Tag Archives: Jane Austen

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.

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Portsmouth and three literary heroes

Portsmouth is a place steeped in history: you can step back in time with a visit to Southsea Castle (built on the orders of Henry VIII), visit what’s left of the Mary Rose (the ship that spent 437 years under the sea), and walk around Lord Nelson’s HMS Warrior ship. However, Portsmouth also has a vibrant literary history. ‘Really?’ I hear you say, well let’s follow in those footsteps.

plaquecharlesdickensbirthplacemuseumportsmouth(Look out for this plaque when you visit Charles Dickens’ house. http://www.beautifulengland.net/)

Charles Dickens was born and baptised in Portsmouth in February 1812. To this day he is referred to as the city’s most famous son. Admittedly, Dickens only lived in Portsmouth for a few years, but his father – John Dickens, a clerk in the naval offices – rented a property at 1 Mile End Terrace, Old Commercial Road in 1809 where he spent the early part of his life. The house, which still survives, is now theCharles Dickens Birthplace Museum. The parlour, dining room and bedroom in the house have all been furnished to replicate the regency era, giving an insight into how his family lived. The exhibition room in the museum even boasts the author’s personal items, including a snuff box, inkwell, paperknife and – for those with morbid tendencies – the couch on which he died.

Portsmouth must have had an impression on the young Dickens, as he returned to the city to research for his novel Nicholas Nickleby. He wrote:

‘I don’t know much of these matters,’ resumed Nicholas; ‘but Portsmouth is a seaport town, and if no other employment is to be obtained, I should think we might get on board some ship. I am young and active, and could be useful in many ways. So could you.’ (Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby) 

The protagonist, Nicholas, travels from London to Portsmouth to become a sailor. If you’re a Dickens enthusiast, don’t expect to land a job as a sailor, but Portsmouth is a great place to book a session at the central library and get your hands on a wide range of Dickens’ texts and his periodicals ‘Household Words’ and ‘All the Year Round.’

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