Do novelists write better in the tranquillity of the countryside? Or is that another rural myth, another city-derived vision of pastoral perfection? Jane Feaver, whose new novel, published this month, is set in a Devon village, comments frankly on her own experience of country life.
For the last ten years I have lived down a lane in the middle of Devon. I hesitate to call it a ‘dead-end lane’, though that is what it is, the river at the bottom, no longer fordable. Put your finger on the map: north a bit, left a bit: there.
When I was 18, after my parents divorced, I accompanied my father to Exeter for the funeral of a relative on his side – the avowedly intellectual side. The dead man’s brother, another of my father’s uncles, was a Classics don at Exeter, who, as the Scotsman later reported, was said to have inspired JK Rowling’s Professor Binns, a man ‘who sends students to sleep with his excruciating, verbose lessons.’ I never pursued the connection.
It was nearly twenty years before by chance I returned to the county to take up a job, this time with a young daughter in tow. I quit London with little consideration for what I would be taking on, busily preoccupied with burning my bridges: it seemed the only way forward, ensuring I could never go back.
In country terms, I have been here no time at all. A decade passes in the blink of an eye. I am a blow-in, an incomer and though locally there are many more people that recognize me than ever did in my street in Peckham, belonging here is not measured in years or decades but in generations; there are no ancestors holding their breath for me in the churchyard.
A removal to the countryside can be confused with a nostalgic longing for the old world. Over the last century or so there have been small deliberate attempts by the bookish to eschew urban life – the ‘Dymock Poets’ in Gloucestershire, whose number briefly included Edward Thomas; the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston; Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Powyses in Dorset. In 1945, in a review of The Natural Order: Essays in the Return to Husbandry, a book by literary types on the virtues of rural living, George Orwell couldn’t help pointing out that ‘None of these writers clearly admits that the vast majority of modern men prefer the machine civilization. So far from wanting to get back to the village, they want to get away from it.’
And yet I don’t think I would ever have written anything had I stayed in London, working, like a character from Muriel Spark, in the poetry department at Faber. The contradictory exposure to writers running gloriously ahead of me, or those on a ‘slush pile’ which, fast as I dispatched it, grew back like Hughes’s thistles ‘over the same ground’, was an off-putting one. The countryside, with its lack of jostling at the starting gate, appeared to offer the perfect solution. Never mind the English pastoral tradition that made absolute sense of a solitary figure kicking up the clods…
It has taken me ten years and the writing of a couple of novels to question whether the countryside is not the most perverse place to bring a novel up. Where a poem can be stuffed like a mouse into a pocket, a novel yearns towards the constructions of the human landscape – railway stations, tower blocks, backstreet terraces and five storey car parks. The city, like the novel, is an adolescent. It wants to get out; protests that it doesn’t need sleep, but entertainment.
A part of why I did what I did was a romantic attachment to the idea that the countryside was a place I might belong. Until I was nine my family lived in Newcastle and all our holidays until I left home were spent in Northumberland. But I’d be hard-pressed to call myself a northener: I don’t sound northern; I have no family up North. I am one of perhaps legion numbers of dispossessed for whom, being middle class, no sympathy need be afforded. The challenge I set myself in this expressly northern part of Devon – characteristically less prosperous, more gritty – was to make some sort of impression.
Devon is an old-fashioned pudding of a county, huge and spongy, with hamlets and villages kept discreet from each other by the gouged-out lanes, the screens of hedgerows and the deep walls of the valleys. There are roughly two weeks a year in which the place could be described as heaven on earth. But the blinding optimism of those weeks only renders writing a superfluous occupation, instantly irrelevant and pointless. The rest of the year is damp; my printer steams. A deep penetrating damp, anathema to paper and to books, it should be no surprise that in this neck of the woods there are virtually no bookshops and only the odd, struggling library.
The compensations are non-literary. On one of those rare beautiful days, I go for a walk. Something is going on, a whole gang of sheep is bleating righteous indignation. There are perfectly sound religio-philosophical arguments to say that we are all – animals, birds, insects, worms – in the same boat; the countryside is the place that will make you feel it. There is no one to talk to, only the Babel of crows and sheep and dogs and cows.
The natural world is self-renewing, self-cleaning and, above all else, profoundly indifferent. ‘Pathetic fallacy’ is exposed for the false thing it is, an egotistical concoction of human arrogance. The countryside doesn’t give a shit. It will keep to its age-old pace, where everything shuts up in the dark under the unspeakable stillness of the stars.
‘How easy it is to bury and become buried!’ declares Mavis Gaunt, in my most recent novel. She who has returned from London to the Devon of her childish haunts, determined to belong; entangled in the lives of a local farming family, whose isolation drives them to the point of tragic implosion. I can’t help wondering if I haven’t painted myself into a corner? Whether this is the place it ends, or whether I ought perhaps to consider moving on.
An Inventory of Heaven is published by Corsair 17 May 2012