Geographies of the Book

Charles W. J. Withers and Miles Ogborn, eds.(Farnham: Ashgate, 2010)

Recommended by Fariha Shaikh

Charles W. J. Withers and Miles Ogborn, eds., Geographies of the Book (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010)This is an edited collection, but nonetheless, the introduction sets out an extremely useful framework for thinking about books as ‘placed’ objects, and what happens to them when they begin to move and circulate. As Withers and Ogborn explain, while the history of the book is a discipline that has been long studied, far less attention has been paid to the geography of the book, a topic which is intimately connected to the cartographies of print production and distribution. The introduction is a great read if you are interested in gaining a critical vocabulary for talking about books as moving objects!

On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World

Tim Cresswell (London: Routledge, 2006)

On the Move by Tim CresswellRecommended by Fariha Shaikh

Cresswell’s On the Move was pivotal in giving me a theoretical foundation for what we mean by ‘place’ within the modern world. As a geographer, Cresswell’s careful examination of ‘place’, as the construction of locality, as opposed to ‘space’, as the product of mobility, has been useful for me in thinking through the ways in which the texts that I work with are always mediating a careful balance between the two. This is a useful starting point for anyone who is looking to gain a theoretical background of the concept of place.

Frankenstein (1818)

Mary Shelley ed. Marilyn Butler (Oxford, 1993)

Mary Shelley, FrankensteinRecommended by Jimmy Packham

Mary Shelley’s ubiquitous novel might seem like an obvious choice: “not this one again!” But I want to use this novel to gesture towards what I think is one of the most exciting – and what I believe is currently one of the most urgent – strands of landscape and environmental thinking: the ecogothic. Frankenstein straddles the Romantic and gothic traditions, and nowhere more so than in its portrait of the various (the myriad!) landscapes through which Victor and his creation travel. As a representative ecogothic text, the novel departs from the vision of nature generally associated with conventional Romanticism, and asks us to see nature as strange and estranging, unfamiliar and disquieting. More than this, however, this is a book that wants us to think ethically about our engagement with the natural world: the creature (himself a horrifying amalgam of nature and culture) works hard to establish a compassionate ethics, rooted in his experiences of nature and animal life. Frankenstein also reminds us how natural the apparently unnatural monsters that haunt our horror stories truly are: from The Odyssey and Beowulf, through Frankenstein, to more recent fare like Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (2014) and the Godzilla franchise (1954-present). Indeed, in Godzilla I think we have a contemporary creature that rivals Frankenstein’s monster as the most compelling modern myth to illuminate humanity’s ambivalent relationship with the natural world: Godzilla returns to us at moments of ecological and global crisis, to restore a kind of harmony to the natural world, but does so while wreaking terrible destruction on human civilisation.

The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)

Sarah Orne Jewett ed. Alison Easton (London, 1995)

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed FirsRecommended by Jimmy Packham

Poised on the very edge of the land, the quiet and dilapidated coastal village of Dunnet Landing, Maine and its surrounding geography is the real protagonist at the heart of Sarah Orne Jewett’s collection of sketches – a masterpiece of what has been called “local colour writing”, so-called for the genre’s unassuming but perceptive attention to a very particular locale. I love these brief sketches for the portraits they paint of eccentric townsfolk, the goings-on of their small, out-of-the-way community, the unshowy but knowledgeable relationship between humans and the natural world (such as the tales’ herb woman, Almira Todd); at times, these tales teeter on the allegorical or the mythic, and celebrate the power of storytelling, especially female storytelling, in keeping a community and its histories alive. But we make a mistake, I think, in taking these romantic, nostalgic sketches of a town seemingly out-of-kilter with the chaos and energy of the modern world wholly at face value. There are darker and more radical undercurrents eddying in these waters. The legacy of New England’s profound gothic tradition impinges on Jewett’s world, in the witch-like figure of Almira Todd, for instance. The relationship between women and the landscape looks ahead to the more overtly queer landscape writing of another writer of the US’s eastern seaboard, the poet H.D; and the intertwining here of the paean to a fast-passing way of life and the cosmic resonance of this observation finds its successor in a poem like Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At the Fishhouses’.

The Poetry of Clare, Hopkins, Thomas, and Gurney: Lyric Individualism

Andrew Hodgson (Basingstoke, 2020)

Andrew Hodgson, The Poetry of Clare, Hopkins, Thomas, and Gurney: Lyric IndividualismRecommended by Jessica Fay

This book will be of interest to anyone who enjoys attending closely to the intricate methods poets use to express what they perceive and how they perceive it. We all see the world in different ways, observing different things, and our sense of identity and sense of home is channelled through those unique experiences. Subjective encounters with specific places, local events, and minute aspects of nature are at the centre of Romantic poetics. But while the aim of Wordsworth’s self-consciousness, for example, is to discover and communicate universal truths, this book shows—through a series of close readings—how four poets struggled with and against language, syntax, and form to achieve extreme lyric integrity, communicating the singularity of their embodied perception of the world for its own sake. Clare, Hopkins, Thomas, and Gurney emerge as proponents of a newly isolated and intricately defined poetic style that will nuance thinking about the spectrum of approaches to lyric subjectivity traceable within the Romantic tradition.

