written about, and especially if it written about well, it seems sometimes to become more fictional than actual. We wander round Dublin thinking of its representation and recreation by Joyce and trying to follow Leopold Bloom’s odyssey on 16 June, 1904. Indeed, one rather prefers the city as it was reconstructed in print in Ulysses to its modern incarnation with its pedestrianized thoroughfares, chain stores and stag parties.
Not every novelist, however, has Joyce’s sense of place or wants it. Some prefer to keep details to a minimum, the better to allow their imagination to come into play. They don’t aim to embalm anywhere. Others, especially writers for children, create their own customized worlds, their Narnias and Middle Earths, Earthseas and Wonderlands. These are the best kind of books, depending as they must on convincing their readers that they are tangible. It wasn’t so long ago that truly real places felt as foreign and exotic as those which existed in the imaginations of writers. When travel to distant climes was comparatively rare it was easy to believe that the likes of Timbuktu, Zanzibar and Alice Springs were inventions, like Shangri-La or Neverland. As a young boy one of my favourite books was James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. So swept along was I by the story that it never occurred to me to question whether there were such people as Mohicans, or that Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Natty Bumpo were once as alive as I was. Similarly, I never wondered whether Starbuck in Moby Dick was based on anyone of that name, which he surely was. I wonder, too, how many frequenters of the ubiquitous coffee shops realize that it is named after the first mate of the whaler Pequod.
I confess I like novels that start slowly and preferably by describing the place in which what follows will happen. Impatient publishers, eager to grab readers’ attention, regard this as a no-no. But is there a better opening declaration than that of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March? ‘I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.’ You know immediately where you are and that you are in the grip of a great storyteller. Graham Greene was likewise adept at instantly seducing readers, sucking them in to what came to be known as ‘Greeneland’, where the louche, the lonely and the corrupt survive in a clammy climate of fear. William Faulkner, meanwhile, drew on his upbringing in the Deep South for Yoknapatawpha County which features in a number of his novels and stories and which he called ‘my apocryphal county’. It, too, was a place in which fear prevailed.
Faulkner was often associated with Thomas Hardy because of perceived similarities between Yoknapatawapha County and Wessex, Hardy’s fictionalized vision of Dorset where he grew up. For me, the quintessential ‘Wessex novel’ is The Return of the Native, which I see from my copy that I bought on the twenty-sixth of May, 1976. How many times have I read it since? It opens with a man walking at twilight across a ‘vast tract of unenclosed wild’. Recently, a friend told of how as a rookie lecturer he’d been asked to teach The Return of the Native but, thinking he could wing it, he simply dipped into the text and demanded of his students to paint their own portrait of its main character, Egdon Heath, blissfully unaware that it was not referring to a person but a place, albeit a highly characterful one.