Sally Beauman’s top 10 novels with a powerful sense of place

Sally Beauman is a journalist and author of a number of books, including Rebecca’s Tale, Rebecca de Winter’s version of events at Manderley. Her latest book is The Landscape of Love, a novel set in a decaying house in the heart of Suffolk in the summer of 1967.

1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

The Yorkshire moors – and one of the most powerful evocations of landscape in the English novel. The narrative divides between the bleakness of the moors surrounding the Heights and the sheltered park of Thrushcross Grange in the valley. This is a binary novel – two narrators, two houses, two families, two generations: the landscape mirrors this duality. Can anyone forget the scene where the young Heathcliff and Catherine escape from Wuthering Heights and run across the moors to spy through the Grange windows? Or Lockwood’s last view of the graves of Catherine, Edgar and Heathcliff? The landscape embodies choice and becomes a force in the novel. Once read, imprinted.

2. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

1922: Long Island glamour disguises moral squalor. Beautiful Daisy Buchanan and her odious husband live at West Egg, as befits old money. Across the water at East Egg, home to the nouveau riche, is the vast vulgar mansion of the shady millionaire, Jay Gatsby. Nick Carraway, narrator of the novel, cousin to Daisy and neighbour to Gatsby, has to negotiate the troubled waters between these territories; he must cross a moral as well as a class divide. A schematised landscape, and a location that encapsulates an era.

3. Bleak House by Charles Dickens

England, 1850, and the most famous fog in literature. We’re in the Holborn district of London, and the city, like the book, seethes with energy. Every plotline conceals another; the huge, extraordinary cast of characters spans the social spectrum and there are hidden links between all of them, from lowest to highest. The befogged city becomes a web of coincidence and connectedness. The court of Chancery, lawyers’ chambers, clerks’ rooms, taverns, rag and bone shops, burial grounds, illiterate Krook spontaneously combusting, tiny Miss Flite with her caged birds – was there ever a richer, stranger London than this?

4. Rabbit Angstrom: the four novels by John Updike

Brewer, Pennsylvania – a town like a million others in America. In the first novel, Rabbit Angstrom is an athletic young man, it’s the late 1950s and he’s a Magipeel salesman. In the fourth novel, at the end of the Reagan era, he’s 55, tired, retired and bloated. Angstrom is one of the least likeable characters in modern fiction: a wife-cheater, a lecher, a useless father, a lazy businessman. Brewer, his hometown, mirrors his moral sclerosis: provincial, smug and jingoistic, it’s grown flabby with greed, phoney morality, and religious hypocrisy. It’s ugly and it’s unforgettable. Want to know what the Land of the Free was like in the second half of the 20th century? Read Updike on Brewer.

5. The William books by Richmal Crompton

In children’s fiction there are many worlds that, once encountered, are never forgotten – Alice’s underworld, Pook’s Hill, Pooh Corner, Toad Hall and the Wild Wood, a secret garden in Yorkshire, a Kensington nursery where a Newfoundland dog is the nanny… Equally indelible is the somewhat suburban village inhabited by the immortal William Brown and his family, especially in the sublime wartime stories. They are laugh-out-loud funny. Best friend Ginger, the appalling Violet Elizabeth Bott, collecting scrap-iron, capturing German parachutists, daily scrapes and escapades, all of them testament to the transformative power of William’s lurid imagination: we’re in a comedic England, observed with a sharply satiric eye, but the true location, of course, is Boyhood.

6. Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

“It was a warm night and the soft breeze wafting over the Hollywood hills didn’t only bring the acrid smell of wild sage further inland, but blackmail, broads and blood too.”Los Angeles in 1940, as immortalised by Chandler. His plots are unfathomable and so is his city of the angels. Criminally alluring, its noir bars, boulevards and millionaires’ mansions exude an eternal unspecified threat. The literary equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting – and just as unsettling.

7. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Normandy: when Flaubert was writing the novel, he drew maps for himself of his fictional territory. That precision carries over into the narrative, and contributes to the near-photographic exactitude of its locations. By the time you finish it, you know every room of Bovary’s house; you could pinpoint each shop, each neighbour in Yonville. That contributes to the novel’s intensely powerful alchemy: you experience the same claustrophobia as Emma Bovary.

8. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again …” The famous opening sentence of a story told by a famously nameless female narrator. But what is Manderley? A manor house by the sea in Cornwall – or Bluebeard’s castle? In this house, two women are destroyed: a first wife is murdered; a second is stripped of her identity. Freud would have relished this setting: eroticised, threatening, maze-like and haunted, Manderley is a male domain where the chatelaines’ principal function is to produce a male heir. Neither does so. A troubling, heretical place, the heartland of women’s dreams and nightmares.

9. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

All Hardy’s novels are remarkable for the power of his landscapes. He writes like the true poet he is, but with the practical understanding of a countryman too – someone who experienced at first hand the working realities of a rural environment. Egdon Heath, a brooding presence throughout The Return of the Native, first glimpsed lit by bonfires in the astonishing opening chapters, is his most implacable and terrifying landscape.

10. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Paris – but not as we usually see it. An ageing woman, once desired, now adrift, wanders the streets and bars of a city that saw the end of her marriage and the death of her child. This Paris is a ghost town of melancholy streets, cheap restaurants, dubious boites, sexual ennui and intense loneliness. Wry, acerbic, and exquisitely written: in Rhys’s hands, every cheap hotel room, every passing encounter in a cafe or brasserie, becomes haunting.


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