History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 April 2007

The World, on foot and on the page

It was our car mechanic on the telephone.

"Valve," he said.

"Cylinder," he added.

Actually he said a great deal more: he's conscientious, knowledgeable, and a bit of a showoff. But "valve" and "cylinder" were the only words I actually heard.

"Money?" I asked. I'll exercise some reticence here, though, and spare you the lurid details of his reply.

"Uh, time?" I asked weakly.

He thought it would take the better part of a week; it wound up taking even longer. During which time Michael and I discovered how much we loved being carless. We learned the bus routes and schedules, we walked, and we gained a sense of San Francisco that we've never had in our 35 years of living here.

But Rebecca Solnit tells it better in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, in a brief anecdote about a friend whose truck was stolen:
...though everyone responded to it as a disaster, she wasn't all that sorry it was gone, or in a hurry to replace it. There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents. We talked about the stately sense of time one has afoot and on public transit, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute, and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot. Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors - home, car, gym, office, shops - disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.
One lives in the whole world...

Our car runs great with its rebuilt engine, but since we've gotten it back we try to reserve it for bad weather, serious grocery shopping, trips outside the city, and time emergencies. Of course we're not entirely successful - and I hasten to add that this luxurious choice is only possible because we live in a city with adequate public transportation, and because we're at a point in our lives where neither of us is working a forty-hour week or desperately hurrying to the daycare center before it closes at six.

But what a luxury it is, "that sense of place that can only be gained on foot." And what a gift for a writer: trying to live more completely in the world around me is a goad and encouragement to try to build a coherent imaginary world (and yes, Kalen, this post is partially inspired by your post of a few days ago, about world-building).

I think of some of my favorite literary walkers: Leopold Bloom crisscrossing the streets of Dublin, Mrs. Dalloway gaily setting off to buy the flowers herself. A stroll through an urban landscape is a merging of observation and instrospection. The tactile factuality of buildings and bridges and pavement, the ephemerality of ever-changing crowds like the migration of birds - all of it flickers through the lenses, seeps through the filters of a character's conscious perceptions and all-but-forgotten memories. The urban walker is an emblem of modernity, alone and among the crowd, meditative and critical all at once, William Blake wandering "through each chartered street" of a dark, early industrial London.

Which brings me to the Regency period of my novels, and back to Solnit's Wanderlust. Because although her meandering, splendidly erudite history of walking moves from prehistory to yesterday, it's not surprisingly that it's her discussions of literary walking in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that engage me most fully: Blake in London, Wordsworth walking through France a year after the storming of the Bastille (and taking the Alps at the impressive rate of thirty miles a day).

But Solnit doesn't only write about urban wanderings and epic excursions. She also tells us that recreational walking as an exercise of genteel or romantic sensibility got its start in the "improved" country estates that became so fashionable among the landed classes in Georgian England, when the landscape gardeners Brown and Repton accomplished prodigious feats of earthmoving to produce elegant, "natural"-seeming prospects, with captivating, picturesque views in every direction.

While as for the female walker in that landscape, and as for love and romance - Solnit offers a discussion of Pride and Prejudice in terms of the numerous walks Elizabeth Bennet takes through its pages. I won't try to summarize her enlightening and original argument, but I'll give you a little snippet of it, in an illuminating take on a passage whose depth had eluded me until now:
On a walk where they manage to lose all their companions and "she went boldly on with him alone," Elizabeth and Darcy finally come to an understanding, and their communications and newfound happiness take up so much time that "'My dear Lizzy, where can you have been walking to?' was a question which Elizabeth received from Jane.... She had only to say in reply, that they had wandered about, till she was beyond her own knowledge." Consciousness and landscape have merged, so that Elizabeth has literally gone "beyond her own knowledge" into new possibilities.
Ah. Yes. Wow.

And what about you? Readers and writers alike, do you pay attention to how characters move through a fictional world, and how the world enters the mind of a fictional character in motion? (And I must admit I'm always curious about how you writers who understand horses move them and their riders thru the landscape.)

