Any Other Place

“Such a fortnight as it has been!” he continued; “every day more precious and delightful than the day before! – every day making me less fit to bear any other place. Happy those, who can remain at Highbury!” (Frank Churchill, Emma, chapter 30)

Along with compelling characters, a good writer also delivers an engaging setting. It grounds the story by planting its people and events in a specific time and place. It gives the reader a world to escape to and explore. Tara, Pemberley, Mitford, even the Planet of the Apes: these names evoke strong images. We experienced them first through the pages of books.

Setting doesn’t require exhaustive, flowery descriptions of landscape, architecture, and furnishings. Preferably not. Jane Austen never resorted to that technique. She gave us just enough information to set our imaginations off in the right direction. The rest unfolded primarily through the kind of people who inhabited her houses and villages, the way they behaved (or misbehaved), and how they felt about where they lived and visited. For example…

It was a handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground and backed by a ridge of high woody hills … Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste … The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine …

Our opinion of Pemberley is influenced more by Elizabeth’s impressions and the high regard the housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, has for her position and her employer than by direct description of what the place looks like. The same is true for Highbury in Emma. I don’t recall any of the specific facts Austen surely gives us about the town, only that everyone (even a recent arrival like Frank Churchill) speaks of the village with affection.

How magical, then, to create fictitious worlds of our own! As writers, we fashion them brick by brick, laboring until we can taste the dust of the streets, smell the pile of horse manure we sidestep, and exchange greetings with the other inhabitants – our good friends – as they go about their business. We come to delight in our daily sojourns there … perhaps a little too much. The downside? The deeper we immerse ourselves in a beloved book (as readers, and especially as writers) the more attached we become to the neighborhood. Perhaps, as Frank says, this makes us less and less fit to bear any other place … such as the real world.

About Shannon Winslow

author of historical fiction in the tradition of Jane Austen
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