stories determined by their settings

George Orwell rarely said very much about the psychological prompts behind his fiction: hard at work on the manuscript that became Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), he would only tell interested friends that he was “writing a novel about the future”. But he made an exception of Burmese Days (1935), the book inspired by the four-and-a-half years he spent in Burma in the 1920s as a servant of the British Raj.

In nearly every novel that got written about the East by a visiting Westerner he later pronounced, the real subject is the landscape. That this rule applied to Burmese Days became clear to me not long ago when, hard at work on a new biography of Orwell and trawling through some recently discovered letters to an old Suffolk girlfriend, I discovered one in which he tries to get to grips with the sheer oddity of the Burma backdrops.

It used to oppress him, Orwell complained, “that nothing seemed quite of the right kind.” Burma was full of impressive forests, but “every inch is covered by beastly creeper etc.” Meanwhile, to the consternation of a man raised in the Thames Valley, there was “hardly any proper grass and a stream never had any proper banks, but seen off at the edges into beastly Mangrove swamps”. Orwell was clearly fascinated and at the same time faintly repelled by his temporary home, and it takes only the briefest glance at Burmese Days to see the country’s effect on his imagination.

In terms of its literary style, the novel is the least Orwell-like of all his books, full of extraordinary little romantic flourishes: a native servant moving through the gardens of the European club “like some large nectar-sucking bird”; a ship rolling towards Colombo “over wastes of sea like rough-beaten silver”; the sun glaring in the sky “like an angry God.” The whole thing could have been written by a poet of the 1890s. Good prose, Orwell insisted, is “like a window-pane”, but the author of Burmese Days can sometimes seem to be staring through a kaleidoscope.

Orwell, in other words, is a psycho-geographer, a phrase which, when applied to fiction, usually means that the landscape of a novel has ceased to be simply incidental to plot and narrative thrust and becomes something so central to the characters’ inner lives that it begins to influence, and very often constrain, the people they are. And so the benighted denizens of, say, Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories are, in the end, creatures of their environment: they would not behave the way they do unless they lived in Wyoming.

I feel this very strongly about the literature of the part of England in which I was born and to which I returned just over 20 years ago. This is Norfolk, out on a limb in the English eastern counties, 120 miles from London at its furthest extent, and even now, despite the dualling of its roads and a far more multicultural population than was ever the case in my childhood, about as detached from the British mainstream as it is possible for a place to be.

You can see the consequences of this sequestration, this paralyzing otherness, in the work of my all-time favorite Norfolk writer, a farmer’s wife called Mary Mann (1848-1929), whose short stories of late-Victorian rural blight can give Thomas Hardy a run for his money. Mann produced her best work at the height of the agricultural depression, much of it set in the village of “Dulditch” – Shropham in south-west Norfolk, a kind of sink of human aspiration in which families live a dozen to a cottage and the average worker’s wage is ten shillings a week.

Dreadful things happen in Dulditch. Misbehaving daughters are thrown into the street by their outraged parents; illegitimate children are quietly disposed of; in Little Brother a well-meaning parish visitor is horrified to discover the body of a dead baby pressed into service as a doll with her mother’s connivance. At the same time, the brooding landscapes beyond the cottage windows – the bleak fields and the ditches full of sedge, the flocks of crows and the lash of the wind – are not simply scenery. Set down in another part of England, Mann would not, you feel, have written in quite the same way.

It is the same, I suspect, with most of my favorite Irish writers. You need only read the opening sentence of Patrick McGinley’s Foggage (1983) – “The January day was cold with a gray sky that seemed to rest on the hedge at the end of the unploughed field” – to know that the sky, hedges and unploughed fields of Donegal have taken up residence in the characters’ minds and are, in some sense, goading them on.

Similarly, I must have read half-a-dozen of John Broderick’s novels, nearly all of them set on the Midlands plain halfway between Dublin and Galway, before actually setting foot in Athlone. But it took only a glimpse of the brooding Angevin castle and the endless fields that surrounded it to understand that The Flood (1987) was about something more than the individuals who move around in it, that place and people have eerily combined to produce something that transcends the usual parameters of fiction.

Stewkey Blues, most of whose 15 stories are set somewhere in Norfolk, follows the Broderick template, which is to say that the characters’ lives tend to be suborned by the environments they inhabit. In In Breckland Wilds, for example – the Breckland is a series of bleak, windswept heaths in the south-west of the county – an old man distressed by the rate of change, the influx of new people and the fields full of box bungalows reliefs his feelings by shooting out the windows of a woman who has defrauded him. Driving off into the night down the tiny backroads, he realizes that the woman is n’t really to blame her for her unhappiness: “it was the place’s fault of her.”
Stewkey Blues by DJ Taylor is published by Salt Publishing as a paperback original at £9.99

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