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11 Comments:

Blogger Keira Soleore said...

WOW, Pam! I had not thought about it at all, beyond that people walk in real life and in books. Thank you for opening my eyes to the possibilities of walking being more than just moving character A from point X to Y.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I am a contemplative walker -- not an aerobic one -- with water vista and woodland trails outside the front door. So I brought that sensibility to my Regency characters in their country settings. But it is only in my current book that I have incorporated it into the city settings, because it is so essential to the safety of my characters.

What insight, Pam -- thanks for bringing together so many writers thoughts on the subject. I welcome new ways(to me)to enhance the reality of my early 19th century world.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Keira and Mary, I'd like to take credit but it's all Rebecca Solnit. I really recommend this book; it's my favorite of hers, but I'm including an Amazon link to all her books.

In contrast to Mary, urban walking has been something I've been thinking about ever since I read Ulysses, but the 18th-19th century improved estate take on the subject is quite a revelation to me.

7:52 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Cool, Pam. Now that you mention it, I see how Elizabeth's fondness for walking is so much a part of her character---contemplative, able, and strong.

I also love a hero/heroine who loves to ride. Traveling astride lends such an earthy sensuality to their character. Nothing like a character on a horse for setting! It's hard not to describe the surroundings and the senses.

8:51 PM  
Blogger janegeorge said...

Urban walking, it's almost overwhelming.

As a young woman I went to live in Manhattan as a kind of pilgrimage. I would take entire Saturdays and walk from the East Village to Spanish Harlem, just soaking in the buildings and stuff. Lucky I wasn't hit by a car!

I finally learned to drive when I was living on Nob Hill in SF and bought a horse I needed to keep outside the city and take care of everyday. I learned to parallel park on the wrong side of a one way street with the One California bus bearing down on me. (A skill I'm proud of to this day.)

There really is nothing like sharing a way of moving through space together with one's horse.

11:29 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Sort of off-topic, but I'm in New York this week (walking and walking - I have a project to walk around Manhattan Island) but also visiting family and friends and also doing research. And one of the things I checked out was the George Stubbs Exhibition at the Frick Collection, Stubbs being thought to be one of the greatest painters of horses of all time - and therefore having a unique take on Georgian country life.

5:47 AM  
Blogger janegeorge said...

Oh, ew! Stubbs as Fragonnard. I never knew. I know they did all kinds of things in the name of art and science then, but as a horse lover that article really squicked me out. *shudder*

Hope you're having an absolutely mahvelous time in NYC!

7:36 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

It's true that horselovers might be warned that Stubbs was also an anatomist... sorry, Jane. But I love this closing line: "It’s this erasure, for once, of the cheap enchantments of art that makes Stubbs so bravely and unforgettably peculiar."

9:26 AM  
Blogger janegeorge said...

Oh, the article was very good. I especially liked the parts about showing the portrait to the horse and the horse's reaction, the grooms and jockeys taking the poses of noblemen, and the scrubbed faces of the farm laborers. Oh, and the portrait of the giant ox that was won in a wager, that would be a great tidbit to add to a Regency.

The writer of the article must be more knowledgeable about art than horses, being struck with the *meaning* of the name Eclipse, rather than the automatic, Eclipse = one of the most famous racehorses, ever. That added depth. Contemporary depth, but nice.

10:01 AM  
Blogger janegeorge said...

"It’s this erasure, for once, of the cheap enchantments of art that makes Stubbs so bravely and unforgettably peculiar."

PS: if you substitute *love* for *art* in the above sentence, and change Stubbs to the name of a H/H, that would work in a romance novel! ;-j

10:03 AM  
Blogger Miss Snark said...

For another perspective on historical walking, try the diaries of women on the Oregon Trail. They walked from Missouri to Oregon. Rocky Mountains and all.

Our image of the westward migration is covered wagons, but mostly people hauled their stuff in those wagons and walked.

(I was so pleased to see you are a Rebecca Solnit fan too!)

Walk on!

6:40 PM  

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