The Joy of Entering Literary Worlds

One of the joys of reading is to escape. Not just escape, but to have the chance to explore new worlds. I don’t often consider this aspect of reading. More often I point to my love for language or my interest in human psychology and behaviour. I also love story, which means I love the thrills of the plot racing forward, and the cliff-hangers that make us say “Just one more chapter!”

I always associated escape and the building of ‘literary worlds’ with science fiction and fantasy. In the corner of Oxford where I live there are no shortage of famous homes and landmarks with links to such authors. I regularly walk past J.R.R. Tolkein’s old house on my way to work. I used to walk past the grave of C.S. Lewis every time I took my daughter to pre-school, cutting through the grave yard of Quarry Church. When I go for a walk I often find myself walking past the entrance to the house of the late sci-fi author Brian Aldiss.

(I will add here a detail which will be shocking to Terry Pratchett fans. As a teenager I joined a huge queue at WH Smiths in Nottingham to get a book signed by Terry Pratchett. I was fascinated by all things bookish, and knew I wanted to write. To meet an actual writer was thrilling. I loved the illustrations on the covers of Pratchett’s books. However, I just couldn’t get into the books. They weren’t my thing. To this day I have a signed copy of Good Omens, which is inscribed with the words: “To Russell, We made the Devil do it! Terry Pratchett”. I’ve had it for over twenty years and have never read it.)

Fantasy and sci-fi were never my kinds of genres. Yes, I dip into Tolkein and dabble with John Wyndham, but I’m never at home with the genre. For me it is always crime fiction, thrillers, and sweeping Victorian novels. These are the books I immerse myself in. They are just as escapist and immersive as any other created world. When I read Georges Simenon, I am in Paris, joining Maigret for his lunchtime sandwich and beer. When I read Agatha Christie, I’m in the world of picturesque villages with dark secrets, or I’m entering Poirot’s world of glamourous holidays and seemingly endless leisure time (not to mention income).

The word ‘escape’ can have unhealthy connotations. To escape reality can be harmful, hence ‘fantasy’ being on Anna Freud’s list of psychological defence mechanisms. However, there is a difference between the reader knowingly entering a fantasy world and the person who is detached from reality in response to the threat of psychic pain. We must remember Coleridge’s phrase on reading: the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. The reader knows the difference between fantasy and reality, and fully understands the tacit agreement with the author: “You tell me something as if it’s true, and I’ll believe it as if it’s true, even though we both know it is untrue.” I will add to this that poetic truth exists outside of literal truth anyway.

Which other worlds do I love to be immersed in? I read crime fiction set in various parts of Europe: Martin Walker’s books set in the Dordogne, Donna Leon’s Venice books, the Sicilian Montalbano books, Ragnar J√≥nasson’s Iceland books, Tom Benjamin’s Bologna books, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh books, and the list could go on. These books give us a literary version of a real place, which is, I suppose, quite different from being in the place itself. We may get a strong cultural and geographic flavour of the setting, but where the line between fantasy and reality is, I don’t know. My own books, set in Portugal, offer an authentic sense of the city of Coimbra, but it will always be through my eyes and with my observations. I will people the city with characters I want to include, and will leave out the parts I have no interest in.

Since childhood I have been interested in Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, which are historical adventure stories, but which take place in an alternative 19th century history that never existed. Oh, and England is overrun by wolves. This is a world to escape into. I’ve recently been reading Louise Hare’s Miss Aldridge Regrets and Tom Hindle’s A Fatal Crossing, both of which are historical crime novels set on luxury ocean liners. Both books offer a whole world to enter into – glamour, luxury, and a sense of being away from the humdrum details of everyday life (such as having to call someone to fix your boiler).

While I was at university I read Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. This brick of a book, brimming with characters, and encompassing the filthy backstreets of London as well as the smart dining halls, also offered me a world to explore. Yes, it was London; yes, it was nineteenth century; but it was also the world of Dickens. I came to believe in those characters. I sometimes go back into that world when I’m in the mood. My bookshelf is packed with so many possibilities for exploration and escape that I see no reason why my passion for books, stories, words and worlds will ever be satisfied.

Salmon in October and Dahlias in June

Victorian novelists often spoke with a narrator’s voice that was very much the voice of the author. It’s an explicit acknowledgement that the relationship is between a reader and a writer, that although the action will play out between the characters, the hand of the author is not entirely invisible. Dickens opens Our Mutual Friend with the words, “In these times of ours, although concerning the date there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance…” and then sets the scene. A writer now would simply begin “A boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames…”

When Anthony Trollope asks the question ‘Can you forgive her?’ in the famous novel of the same name, he asks it not just of his characters, but directly to the reader.

I came across this wonderful paragraph in Trollope’s political novel Phineas Finn, where he begins the chapter with a parliamentary scene, then breaks off and almost sets the story aside to share his reflections on the work of a writer:

The poor fictionist very frequently finds himself to have been wrong in his description of things in general, and is told so, roughly by the critics, and tenderly by the friends of his bosom. He is moved to tell of things of which he omits to learn the nature before he tells of them–as should be done by a strictly honest fictionist. He catches salmon in October; or shoots his partridges in March. His dahlias bloom in June, and his birds sing in the autumn. He opens the opera-houses before Easter, and makes Parliament sit on a Wednesday evening. And then those terrible meshes of the Law! How is a fictionist, in these excited days, to create the needed biting interest without legal difficulties; and how again is he to steer his little bark clear of so many rocks,–when the rocks and the shoals have been purposely arranged to make the taking of a pilot on board a necessity? As to those law meshes, a benevolent pilot will, indeed, now and again give a poor fictionist a helping hand,–not used, however, generally, with much discretion. But from whom is any assistance to come in the august matter of a Cabinet assembly? There can be no such assistance. No man can tell aught but they who will tell nothing. But then, again, there is this safety, that let the story be ever so mistold,–let the fiction be ever so far removed from the truth, no critic short of a Cabinet Minister himself can convict the narrator of error.

Phineas Finn, Chapter 29.

What I like about this is that even a great novelist like Trollope knows there are limitations to a writer’s knowledge and experience, which must be overcome through imagination. We can do all the research possible, but sometimes we simply have to make it up and hope for the best. Both critics and friends will tell us which parts were wrong, and we must take it on the chin.

This passage comes just before Trollope writes the scene of a Cabinet assembly. He seems almost to be saying, ‘Look, I don’t really know how to describe this scene, but the only people who can tell me it’s false are the few people involved in a very particular job role, so I’m going to make it up and I’d like you to go along with it.’

This is, of course, in the context of a book full of authentic, thoughtful and well-researched detail. Trollope knows a lot about his subject matter. But it’s a reminder that part of the job of a writer of fiction is to simply make things up!