“My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5:58 o’clock p.m. on the 27th of December, 1908, at which time I was ten year and seven months old.
I am able to date the occasion with complete certainty because that afternoon I had been sledding with my lifelong friend and enemy Percy Boyd Staunton, and we had quarrelled, because his fine new Christmas sled would not go as fast as my old one. Snow was never heavy in our part of the world, but this Christmas it had been plentiful enough almost to cover the tallest spears of dried grass in the fields; in such snow his sled with its tall runners and foolish steering apparatus was clumsy and apt to stick, whereas my low-slung affair would almost have slid on grass without snow.”
This is the opening of Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. In it he introduces the main characters, the conflict, and the time and place. The narrator and Percy are tobogganing in the village of Deptford, a village, the narrator explains ten pages later, on the river Thames in Western Ontario. He goes on for some pages about this imaginary village – its geography, religions, professionals and its families — but for me the essence of it lies in that snow on the spears of dried grass in the fields. I have lived next to similar fields, I have seen that snow, I have tobaggoned. Because of my experience, I inhale this passage as I would inhale the air of home.
However, as my professor of theatre, Anne Saddlemyer, said to me reproachfully when I was an undergrad, not all knowledge is empirical. I once tried to explain snow to a man in a country of England’s former empire. How do you get across to a reader a place that is unknown to them? Certainly the pages of exposition on Deptford will give the reader an idea of the place.
Let me take it from another angle. I read the novels of Joseph Roth before I ever went to Vienna. I remember struggling with his descriptions, sighing and saying I don’t like reading description. Because it was difficult for me to see the cobblestoned streets, the blocks of buildings hunched around the ring, the uniformed men. Can you imagine the particular shade of yellow paint of which he writes unless you’ve actually seen it? More importantly, does it matter? Or is the frisson of recognition (once yellow has been seen and read about) simply a bonus to the foreign reader? Which makes me wonder how you read the above passage if you’ve never seen snow.
Implicit in many of last year’s posts was the idea that it is important to know where a writer has lived in order to better understand the work. I did not really discuss this topic worthy of debate. Harry Mount, writing for The Daily Telegraph (7 Jan. 2013), thinks it is important. Writing about English Heritage’s blue plaques on residences occupied by famous people, he says, “But they are also more than just a collection of facts and dates, crucial as those things are. The knowledge of where someone once lived – particularly if it is at odds with their later fame and fortune – gives a peculiarly moving insight into their story.” He talks about the plaques in his neighbourhood, in Camden Town, north London, where the rich and famous now live, but which used to be “quintessential bedsitter-land,” and where George Orwell and Dylan Thomas once lived. Mount writes, “I’m a long-time fan of both writers. But I’d have known little of the enthrallingly dreary, everyday detail of their lives – or the bleak, mid-20th-century gloom of my corner of the world – but for those two little blue discs.”
Mount was one of many journalists writing about the blue plaques last week because English Heritage announced that due to funding cuts, it could no longer afford to put them up and is letting go its advisory panel. I love these blue ceramic plaques that punctuate buildings all over my neighbourhood, pausing me in my errands to contemplate a poet, an artist, a musician. There have been rumours of others wanting to take on the plaques, including the National Trust, but I have found no official confirmation. Why does this matter to Canadian Writers Abroad? Because Sara Jeannette Duncan has not yet got her blue plaque on the house in Paultons Square. All is not lost. English Heritage’s website assures us they are not cancelling or abandoning the scheme, they are just not taking new applications in order to catch up on their backlog while looking for a less expensive scheme for it to continue in future. Just as well, because Robertson Davies lived in England too.
- Blue Plaque Hoo-Ha (londonhistorians.wordpress.com)
- Blue plaque scheme ‘suspended’ (bbc.co.uk)
- Robertson Davies, with links (thecanadianencyclopedia.com)
- Marie-Hélène Poitras, Les incontournables des livres canadiens (radio-canada.ca)
No it is not ok to use some of my ideas.
[…] theme of place: https://canadianwritersabroad.com/2013/01/16/place-and-the-blues/. Book review sample: https://canadianwritersabroad.com/2013/03/06/christmas-on-toy/. 2012 theme […]
Regarding your comment about the importance of knowing where an author has lived in order to better understand their work. I think this is true, generally, but it gets muddled in the modern age, when people have lived in so many places. As an airforce “brat” I lived in 8 cities in 2 countries before I left home. I’ve since lived in 4 more. So that brings my total to 12. And certainly, each informed me in some way or another, but I pity anyone trying to track my trajectory. And I’m surely not alone. So perhaps, in the end, the places that most inform are: a) the most unusual ones; b) the current one.
Any thoughts out there?
Brilliant as usual. In 1995, I sent in an application to have a blue plaque placed on Sara Jeannette Duncan’s residence at 17 Paulton’s Square, Chelsea, London, the residence in London that Duncan and her husband, Everard Cotes, purchased after WWI. English Heritage requested more information, including evidence of her significance within both her own historical context and the current intellectual community. On reapplication with appropriate supporting information in February 2012, English Heritage turned it down in part because they were overrun with applications.
English Heritage blue plaques are an important part of any visitor’s experience of London: without them, it is much harder to place historical figures — literary, political, scientific — within the changing space of London. I have seen tourists wander the streets with a guide, finding blue plaques and imagining the lives of those who lived in London.
The correlative of the thought about not knowing snow is the way that visual art makes you say ”oh it is just like the paintings ” when you do finally see a place. viz Cezanne and the hilly blocks of hillsides near Avignon. Or Turner and dawn fog over the Thames. Can Atwood’s Surfacing hit you hard if you have never dived into green lake? I don’t know.
I have never been on a raft with a tiger, but I haven’t yet seen the movie and I do have powerful imagery thanks to Jann Martell.
I think the very precision of the grass spikes through the snow makes real to the naive reader. It breaks the heart of the cognoscenti in that moment of recogniton.
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