The White Doe of Rylstone: Or, The Fate of the Nortons (1815)

William Wordsworth ed. Kristine Dugas (Ithaca and London, 1988)

The White Doe of Rylstone: Or, The Fate of the Nortons (1815) by William WordsworthRecommended by Jessica Fay

This narrative poem was written by Wordsworth in 1807 but withheld from the press until 1815 because of fears it wouldn’t be well received. And it wasn’t. It’s an austere poem that tricks the reader into expecting an exciting romance narrative of the kind at which Walter Scott excelled, only to disappoint those expectations when nothing much happens. It tells the story of the Norton family during the Rising of the North, a Roman Catholic rebellion aimed at dethroning Elizabeth I, but Wordsworth refuses to describe combat scenes and the most violent act performed by the rebels comprises treading on a Bible and saying Mass. Instead, the emphasis is on Norton’s Protestant daughter, Emily, who waits in the medieval garden at Rylstone Hall to hear news that her father and brothers have been killed. In her grief, Emily is comforted by the companionship of a milk-white doe, which continues to visit her grave in the churchyard at Bolton Abbey for many years afterwards. The garden and the churchyard are presented by Wordsworth as places enriched by the fact that they have witnessed centuries of human pain—from the medieval period through to the early nineteenth century—but for that reason, these are also places enriched by hope. This little-read Wordsworth poem gets to the root of his thinking about the consolation that can be gained from quietude, openness to lessons of sympathy from the animal world, and deep connections between people and the places in which they suffer and overcome that suffering.

The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730–1840

John Barrell (Cambridge, 1972)

John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730–1840 (Cambridge, 1972)Recommended by Jessica Fay

This book gives a lot. It taught me how to recognize and describe the compositional patterns of seventeenth-century landscape painting (which were epitomized in the work of Claude Lorrain), how these patterns became standardized in English landscape art, and how, in turn, they inflected the structures of eighteenth-century topographical poetry. Barrell’s close reading, showing how the syntax of James Thomson’s The Seasons encourages the reader’s eye to move across the page in the way that the eye surveys a landscape painting, reveals how eighteenth-century readers looked at real landscapes. This builds to a foundational study of John Clare’s unique poetic representation of place.


Local Attachments

Fiona StaffordFiona Stafford - Local Attachments (Oxford, 2010)

Recommended by Alexandra Harris

One of the many remarkable things that happened towards the end of the eighteenth century was that local feeling and the life of particular places became great literary subjects. You wouldn’t expect to find a Jacobean poet writing about the River Duddon (unless perhaps it was a symbol of national prosperity), but of Wordsworth you would expect nothing less. Paying close attention to the changing cultural status of local particularity, Stafford asks how and why this came about, and how Romantic writers, poem by poem, made places matter.

Read the introduction on the OUP website

The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village

Eamon Duffy (New Haven, 2001)

The Voices of Morebath: Reformation & Rebellion in an English Village by Eamon DuffyRecommended by Alexandra Harris

A revelatory example of what happens when the great movements of national and international history are explored from a particular on-the-ground vantage point. Morebath is a small village on the edge of Exmoor; the priest there in the mid seventeenth century kept detailed parish records, and these form a core around which Duffy builds up a portrait of rural Catholic life and how people responded to the changes they faced. It’s a good starting point for exploring the varied field of historical writing in which skilled and painstaking archival work is made to yield precious clues about the experience of rural and working people whose lives have been otherwise forgotten.


The History of Myddle

Richard Gough, ed. David Hey (London, 1981)

The History of Myddle by Richard GoughRecommended by Alexandra Harris

A pioneering work of local history. Richard Gough was a Shropshire yeoman who wanted to write about his parish community: its past and its present. In 1701 he published a study of the antiquities in Myddle, following more or less the newly established conventions for antiquarian place studies. But he wanted to write about more than the pedigrees of manorial lords and the relics of monastic houses, so he invented a form to suit him and embarked on his ‘Observations concerning the Seats in Myddle and the families to which they belong’. By ‘seats’ he meant pews in the church. He drew a plan of St Peter’s, labelled the pews, and wrote a portrait of each member of the congregation, seat by seat. Though he was imagining them all in church, he was writing lives that strayed far from the orderly Sunday formation, into fields and towns, into bedrooms, backrooms, affairs, and quarrels. It was a simple and evocative method of group biography; no-one seems to have used it before, or since.