An Armchair Explorer’s Guide to England

Four years of student living and several periods of fruitless job searching have taught me that sometimes travel, even local travel, can be pretty darn expensive. In these situations, I choose to explore a new place from the comfort of an armchair in my bedroom by turning to books. In my experience, the setting of a novel can play such an important role that it feels as if it is a character in itself. A landscape, a city or even a single building can become so intrinsic to the atmosphere of a novel that it feels as if I am actually there and consequently the book becomes a window into a new place. It also has the advantage of being considerably cheaper than a train ticket. In this spirit, I have trawled the literary landscape and I begin my journey with a partial and completely biased overview of some of my favourite and most evocative English novels.

The Wild and Windswept North

If you are looking for beaches and breezy romance then Yorkshire’s most famous literary exports, the Brontë sisters, are probably not for you. Their tragic lives and enclosed rural upbringing are reflected in their stories and Wuthering Heights by middle sister Emily is arguably the novel most rooted in the landscape. It relies heavily on the ‘perfect misanthropist’s Heaven’ of the exposed, turbulent North York Moors to provide a fitting backdrop for Cathy and Heathcliff. Children of the moors, they are just as untameable and destructive as the land they inhabit. As I sit in my cosy bedroom reading Brontë’s description of the ‘bleak winds and bitter, northern skies,’ I imagine the characters at the mercy of their emotions on the desolate heath below, screaming insults, throwing punches and hurling crockery.

Yorkshire, the land of 'bleak winds and bitter, northern skies...' (Photographer: Lefteris Heretakis; Flickr)

Yorkshire, the land of ‘bleak winds and bitter, northern skies…’ (Photographer: Lefteris Heretakis; Flickr)

Meanwhile the remote settings in eldest sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre are not quite the same as the jungles of South America or the food markets of Asia, but they perfectly reflect the young governess’s coming of age. The depressing Lowood school squats on a frozen hill and emphasises her physical and spiritual deprivation. I can picture her: a drab, friendless little sparrow, yet she refuses to be cowed and eventually becomes as resolute and unyielding as the ‘grey and battlemented’ Thornfield Hall. After developing a crush on her rather morose employer, she proves to be more than a match for him and after some stirring prose, a big misunderstanding and the death of a conveniently rich relative, everything works out for the best.

Alternatively, for a more cheerful view of the pastoral north, try Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s classic children’s story The Secret Garden, where the spoilt Mary Lennox discovers the hidden beauty in a severe landscape and learns some manners along the way. Then there’s the James Herriot series All Creatures Great and Small, the true tales of a country vet who spent years wandering over hill and dale, meeting strange folk and spending far too much time with his hand up a cow’s backside. More recently, in 2012, Andy Seed produced All Teachers Great and Small, which has a similar premise and records his first year at a rural primary school and the various mishaps he encounters trying to assimilate into the local village. These books explore a placid way of life, perhaps more meaningful to me because they portray a landscape I am familiar with. They may not depict the most glamorous or adrenaline-fuelled side of travel, but the dry stone walls, unpredictable weather and hordes of marauding sheep are spot on.

Philip Pullman details two different versions of Oxford in 'His Dark Materials'. (Photographer: Ed Webster; Flickr)

Philip Pullman details two different versions of Oxford in ‘His Dark Materials’. (Photographer: Ed Webster; Flickr)

Honey-Coloured Southern Stone

If you feel like exploring a more urban setting, you could try the university town of Oxford, where two different versions of the city represent home and childhood for Will and Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The towering spires and hallowed halls of the university become Lyra’s playground as she passes her youth in their ‘jumbled and squalid grandeur.’ ‘A coarse and greedy little savage for the most part,’ she finds delight in clay fights with the gypsy children and getting drunk on forbidden wine in the labyrinthine cellars. She and her city represent free, unrestrained youth whereas fierce, fatherless Will, terrified that his mother will be taken from him on account of her mental illness, has left childhood far behind. His bland, suburban Oxford is stifling and filled with pernicious, unknown threats, represented most intensely when Pullman writes that ‘there wasn’t much time…soon there would be other children around, to stare and comment and notice.’ Will’s world is familiar whilst Lyra’s is exotic, yet both can be found in the imposing architecture and crowded streets of modern Oxford.

By contrast, Jane Austen’s novels extoll the pastoral virtues of the rural south of England, where gentle rolling landscapes provide a tranquil setting for marital intrigue. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne is in raptures over the romantic splendour of Devonshire, whereas Persuasion presents a stark contrast between the superficiality of Bath society and the quiet harmony of country gentility. Emma takes particular pride in the quirky domesticity of village life and affectionately pokes fun at those who amuse themselves with ‘the tittle-tattle of Highbury’.

Bath, the setting for Jane Austen's 'Persuasion'. (Photographer: erikccooper; Flickr)

Bath, the setting for Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’. (Photographer: erikccooper; Flickr)

Thomas Hardy also dwells on the rural idyll, although in his novels the idealistic representation of country life serves to heighten the tragic reality of human existence. Indeed, the magnificence of the countryside tends to be the only positive note in novels which are stunning examples of English prose, but are also undeniably and unutterably depressing. Hardy sums it up most succinctly with the claim that ‘happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.’ Nevertheless, these idyllic representations of the English countryside have kept the British tourist industry in business for decades and while they may verge on saccharine, they tend to be accurate.

Finally, for something completely different — and considerably more cheerful — try Jilly Cooper, whose novels unashamedly romp through the home counties with a host of scandalous characters. Manicured English gardens, ancestral manors and cut-glass vowels provide an exclusive backdrop for social climbers, international divas and blue-blooded aristocrats to clash within. Although in some respects rather dated, they are brilliant entertainment and put the fun back into the countryside. The England they depict is outrageous enough to feel like an escape yet grounded in enough reality to make it funny and typically contains a dashing protagonist, a pantomime villain and plenty of bonking in the hay barn.

Let Jilly Cooper take you around English country gardens and teach you about the birds and the bees! (Photographer: Wicker Paradise; Flickr)

Let Jilly Cooper take you around English country gardens and teach you about the birds and the bees! (Photographer: Wicker Paradise; Flickr)

Books are only a temporary stop-gap. There is nothing that can replace wandering through a new city first thing in the morning, attempting a new language or trying unknown food, but hopefully they can keep me entertained until I start my next adventure!

Featured image © quattrostagioni

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