Fiction and a Sense of Place: The Tennyson Effect

The Tennyson Effect

Now take me to the Cobb, and show me the steps where Louisa Musgrove fell. (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 23 August 1867)

Tennyson (1809–1892), the great Victorian Poet Laureate, was visiting the seaside town of Lyme Regis, on the south coast of England. He was enjoying a guided tour of the local sights, but evidently was feeling distracted. He had read and loved Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion so much that it had come alive for him. He wished to see where it was that Louisa Musgrove – a relatively minor yet significant character in that story – took it into her head to jump from the top of the distinctive harbour wall that curls comma-like into the English Channel at Lyme.

I like to imagine how Tennyson might have been thinking and feeling as he stood at the top of those fateful steps and listened to the waves crashing beneath his feet. For him, the town of Lyme had undergone a kind of doubling, made more real – hyperreal – by the presence of fictional personages and events dreamed up by a novelist he admired. His enthusiasm is palpable, even across the 150 years that separate us from that distant English summer.

Many authors have adjusted their immediate surroundings and populated them with fictional characters: writers such as Willa Cather, Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner and Edith Wharton spring to mind, but it is the stock-in-trade of most authors. Such places are in turn enriched with associations with which we can all connect. Like Tennyson, we can occasionally come to feel that fictional characters have walked these streets and seen these sights, and their privileged existence on the boundary between reality and make-believe can almost persuade us they are more alive than we are ourselves. For us, as for Tennyson, life itself becomes a metafiction.

Nottingham

Thinking about places and their literary associations led me to conduct a little whistle-stop tour of Nottingham. As luck would have it, I chose what seemed like the wettest day this century to amble around the city and take photographs: I have suffered for my blog post. I apologise for the poor-quality photos – juggling an umbrella beneath pouring rain is not conducive to taking great pictures.

Byron

I meant to photograph an impressive banner draped across the frontage of buildings facing Nottingham’s historic railway station. When I arrived there, however, camera at the ready, I found the whole street was dug up, so that the banner was inaccessible – truly, we have no abiding city. Instead, here is a small poster that reproduces that banner. It showcases Nottingham’s three best-known literary rebels: Lord Byron, D. H. Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe.

Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) takes place almost entirely in Nottingham. The city of factories and occupations that he describes is long gone. Place names survive – among them, Strelley and Slab Square – and the canals can still be fished as Arthur Seaton – Sillitoe’s working-class anti-hero – fished them. Arthur and the great beer-soaked world he inhabits can yet be glimpsed on Saturday nights, when revellers drank as he drank, even if the class and economic dynamics have changed since his day.

Graham Greene

Graham GreeneI owe a huge debt to Graham Greene (1904–1991), whose novels entertained and educated me when I was a young man. I loved Greene’s sense of humour as well as his sense of place. His novels took me all over the world and introduced me to people and situations I would never have otherwise experienced. They also helped me realize that life is complicated and fraught with doubt. So I was delighted to find this plaque in the city centre, which tells of young Greene’s apprenticeship on the local newspaper and even quotes him as saying he has fond memories of Nottingham.

In Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (1938), Spicer is murdered by Pinkie, the young gangster relentlessly pursued by Ida, the music-hall entertainer whose sense of fair play lets nothing get in her way. Spicer, we are told, was on the verge of leaving Brighton for – guess where? – Nottingham; specifically, the Blue Anchor pub on Union Street, Nottingham. Of course, he never made it there – didn’t even begin the journey – but Union Street exists both in fact and in his anxious imagination just before he died. The curious thing is it is made more real because he can picture it inside his head.

Robin Hood Interlude

Robin HoodThis was meant to be a photograph of Robin Hood’s statue, but it’s lost against the walls in the background that enclose Nottingham Castle and its grounds. Rob’s undoubtedly Nottingham’s greatest literary export, having inspired countless legends and stories, novels and television shows, and a host of feature films. There’s really no getting away from him when you live here. I’ve met him a few times, once (most memorably) in a pub one afternoon. He’s a nice man, although his much-vaunted generosity did not extend to paying for my drinks. Sadly, fiction and fact sometimes part company in this way.

Personal

 TunnelI have brought my own modest imagination to bear on the city I love. Perhaps I should rather say it has imposed itself on me. This tunnel located on the edge of the city centre, for instance, is huge, yet few people know of its existence – even those who have lived here all their lives. This photo was taken from near the top of a stone spiral staircase dangerously slick with fallen autumn leaves and torrential rain. I risked injury to take this picture, which is why it is out of focus. Goodness knows what this group of schoolchildren was doing down there.

The tunnel is a tremendously evocative place: a cavernous void hewn out of sandstone. It frightens me a little. In my unfinished novel Painted Stations (which may or may not see the light of day) the central character, Professor Stephen Ketley, walks through here at night after suffering a severe emotional shock. He faints to the ground and is helped by a passer-by. I had in mind the scene in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) where Adela Quested ventures into the Marabar Caves and has her frightening revelation. In this case, then, fiction and reality helped create the incident. Now, whenever I see this tunnel, I think of my professor locked inside his nightmare, falling both into unconsciousness and the kindness of a stranger.

Back to Alfred

Tennyson’s excited reaction to a real place made more real by a fictional episode is, I think, natural and endearing. Clearly, he had not lost the childlike innocence and wonder necessary to a good writer and a good reader. ‘Childlike’ does not mean naïve or stupid or fanciful. It is not something to be laughed at or disparaged. The capacity for wonder and imaginative emotional engagement that Tennyson expressed in his request is akin to the empathy and love that human flourishing requires.

Would that we could all wish to be taken to the Cobb.

6 Comments

  1. Great post, Jack, and thanks so much for reminding us of that wonderful quote.

  2. What an absolutely fun literary ramble around Nottingham. Great post!

  3. I loved the literary tour of Notts and the importance of place in Tennyson. I happen to know you have written several novels that play out in that city. Perhaps one day we’ll see them thrown to the public.

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