Some of our best-loved novels have a strong sense of place. Setting can be an additional character. These are the English novels which, for me, create immediately for me the landscape in which they are set.
‘Waterland’ by Graham Swift [UK: Vintage]
“For, flood or no flood, the Leem brought down its unceasing booty of debris. Willow branches; alder branches; sedge; fencing; crates; old clothes; dead sheep; bottles; potato sacks; straw bales; fruit boxes; fertiliser bags. All floated down on the westerly current, lodged against the sluice-gate and had to be cleared away with boat-hooks and weed-rakes.”
‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy [UK: Penguin Classics]
“The river had stolen from the higher tracts and brought in particles to the vale all this horizontal land; and now, exhausted, aged, and attenuated, lay serpentining along through the midst of its former spoils.
“Not quite sure of her direction Tess stood still upon the hemmed expanse of verdant flatness, like a fly on a billiard-table of indefinite length, and of no more consequence to the surroundings than that fly. The sole effect of her presence upon the placid valley so far had bee to excite the mind of a solitary heron, which, after descending to the ground not far from her path, stood with neck erect, looking at her.”
‘Ferney’ by James Long [UK: Quercus]
“They were out of the tourist danger zone now, leaving the last of the Stourhead lakes behind as the narrow road took them through the stone cottages of Gasper on a long detour north, climbing up the side of the ridge. The cedars above them supported their high green copy of the hill’s contour on trunks that offered inviting summer shade, broken here and there by logging tracks and the timber corpse piles awaiting collection. Gally looked at the logs as they passed, at the sawcut cross-section of their ringed history, and momentarily envied them the certainty of that physical record.”
‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte [UK: Penguin Classics]
“On the hilltop above me sat the rising moon; pale yet as a cloud, but brightening momently; she looked over Hay, which, half lost in trees, sent up a blue smoke from its few chimneys; it was yet a mile distant, but in the absolute hush I could hear plainly its thin murmurs of life. My ear, too, felt the flow of currents; in what dales and depths I could not tell: but there were many hills beyond Hay, and doubtless many becks threading their passes. That evening calm betrayed alike the tinkle of the nearest streams, the sough of the most remote.”
‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier [UK: Virago]
“We topped the hill before us and saw Lanyon lying in a hollow at our feet. There to the left of us was the silver streak of the river, widening to the estuary at Kerrith six miles away. The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”
Honourable mentions to other English novels:-
Dracula by Bram Stoker [Whitby] The Poldark Series by Winston Graham [Cornwall] Melvyn Bragg’s A Time to Dance [Lake District] Death in Holy Orders by PD James [the Fens, again]
I can only judge My Top 5 based on what I’ve read. If you think I’ve missed a novel with an electrifying English setting, I’d love to hear your recommendations.
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