5 Special Places in Literature: A Sense of Place and the Imagination
The heady scents of wisteria mixed with orange blossoms in spring...
When I opened my window as a child, these are the fragrances that greeted me. We called our home merely "The Place." An orange grove sent out its allure just beyond my bedroom windows. In the stillness of morning, it was a joy to go outside during the summer and pick an orange, ripe and sweet, right off the tree. As I held it in my hand, I could feel the warmth of the sun on it.
Even as the city crowded around my childhood home and more and more cars zipped by, wild violets grew in shady spots on our place. It seemed one of the last holdouts of a disappearing California.
The trees and violets are gone now, torn up to make room for a complex of medical offices. Yet, it is those scents of childhood that still linger in my memory.
Writers often draw on memories, perhaps especially of a time that has disappeared. In their imaginations, the influence of home lives on in their stories. Here are five beloved authors and a look at the homes that echo in their words:
5. Little Lea
76 Circular Road
It is here that C.S. "Jack" Lewis grew up and first began a journey that would enrich his life with imagination, books and writing. Fifty years before The Chronicles of Narnia graced the world, Jack and his brother, Warnie, created another enchanted land at Little Lea. They called their group of stories Boxen.
At Little Lea, young Jack found both joy and then profound sadness when his mother died. With a grieving father who never recovered from the loss, Jack entered a world in which all security had fled. Books and his imagination became his constant companions when Warnie left for boarding school. Jack caught all of those mixed feelings about his childhood home this way:
I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books...
In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.
C. S. Lewis: Surprised by Joy. New York: Harvest, 1965.
4. Hill Top Farm
Beatrix Potter was in her late thirties when she bought Hill Top Farm in England's beautiful Lake District. The 17th-century farmhouse with its 34 acres became her escape from the noise and pollution of London, and from her overbearing parents. Here she could paint and write to her heart's content, pulling inspiration from the countryside around her and from her own garden.
I have lots of flowers, I am very fond of my garden, it is a regular old-fashioned farm garden, with a box hedge round the flower bed, and moss roses and pansies and black currants and strawberries and peas — and big sage bushes for Jemima, but onions always do badly. I have tall white bell flowers I am fond of, they are just going over, next there will be phlox; and last come the michaelmas daisies and chrysanthemums.
3. The White House
State Route 175
The farm where E.B. White found inspiration for his classic is a little north of that other White House, but just as important to the history of children's literature as the Washington landmark is to politics. Among the geese, sheep, roosters and also a pig, he found inspiration for Charlotte's Web.
E.B. White loved the simplicity of his saltwater farm in Maine and so I use a deceptively simple quote:
All that I hope to say in books,
all that I ever hope to say,
is that I love the world.
2. Skeldale House and the Dales
James Herriot was a young, newly qualified veterinarian when he answered an advertisement for a position in a small Yorkshire village. Here he found lifelong friends, love and family. He also discovered a deep, enduring appreciation for the rugged country of the Dales and the eccentric, giving and stubborn people who farmed there. All of these impressions filled his later writing in stories that, I think, have never been equaled for their sense of place. Here is James Herriot's first look at the home that would shape his life and books:
Now that I was here, right on the doorstep, I felt breathless, as though I had been running. If I got the job, this was where I would find out about myself. There were many things to prove.
But I liked the look of the old house. It was Georgian with a fine, white-painted doorway. The windows, too, were white—wide and graceful on the ground floor and first storey but small and square where they peeped out from under the overhanging tiles far above. The paint was flaking and the mortar looked crumbly between the bricks, but there was a changeless elegance about the place...
Herriot, James. All Creatures Great and Small. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1972
1. The Outermost House
Great Outer Beach
Henry Beston was 38 years old when he came to live in a little house on the dunes overlooking the sea. At his kitchen table, he began writing about what he saw and felt about the natural world around him. No one has better married the best of prose and poetry as Henry Beston did when he wrote his remarkable book:
Outermost cliff and solitary dune, the plain of ocean and the far, bright rims of the world, meadow land and marsh and ancient moor: this is Eastham; this the outer Cape. Sun and moon rise here from the sea, the arched sky has an ocean vastness, the clouds are now of ocean, now of earth.
Having known and loved this land for many years, it came about that I found myself free to visit there, and so I built myself a house upon the beach.
Beston, Henry. The Outermost House. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2003.
It was my childhood home in California that formed my appreciation of nature and my love of reading.
It is now my home in the Pacific Northwest that influences my own venture into writing a book. From the texture of the ribbons of bark on a Western redcedar tree to soaring lighthouses, I fell in love with my new home. I tried to weave the rich history and beauty of the area into my story, Mystery Shores, set along the Washington coast in 1893.
Writing my own book brought home to me the importance of exploring a sense of place. It helps me to more deeply understand and appreciate the authors and books I love.
Linda Borromeo worked at the University of California, Berkeley as operations manager for a graduate school library. She is now a full-time writer. Her book, Mystery Shores, is a tale of danger and secrets along the Pacific Northwest coast. For more pictures, quotes and inspiration, join Linda for a Creative Walk.