Sunday, September 08, 2019

A map of Elmbourne

I have just read All Among the Barley, the third novel by Melissa Harrison, whose writings and nature observations I've been following over the last few years via her prolific Twitter feed.  Looking online afterwards to see what had been written about the novel, I found a piece in Elementum by the artist who drew maps for her book, Neil Gower.  He says that over the years the most indecipherable author sketches he has had to work with are those of Jilly Cooper, 'A2 Basquiat-esque collages of who’s bonking whom (and where)'.  I was actually given a copy of Jilly Cooper's Riders as a joke birthday present recently and have just dug it out to see if it has a map in it.  I can't see one - perhaps they're in her other books?  Anyway, back to Melissa Harrison, who, by contrast, gave Gower very meticulous notes on her imagined Suffolk village of Elmbourne, along with 'stylistic cues in the form of an 1853 tithe map and a 1941 Tunnicliffe map (from Faber’s first edition of Henry Williamson’s The Story of a Norfolk Farm).'  Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter and supporter of Oswald Mosley, is mentioned in the novel - his opinions are admired by Constance FitzAllen, whose arrival from London leads to conflict in the village and confusion in the mind of Edie, the novel's teenage protagonist. 

From the perspective of this blog, I suppose I would rather the protagonist had been this character Connie, so as to learn more about her thinking on landscape.  It would have been interesting to read a bit more about the wider currents of nativist politics and rural revivalism - Lord Lymington, Rolf Gardiner and so on.  But that would have been a different novel; this one is very much contained within the fields and lanes that make up the world of Edie Mather.  According to Gower, Melissa Harrison too 'inhabits the landscape intimately, like her characters'.  For example, she advised him that in 'Suffolk lanes you often get a little triangle of grass left as an island with a white signpost on it. This is because the junctions were formed by carts/wagons and not cars. Carts can't turn such a tight corner as cars can...'  There's a potential paradox here, in reducing such a richly textured place to a two dimensional diagram.  But a map is a portal that can help the reader enter a novel's world and experience more than the author has been able to set down.

A few years ago The New Yorker carried an article on 'The Allure of the Map', beginning inevitably with Treasure Island and Lord of the Rings.  It went on to say that
Genre fiction often involves cartographic illustration, but so, too, do highly regionalist works. Sherwood Anderson commissioned a map of the titular town “Winesburg, Ohio,” as did the novelist Jan Karon for her novels set in the fictional town of Mitford, North Carolina. Henry David Thoreau surveyed Walden Pond for a map that he included in “Walden,” and William Faulkner drew his own map of Yoknapatawpha County for the publication of “Absalom, Absalom!” Faulkner revised the map ten years later for “The Portable Faulkner,” going so far as to call himself “sole owner and proprietor,” and adding a note: “Surveyed & mapped for this volume by William Faulkner.”
The list could be added to with British novels of place: I have mentioned here before Thomas Hardy's sketch map of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native, for example.  All Among the Barley is part of this history of deeply imagined literary landscapes.

Finally, as a kind of postrscript, I can't resist mentioning another map in that New Yorker article, the one Ursula K. Le Guin drew for the Earthsea trilogy.  Just as I was reading All Among the Barley, my younger son was finishing A Wizard of Earthsea.  We have been talking about the book and he says he loves the way the archipelago contains so many different lands and ways of living.  It made me think about the way books open up our horizons, something that starts to happen to Edie in All Among the Barley...  The map of Earthsea particularly appealed to my son and he has identified on it his three favourite places (Too, Tor and O).  It is clear that he is now sailing his way among those islands in his imagination. 

No comments: