Literary Landscapes: Charting the Topography of Classic Literature edited by John Sutherland is not the first to chart this kind literary geography but it is certainly one of the most wide-ranging. Dozens of novels are explored here, with settings across the world. As well as the obvious Brontës in Haworth, Dickens' London, John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, Harper Lee's Alabama, or even A. A. Milnes' '100 Aker Wood' here we also find essays on Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (set in the Swiss Alps), Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavrandsatter set in the Gudbrand Valley, Norway, Orphan Pamuk's Snow set in Kars, Turkey, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart set in Onitsha, Nigeria, and Tim Winton's Cloudstreet set in Perth, Australia. If you look the evocation of place then this not just a place to catch-up with old favourites but to find new ones too.
The format is by movement and era: Romanticism, Modernism, etc. This gives the book both a thematic as well as a chronological structure. The vast number of essays mean that each treatment is fairly short, but there is no sense of hurry amongst the essays themselves. I assume the range and organisation are down to Sutherland and both features are a strength of the book.
Also standout are the visual production values. It is lavishly illustrated with contemporary photographs (in colour for the more modern books), author photographs, stills from films, maps, and images of books covers. As a book dealer I particularly like the page of evocative mid-twentieth century William Faulkner covers and the full page given over to the anniversary edition cover of La Colmena (The Hive) by Camilo José Cela.
Each essay is bordered by wide margins finely filled with more detail on the authors and their books. Beautifully presented and meaning the essay writers don't have to waste time on background before the exposition on the place in the novel. I like this feature and it is especially useful as for those authors you are less familiar with (and there will be quite a few).
The obvious essay for me to focus on is Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, set as it is fairly close to where I am typing and an area I know well. The essay is excellent: it immediately brings together the weather and landscape, not simply the oft mentioned cruelty of the landscape which is really the landscape combined with its weather. We certainly get a lot of weather round here (in the never that extreme rather British way). I remember an American book blogger who visited here commenting that until she'd ventured up on the moors behind Haworth she had no idea wind could come from so many directions at once. The moors do take your breath away. Sutherland (for this is one of the literary critic's own essays) then finds a rather lovely sunny quote by contrast that has me reaching for Wuthering Heights again to re-live some its texture. The skies aren't always grey over Haworth.
The essay is finished off beautifully with a double page spread of a painting by L.S. Lowry, The Witherns near Haworth; this Lancashire painter is an unexpected choice but the blue-grey-khaki palette of Lowry fits the essay's themes extremely well.
So far I can heartily recommend, but I do have a few quibbles. The essays are very uneven - not surprising perhaps when there are so many - although the Brontë one is one of the best and I love the one on Anne of Green Gables. In addition, some of the sub-editing choices are poor - Wuthering Heights is on the Yorkshire Moors apparently. That phrase, particularly with a capital M, usually refers to the North York Moors. (See this for an example, and this). This is a National Park and Haworth is not in it nor particularly even near it, Yorkshire being a huge county. Obviously Yorkshire moors could be used to described any upland Yorkshire area. This rogue capital letter is small point but an irritating one (why didn't they look at an OS map and call it Haworth Moor?) There are other little quibbles like this on the books / places I know well so there must be others on those I don't.
The most significant problem though is the lack of attribution of the essays. It is possible to eventually find out who wrote what only by turning to the the back where there is an A-Z of contributors, where you have to read through each one till you find who wrote the essay you're interested in. This hassle could have been solved by the use of the old-fashioned by-line.
Having moaned about the difficulty of discovering the contributors, they are generally of a high quality though, which probably means you've never heard of them, as they are mostly academics like Sutherland. They include people like Daniel Hahn (Oxford Companion to Children's Literature), Julie Curtis (Professor of Russian Literature at Wolfson College, Oxford), Andrew Watts (Senior Lecturer in French Studies, University of Birmingham, The Cambridge Companion to Balzac), etc., as well as more general writers such as the ubiquitous Robert Macfarlane.
Overall all, I enjoyed this beautiful book. It is a worthy successor to last years' Literary Wonderlands: A Journey through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created from the same publisher, and an excellent addition to what you might call the book-list genre.
General Editor: John Sutherland
Published 25 October 2018 – Price: £25 hardback, full-colour illustration.
You could buy this from your local book shop or by using the Amazon link in the text, or directly from me (who is also assessed for Uk tax!). I can offer free UK postage on pre-orders until the 24th October. Just contact me to order.
You could win a copy too: Follow @modernbooks and tweet your own favourite #LiteraryLandscape for a chance to win a copy of Literary Landscapes.
Blog tours can be a bit samey but there is so much to read and discuss in this book that this one might well be worth following.