January 2011

The Geography of Novels

The Jurassic Coast town of Lyme Regis is a great place to celebrate New Year’s Day. Not only is there a duck race but also the ghosts of John Fowles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman) and Jane Austen (Persuasion). I’ve always enjoyed the geography of novels so I was keen to find the very spot along The Cobb where, as Austen describes, Louisa Musgrave jumps impetuously into Captain Wentworth’s arms. He misses and she falls to the ground, apparently lifeless. It is a dramatic highlight which affects the whole narrative,

Armed with my childhood copy of the book, helpfully illustrated by Hugh Thomson (who’d obviously been to The Cobb himself) I soon found the right place and read out the appropriate passage where, overcome with guilt, Wentworth, looks on Louisa ‘with a face as pallid as her own.’

My literary readings are not always as successful. A herd of bullocks put an end to my heartfelt rendering of ‘Ode to Tintern Abbey’ in the field where I judged Wordsworth had composed it.

Up till now, the only part of my novels that I never make up is the geography. I do sometimes expand or merge locations. ‘The Missing Boy‘, (now published in paperback February 2011) is set in Weymouth and Brighton and all round the area of the West Country I know best, although I have made it seem more remote.

The historical novel I’m working on, Maria and the Admiral, is set in early nineteenth century Chile. I’ve made two fascinating trips there. Last year I only just missed their terrifying earthquake. Since Maria herself survived a major earthquake and tsunami in 1823, I perhaps should have regretted the near miss. Clearly, the quest for geographical reality does have limits.