"A small part of Derbyshire is all the present concern." Or so it was in Pride and Prejudice, when Mrs. Gardiner schlepped our unwilling heroine Elizabeth Bennet to that part of the world and most specifically to "the grounds at Pemberley." When I started researching The Slightest Provocation, I had no idea that the same small part of Derbyshire would be my concern as well.
I don't absolutely need to go to the original location in order to write a historical fiction (disclosure, I've never seen Almost A Gentleman's Lincolnshire). But what a treat and what an inspiration to be able to walk over the real land and smell the air.
Real locations set me vibrating. Being there, or being close by, makes me feel as though I've been given a franchise to make up a historical fiction set in a real place. The real historical event underlying The Slightest Provocation was something called the Pentrich Rising, and I wanted to see Pentrich, though all that's left of the historical events are four plaques and a not very well maintained walking trail from plaque to plaque.
I wanted to feel how flat or hilly the countryside was, to see the size and arc of the sky, beech trees, bluebells and creamy hawthorn, stone walls, and little brown butterflies.
In The Slightest Provocation, my fictional village of Grefford needed to be located some ten or fifteen miles from Pentrich, in the southeast corner of Derbyshire, almost at Nottingham. Which put it awfully close to Jane Austen's fictional Lambton, which is close to the real Chatsworth and the fictional Pemberley.
In fact, I discovered, after checking some guide books, I'd created Grefford at the edge of the something called the Peak District. Which, as Wikipedia tells us is "claimed ... to be the world's second most popular national park."
I could sort of understand the suspicious tone of the Wikipedia entry -- I'd never heard of the area, after all. But location, location location is often what accounts for a place's popularity, and this "upland area . . . lying mainly in northern Derbyshire, but also covering parts of Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Staffordshire, and South and West Yorkshire" is smack dab in the middle of England.
So for years, large numbers of Britons have been soaking in "the celebrated beauties of Matlock, Chatsworth, Dovedale," as Mrs. Gardiner rhapsodized, even if Lizzy Bennet had really wanted to go to the Lakes instead. (But aren't we glad the Gardiners didn't have the time to take that more ambitious holiday?)
And just as it made a convenient destination for Lizzy and the Gardiners, The Peak has long been a good weekend outing for the workers of Manchester and Birmingham, who (according to some piece of tourist literature I picked up) have been littering the lawns at Chatsworth with sandwich wrappings for some 200 years. In our small village, (though not, I'm sure, at Chatsworth) Michael and I were the only American tourists around. Which was fun; the Brits we met were impressed that we'd known about such a cherished location.
(Peak, by the way, comes from the old English peac, which, rather disappointingly, means nothing more impressive than "hill." The northern Dark Peak is rockier, more atmospheric, with gritstone outcroppings and moors; it's where Loretta Chase's Miss Wonderful takes place. The Slightest Provocation takes place further south, in the White Peak, with low walls of limestone, sweet serene meadows -- and Chatsworth, the absurdly opulent seat of the Devonshire family, which the recent Pride and Prejudice movie used for Pemberley.)
It's a terrific area for a vacation -- uh, holiday. The walks through field and forest and over stiles are wonderful – Michael and I were going to rent a car, but we wound up hiking and bussing around (and saw oodles more, I'm sure, even if we didn't cover as much ground as we might have -- plus we didn't quarrel, as we always do when it turns out I've been reading the road map upside down).
The villages are old and picturesque, the countryside is crossed with walking paths and sparkling rivers. The people are friendly, outgoing, and super-helpful. The pub food is, uh, plain, when they're not doing dubious things like dumping mint jelly into the stewed lamb or kidney or whatever. But we didn't care -- we were going to eat wonderful curries and sumptuous Middle Eastern food in London the next week, when we went to read about our historical events in the British Library and the National Archives at Kew.
And the village of Youlgrave, where we stayed, was a delight, and in fact very much like I envisioned my modest little Grefford, only with a quite terrific B&B, called Lathkill House, which I'd recommend whole-heartedly if you ever got out that way.
And the greatest thing in some ways (for an angsty, super-ego-ridden type like me at least) was that I wasn't just on holiday. I was doing my job by being there. Gosh, I love this romance-writer biz sometimes.