Literary Places: A Review of Placing Literature

This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online here. I am very grateful to the Editors for permission to re-publish it on this blog.


Hardy's Wessex

Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, The Thomas Hardy Association

“The Ring at Casterbridge was merely the local name of one of the finest Roman Amphitheatres, if not the very finest, remaining in Britain.

“Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct.  It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome.  It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who had laid there in his silent unobtrusive rest for a space of fifteen hundred years.  He was mostly found lying on his side, in an oval scoop in the chalk, like a chicken in its shell; his knees drawn up to his chest; sometimes with the remains of his spear against his arm; a fibula or brooch or bronze on his breast or forehead; an urn at his knees, a jar at his throat, a bottle at his mouth; and a mystified conjecture pouring down upon him from the eyes of Casterbridge street boys and men, who had turned a moment to gaze at the familiar spectacle as they passed by.

“Imaginative inhabitants, who would have felt an unpleasantness at the discovery of a comparatively modern skeleton in their gardens, were quite unmoved by these hoary shapes.  They had lived so long ago, their time was so unlike the present, their hopes and motives were so widely removed from ours, that between them and the living there seemed to stretch a gulf too wide for even a spirit to pass.”

Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Chapter 11 (1886)[1]

Casterbridge is Thomas Hardy’s fictional name for Dorchester, in Dorset—or Wessex, if we continue to follow Hardy’s nomenclature.  Like many of the place names in Hardy’s Wessex novels and poems, Casterbridge is a palimpsest—a fictional name superimposed on an identifiable place.  Aided by numerous Wessex maps, Hardy’s fictional places are so identifiable that Dorset has sustained a tourist industry from Hardy’s lifetime to the present.  Yet Hardy was quick to warn enthusiasts that “the places in the novels” are only “suggested by the real ones…they are not literally portraits of such.”[2]

The dissonance between palimpsestic places is echoed above in the passage from The Mayor of Casterbridge. Roman ruins lie beneath Casterbridge, reminders that the present rests on top of the past—a past that might at any moment quite literally body forth.  Yet these ancient Roman bodies do not concern the present inhabitants: as Hardy puts it, the historical “gulf” is “too wide.”  The two places coexist, together yet apart.

The ruins also help to establish Casterbridge as Dorchester, yet to read the former as a mere stand-in for the latter is to miss the point of both Hardy’s warning and his description of the Roman ruins beneath the city.  To go to Dorchester is not to go to Casterbridge, just as it is not to go to ancient Rome.  A barrier persists between each.  This is a barrier between past and present, but also between the literary and the real.

How important or permanent is this barrier?  I thought of Hardy as I investigated Andrew Bardin Williams, Kathleen Colin Williams, and Steven Young’s new web app, Placing Literature: Where Your Book Meets the Map.  The creators are, respectively, an author, a geographer, and an engineer who envision their crowdsourced database giving readers an opportunity to connect to places in literary texts.  Users have already begun populating the world map with geographically situated information about literary texts.

The site is remarkably easy to edit.  One simply creates a free account, logs in, zooms in on a location, clicks to open a “Place Information” screen, and enters information such as book title, author, location where scene takes place, time of day, characters present, symbols nearby, scene description, special notes, and image url.  The original poster can indicate whether he or she has been to the location, and subsequent users can “check in” at the location.

For my first mapping experiment on the site, I mapped The Mayor of Casterbridge in the middle of Dorchester.  In retrospect, I would have liked to have included more information about the scenes of the novel that take place in town, but I couldn’t figure out how to modify my posting, aside from clicking the “report a map error” button at the top of the page.  Gratification was instant, as a small black book icon appeared in the middle of Dorchester.

The map is thought provoking for the textual interactions it might invite.  For instance, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling is posted by King’s Cross Station—not so far from The Nether World by George Gissing in Clerkenwell or Daisy Madigan’s Paradise by Suzy Turner in Abney Park.  It is interesting to think about the map representing not only a palimpsest of literary places over geography, but literary places over one another.

Yet I wanted to modify my first post, not only because it was incomplete, but because the base map itself seemed incorrect.  Placing Literature uses a contemporary world map through Google.  Casterbridge is of course nowhere to be found.  But neither is Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station.  Seeing our favorite literary texts mapped can give us a new spatial perspective, to be sure.  But does it also flatten out the differences between literary text and “real” geography?

To their credit, the creators of Placing Literature address this concern by differentiating between imaginary, literary “settings” and factual “places.”  The purpose of placing literature, as Andrew Williams puts it, is to “connect readers to the places they are reading about in hopes of both enhancing the reading experience and creating community around those places.”[3]  These are worthy goals.  Yet I wonder—is there a place for Hardy—or for J. K. Rowling, for that matter—on such a map?  Is Wessex a setting, or is it a place?  Can we approach it, or is the gulf too wide?

One of Placing Literature’s chief benefits, it seems to me, is that it compels such questions.

[1] Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge, in Selected Novels of Thomas Hardy (Glasgow: Harper Collins, 1994), pp. 446-7.

[2] qtd. in Timothy O’Sullivan, Thomas Hardy: An Illustrated Biography (London: Macmillan, 1975), p. 343.

[3] Andrew Williams, “Place vs. Setting,” Placing Literature: Where Your Book Meets the Map (15 July 2013) <http://placingliterature.wordpress.com/&gt; [accessed 27 July 2013] (para. 8 of 9).

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~ by susanelizabethcook on October 18, 2013.

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