I remember, as a girl, reading novels in which the author described the house or landscape or town layout and often it would be different from what I’d imagined. Maybe I was OCD, or maybe this is common, but if the author’s picture differed too much from my own, I’d have to actually bring a bulldozer in and physically imagine the walls being razed, the hills being leveled and moved, the cattle herded to the far side of town. It was impossible to reimagine without this. I literally, figuratively, moved mountains. Ha! I’d bring in a bulldozer with total indifference to the era; considering what I read, it was almost invariably achronistic. I appreciated books with illustrations; then there was no effort of moving the family out of their thatched hut to bulldoze if anything went awry. Same went for interiors. Usually it didn’t matter, but I’ve had to bring in carpenters to knock down walls and add doors in manses in Sherlock Holmes. Like The Adventure of the Speckled Band? Major, major pain. The girls had to have adjoining rooms, next to their stepfather, in a way that allowed the wall vents (still not clear what those were for) to connect. It sounds like I’m exaggerating. I’m not. Sometimes I’d have to put a book down and walk away, figuring out how to fix my skewed mental image. Money was not a problem. Never was. The family who scrounged tuppence for a loaf of bread and shank of meat could order a Bobcat, because I, the secondary author, okayed it. I guess it’s just a thing. Probably other people do it too.
But when I went to the trouble of elaborately creating a mansion, I remembered it. It wasn’t some shell with a few furnished rooms, like you can do without trouble for some novel you’re not really into. I’ve let families live out their lives in shacks if the story was a bore. But when I really made a mansion, I used it a lot. An estate where you can go from room to room and see new portraits and furniture, where the grounds have real flowers and gardens that you remember and know like a place you’ve lived in. Thinking about this, I realized that Lady Chatterley and Isabel Archer (from Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady) share a house, which tickles me. I just finished Pillars of the Earth, which I recommend wholeheartedly (another post to follow on this novel). While I was reading it, I recognized landmarks in my imagination which belonged to Jude the Obscure, mostly. The author’s introduction begins with a hanging, but I always have the same place for hangings and guillotines: guess. Think classic. Think Madame Defarge.
When I was a little girl I had an abridged, illustrated edition of Tale of Two Cities with a plate I can see now: Madame Defarge knitting, close up on the right amongst a crowd, on the far left a cart with royal prisoners. And in front, the coup d’état and coup de gras, my nightmare for years, the lopped-off head falling into the wicker basket of heads.
(On the left is David’s incredible sketch of Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine. It’s mindblowing)–Anyway, that’s my mind’s only place for the guillotine. Strangely, it became a good place for hangings too. The scaffold was already there, the town square crowded crazily around. I used it for Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, one of my favorite stories. (I actually dressed up as Hester Prynne for Halloween last year and Annie was Pearl. Perhaps it was in bad taste. I thought it was hysterical.) So the introduction to Pillars of the Earth, as mentioned, started off with a hanging. Which was in England. Which I set in France/Salem. What a mess! Ashley’s dad was properly horrified. It only means I need to travel more. I’d love to see into other people’s minds, see where they put things, what backdrops and what landmarks they have.
There are some books I don’t believe ought to be reinvented for children. (And certainly not abridged.) ToTC is one of them. Another is Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. When I worked at the Skylight Exchange, I would police the children’s section, reshelving what I thought was inappropriate. How wicked of me! I didn’t have to move much, I’ll say that.
While I’m thinking of it, have any of you seen Up, that newish Pixar movie? The house, which is moved by helium balloons and Pixar’s impish animations, acquires a personality of its own. It reminded me of Faulkner and Sutpen’s Hundred, or the House of Seven Gables. Sometimes a house is a character in a book. Interesting to see that theme in a children’s movie.
Anyway. Back to reusable houses. I believe that if a story is really well-written, the reader will create a realm for it. If it’s bilge, why would anyone bother? A few exceptions, for me, are places I like so much that I reuse. Or else places like the French Riviera and Cannes and Nice, places of weary jaded sunlight and glittery sand which I generally only encounter in Hemingway or Rhys or Du Maurier or whomever.
But on the other hand, there are houses and estates and even countries I’ve never shared. As perfectly dystopic as it is, Winston Smith’s Oceania could easily be used for other novels. But I can’t! It’s his and Julia’s and the rats’. Chincoteague is an island of its own. My Spanish horses won’t share. Anne is the lacy queen of Prince Edward Island, Narnia is eternally the realm of the Pevensie children, and Cair Paravel is forever and always Cair Paravel.