This week I visited, for the first time, somewhere my imagination had already been.
When I was at university, a friend gave me Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn to read, and this week, I found myself in the same position as Mary Yellan:
‘The country was alien to her, which was a defeat in itself. As she peered through the misty window of the coach she looked out upon a different world from the one she had known only a day’s journey back. How remote now and hidden perhaps for ever were the shining waters of Helford, the green hills and the sloping valleys, the white cluster of cottages at the water’s edge. It was a gentle rain that fell at Helford, a rain that pattered in the many trees and lost itself in the lush grass, formed into brooks and rivulets that emptied into the broad river, sank into the grateful soil which gave back flowers in payment.
This was a lashing, pitiless rain that stung the windows of the coach, and it soaked into a hard and barren soil. No trees here, save one or two that stretched bare branches to the four winds, bent and twisted from centuries of storm, and so blackened were they by time and tempest that, even if spring did breathe on such a place, no buds would dare to come to leaf for fear that the late frost should kill them. It was a scrubby land, without hedgerow or meadow; a country of stones, black heather, and stunted broom.’
Daphne du Maurier Jamaica Inn
The thing is, the excursion into deepest, wildest Cornwall also reminded me of other worlds my minds’ eye has been but my body hasn’t, such as Tolkein’s Middle Earth: it’s easy to belive your being chased by Ringwraiths when you’re passing through a terrain of steep valleys, scrubby moorland, jagged peaks that punctuate the horizon, and tall chimneys and squat houses of iron-grey stone. In fact, when I gave LJ the address for our B&B her comment was ‘I think you made this address up – or you’re going on an adventure to Mordor without me.’
The whole experience of leaving home and travelling to just another part of England emphasised to me how important landscape is to the author and the reader. Emily Bronte is another example – could Wuthering Heights, and the stormy, passionate relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy have ever existed if it wasn’t for the Yorkshire moors? Or Pip and his Great Expectations without Dickens’ London? Wordsworth’s poetry without the Lake District? Hardy’s Wessex novels without Dorset?
Slieve Donard, Mourne Mountains, Ireland
Literature is of course full of fantasty landscapes too, but even these often have their roots in real places: The Shire, home of hobbits, is said to be based on rural England, and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia takes inspiration from Ulster, Northern Ireland.
As Lewis wrote: ‘I yearn to see County Down in the snow, one almost expects to see a march of dwarfs dashing past. How I long to break into a world where such things were true.’
In theory, the more I travel, the broader and more varied a landscape I could paint as an author. I’d like that theory more if I had the money to test it. The thing is, with the above writers, they all had a relationship with those landscapes, and that probably trumps merely being a holidaying alien to postcard-worthy scenery. TDL might not be set in a particularly exotic world, but it’s a world I know – in all its beauty and ugliness; its taste and texture; its history and present struggles– things that mean it is more than just a setting, but a character in itself – a breathing landscape with its own unique identity.
Cornwall well may become another of those places for me – it certainly has its own personality and I’d love to explore it further: where else do you find place names that appear to have been plucked from an Enid Blyton story – Washaway, Laughter Bridge, London Apprentice? Or roads that will never require the Satnav to say ‘straight ahead’? Or a horizon that can only be reached by crossing ten hidden valleys?
As it is though, I’ve never really been able to afford to travel much, but books are cheap, so my imagination is an experienced wanderer. And the difference when your imagination travels is that it never really leaves where it visits. It becomes an immigrant of other worlds – including, of course, the worlds it creates entirely of itself – worlds I hope I can invite others to explore through the pages of my books.
So, whilst my body is back at home, in front of the laptop, my imagination is still romping across the Cornish wildlands… I’m going to have trouble calling it home for tea, I think…