A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature, by Margaret Drabble
This is a book about the inner landscapes of writers, or the ones they inhabited when young, and how these informed their work and affected their readers. In the process of describing these, Margaret Drabble makes lively connections, parallels and distinctions. The languor and melancholy of Tennyson’s poetry, for example, which so surprisingly suited the Victorian mood, derives from the Lincolnshire of his youth — ‘Gray sand banks and pale sunsets — dreary wind/ Dim shores, dense rains, and heavy-clouded sea!’ — whereas Dickens (‘the least enervating of writers’) loathed Lincolnshire, and in Bleak House puts Sir Mortimer Dedlock’s country house there and enjoys describing it ‘with a dreariness that rivals Tennyson’s’. Drabble quotes this passage at length; and part of the last sentence is suggestive enough: ‘On Sundays the little church in the park is mouldy; the oaken pulpit breaks into a cold sweat. . . .’ ‘An acquired taste perhaps’, Drabble adds, ‘this kind of atmosphere, but Tennyson acquired it early and passed it on to others.’
She notices that Coleridge’s poems, when homely, reek of his native Somerset — ‘This Limetree Bower My Prison’ and ‘Frost at Midnight’ — and his Lake District effusions are more strained, whereas those of Wordsworth, a native of the Lakes, are not: Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’, if written in Somerset, where he and Coleridge famously met, stays firmly in Cumbria.
Such observations bring writers and their work closer to us, but where did this ‘landscape’ stuff begin? The word itself is relatively new, dating from the end of the 16th century. Kenneth Clark declared that the medieval mind saw nature as hostile and dwelt on its horrors. The site of Fountains Abbey was described by a 12th-century contemporary as ‘more fit for the lair of wild beasts than for human use’. ‘Not a word of the beauties of Skeldale’, Drabble sounds surprised, but does not need reminding — it is the point of her book — that she might not have noticed Skeldale’s beauties were it not for writers like Wordsworth.
The early Celtic poets, the Welsh and the Irish, were easier about the joys of nature; Drabble quotes them, and that is one of the great pleasures of her book — its quotations, generous in length, pertinently chosen. In fact, it could be called a most useful kind of anthology, writers given elbow-room but put in their context, compared or contrasted with their contemporaries, from the Middle Ages on to the genteel 18th century, struggling out of that gentility, then torn from it by the industrialisation of the 19th. Dickens on the gouging of Camden for the new railway — horrified but also fascinated; Arnold Bennett on the Potteries, Orwell on the condition of northern England between the wars. Orwell glimpses the face of a girl seen from the train: ‘It is difficult not to quote Orwell at length’, says Drabble in her admiration of him. She does so, and it is unforgettable. Here are a few lines:
What I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her — understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain.
Then the train took him again into the open country.
This book first came out in 1979 and Drabble says she has taken the chance to update it and revise some of the opinions in it. Towards the end she quotes Larkin: ‘… before I snuff it, the whole/ Boiling will be bricked in/ Except for the tourist parts —/ First slum of Europe . . .’ In her afterword, Drabble remarks that even Tarka the Otter now has a tourist trail.
The artist Edward Burne-Jones declared towards the end of the 19th century that ‘the more telegraph poles I see, the more angels I shall paint’. The 21st century is still young, and its imagery is still in the making.
A tentative conclusion, but it was an excellent idea to bring this instructive and entertaining book from the last century freshly into this new one.