During a recent trip to London I stayed (on purpose) in the relatively unfashionable neighborhood of Southwark, just a few blocks west of London Bridge and a hundred yards or so south of the Thames. It was here, at the Tabard Inn (along the current Borough High Street), that the fellowship assembled for the pilgrimage imagined by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. David Wallace has noted the incongruity of this setting for a pilgrimage launch, describing the suburb as a jumble of overlapping jurisdictions and general miscreancy: “Southwark functioned as a dumping ground and exclusion zone for early modern London: messy or marginal trades such as lime-burning, tanning, dyeing, brewing, inn-keeping, and prostitution flourished; criminals fleeing London courts and aliens working around London trade regulations found a home there.”
Or to put it another way: If you wanted to set The Wire in the later Middle Ages, you couldn’t do better than Southwark—“sinful Southwark,” as Frank Rexroth puts it in his wonderful Deviance and Power in Late Medieval London (and thus “an ideal home for a moralist,” in Robert Epstein’s pithy formulation).
It was in and around these Southwark haunts, just about six centuries ago, that John Gower (protagonist of A Burnable Book, my forthcoming historical novel) lived a good portion of his adult life. Beginning around 1377, Gower let a house and small chapel from the church of St. Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral), an Augustinian priory that sat in the shadow of Winchester Palace, house of the powerful bishops of Winchester. The ruins of the palace’s great hall and the door to the buttery are nicely preserved just up the street. Gower’s house was likely situated along the priory’s outer walls, signalling his double orientation toward the church and the outside world.
Southwark Cathedral is a bit off the beaten path, at least for tourists. But this was my first trip to London since finishing A Burnable Book, and despite the risk of nostalgia and wishful thinking, I wanted to catch any lingering resonances of the medieval institution that shaped so much of Gower’s writing life. During my three visits to the church, twice in the morning and the third time in the evening (when it was packed with kids preparing for a Christmas concert), I was the sole person in the place experiencing it as a sight-seer rather than as a parishioner or an employee. Granted, this was December, but St. Paul’s had been fairly packed with tourists that same morning, and the surrounding Southwark bankside was crawling with them morning, noon, and night. (Many were there for a bit of bardolatry: the New Globe, the Swan Bar and Chophouse—the Southwark bankside is All Shakespeare, All the Time, it can seem, with little space for this lesser literary light.)
John Gower’s tomb sits in a recess along the north aisle, with soaring ogees over three trefoiled arches, each poised above one of the allegorical figures of Charity, Mercy, and Pity. Garishly restored in the 1950s, the tomb depicts the poet in effigy, his head on a trilingual pillow made up of his three major works: the Vox Clamantis, Mirour de l’Omme (Speculum
Meditantis here), and the Confessio Amantis.
Standing in front of Gower’s tomb, leaning back against the pews, I started thinking about the often invisible pressures of place on the formation of literary character, particularly on those figures from the past brought to new life in historical fiction. Gower offers a wonderfully ambivalent case in point. “Moral Gower,” as Chaucer called him near the end of the fourteenth century—Amoral Gower, as Dianne Watt’s book convincingly refashioned him in the early years of our own. Gower’s own moral ambivalence cannot be separated from the moral geography of Southwark itself, seat of bishops and taverners, prostitutes and Austin canons, chapels and stews. Gower was a loyal and devout parishioner of St. Mary Overie, by all indications, yet with a nose for iniquity that one can’t help but suspect was frequently sharpened by experience. Such contradictions are ripe for the speculative reconstruction of character that fiction allows us to explore.
In opening the Canterbury Tales “in Southwark, at the Tabard as I lay,” Chaucer was subtly exploiting the many associations accruing to the riotous suburb across the Thames. But he was also paying a peculiar kind of homage to the place inhabited by his friend and fellow poet John Gower: a Southwark poet who (as far as I know) never mentions Southwark in his verse, a Southwark man who constantly rails at the vice-filled world surrounding him every day. Perhaps Gower was a darker fellow than Chaucer’s rosy apostrophe in Troilus and Criseyde has led us to believe, a man with his own secrets, a life of compromise that violated the often stale pieties of his verse.
Similar thoughts about the relation of place and character occurred to me on the flight home, during which I read Andrew Taylor’s forthcoming novel, The Scent of Death, in an advance copy given to me by my editor at HarperCollins (also Taylor’s publisher). Set in revolutionary Manhattan during the last years of British rule, The Scent of Death features Edward Saville, a London clerk sent to New York by the American Department. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that one of the really intriguing aspects of Saville as a historical character is the often opaque lens through which he views the roiling city around him. New York is still part of England at this point, and as an Englishman abroad in a revolutionary America, Saville must straddle two worlds, balancing his loyalties to the crown with his horrified discernment of the half-ruined Manhattan that surrounds him.
It’s in these brief placings of character (‘setting’ is too blah and immobile a word, I think) that some of the most interesting work in fiction occurs. Think of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, who slips with such ease in and out of his home at Austin Friars that the house becomes as much a part of the man as his limbs (“The paneling has been painted. He walks into the subdued green and golden glow”). Centuries later, in the World War II London depicted in Simon Tolkien’s Orders from Berlin (just out a month ago), an agent named Charles Seaforth stands in St. James’s Park and watches a flock of geese rise with pastoral grace from the park lake, only to mingle in his vision with the vapor trails of planes engaged in aerial battles high above the city. In the same genre is Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans, a war-era noir that begins omnisciently, with a weather system on the Bulgarian-Greek border, before panning to a police officer in Salonika snapping aloft an umbrella that he then closes just before spying a melancholy sponge seller in the street market on Aristotle Square: “Marooned, he could only wait, for if his sponges got wet he’d have to carry the weight for the rest of the night.”
There are surely many other works of historical fiction that create compelling intimacies between place and person. What are your favorite examples? How do authors of historical fiction get beyond the basic conventions of setting to explore the vitality of place in the making of their characters?
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