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I enjoy a well plotted book and interesting characters, but what makes a book special for me how well an author can describe a place, to what extent I am taken to a different reality. Thomas Hardy transported me to the West Country of England when I was in my early teens. It changed my life then by giving me a cool mental refuge, and eventually gave me an understanding and appreciation of a place that could have been totally unfamiliar.

Dorset countryside

I grew up in rural Texas during a prolonged drought. We had no air conditioning, few neighbours, and television was strictly rationed. We went to the county seat once a week for groceries; we went to the closest city once every couple of months. In short, we were fairly isolated. While the Texas countryside was not without its beauty, it often got over 100 for weeks in a row. My mother understood the importance of a cool, green mental vacation, so she scheduled the arrival of mighty care packages of books, mainly English books, during the summer months. It was by way of William and George’s Bristol bookstore that I was introduced to the Lake District of England through the adventures of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons.  While I loved the sense of adventure in the series, more importantly the descriptions Northumbria dropped the temperature in the shade of my favourite reading tree by a good 20 degrees. When I got a little older and got interested in romance, Mom introduced me to the Brontës. In the torrid romance department Emily and Charlotte have no equal, though their portrayal of the bleak Yorkshire moorlands seemed gothic and dour. Having finished both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I decided to read Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and was told, “You wouldn’t like Hardy; he’s depressing”. Luckily I didn’t take her word for it and read it anyway.

wood engraving of Gabriel Oak walking his feckless dog
The Heritage Press version she owned was beautifully illustrated with wood engravings by Agnes Parker, which were rather bleak. However, what I initially took away from the book was less about the complicated love life of Bathsheba Everdene, and long suffering Gabriel Oak, as beautifully depicted by Ms. Parker, but Hardy’s detailed and evocative descriptions of Wessex, a thinly disguised version of his native Dorset. I fell in love with Wessex, madly passionately in love. The well-written characters and compelling story line, couldn’t hold a candle to it.

For example, in the beginning of chapter 22:

It was the first day of June, and the sheep-shearing season culminated, the landscape, even to the leanest pasture, being all health and colour. Every green was young, every pore was open, and every stalk was swollen with racing currents of juice. God was palpably present in the country, and the devil had gone with the world to town.
Imagine reading this during a Texas June, when the stalks had shriveled to a hard, resistant core, and the landscape was already parched and cracked.

In recent times it’s a given that long descriptions detract from the narrative. Adverbs, and even adjectives are to be avoided. To someone impatient to know what happens next, this is probably true but I have always liked a slow descriptive passage. Consider how this portrayal of a barn is both lyrical and, in my experience, accurate:

They sheared in the great barn, called for the nonce the Shearing-barn, which on ground-plan resembled a church with transepts. It not only emulated the form of the neighbouring church of the parish, but vied with it in antiquity. Whether the barn had ever formed one of a group of conventual buildings nobody seemed to be aware; no trace of such surroundings remained. The vast porches at the sides, lofty enough to admit a waggon laden to its highest with corn in the sheaf, were spanned by heavy-pointed arches of stone, broadly and boldly cut, whose very simplicity was the origin of a grandeur not apparent in erections where more ornament has been attempted. The dusky, filmed, chestnut roof, braced and tied in by huge collars, curves, and diagonals, was far nobler in design, because more wealthy in material, than nine-tenths of those in our modern churches. Along each side wall was a range of striding buttresses, throwing deep shadows on the spaces between them, which were perforated by lancet openings, combining in their proportions the precise requirements both of beauty and ventilation.
Large vaulted tithe barn
Many years later, when I visited the great tithe barns at Bradford Abbas, Pilton, and Abbotsbury, they were immediately familiar. Though the shearing scene in the 1967 film adaptation of the novel was filmed in Abbotsbury, my sense of déjà vu came from reading Hardy’s vivid description all those years before. I eventually read all of Hardy’s novels, and while the overall theme of social change is evidently why he felt driven to write them, his love of the West Country landscape, and his carefully crafted depiction of it, make his fear of those changes all the more evident.

Did my rampant anglophilia influence whom I fell in love with and married? Perhaps a bit, though the curly hair and love of bad puns had a lot to do with it as well. Though we met in Pennsylvania, MrSylvania loved the heat and fast pace of urban Texas when we moved there, and had no intention of going back to a country he did, and still does, consider rainy and gloomy. However, the increasing jingoism and religious fervor in his workplace made him reconsider life in America, so after 25 years of marriage we ended up about 30 miles north of Hardy’s birthplace. My in-laws, who live in the Brighton area and the industrial North, were concerned that I would find England too alien, and if we had settled either of those places, that might have been true. However, familiarity with Hardy’s Wessex made the transition to rural Somerset surprisingly easy. We live in a small village where, given that English cities and English culture in general has changed a lot in the intervening 140+ years since Far From the Madding Crowd was written, quite a bit in outlying villages hasn’t. Family and interpersonal relationships are still the centre of everyone’s life, the weather and the fortunes of farmers are of primary importance, and the problems of the larger world are, for the most part, roundly ignored. Best of all, in early June, the countryside is as full of robust life as Hardy promised.

the woods behind St. Michael's hill with wild garlic

What books have you read that were so well described a visit would give you a feeling of déjà vu?

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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