Novelist, biographer and editor Margaret Drabble, in collaboration with photographer Jorge Lewinski, here takes us on a nonfiction talking-walking tour of England. She treats us to the ways writers, poets and novelists have written about the English landscape over the centuries. Not a scholarly book, yet not really a popular book either, "A Writer's Britain" perches just a bit uneasily between the two types.
Drabble divides the mass of material into six parts, concluding with a rather mystical and misty-eyed view of her childhood memories of golden landscapes in rural Britain. The introductory section, "Sacred Places," focuses on churches and cathedrals, both ruined and still intact, but it is Sherwood Forest, the quintessential ofrest-as-haven, that comes in for the best dicussion.
The middle four sections of the book are the most interesting. The one called "Landscape as Art" is fascinating, for it discusses English gardens. All Anglophiles and gardeners will be delighted by Drabble's remarks and analyses as the famous and not-so-famous gardens are surveyed.
Another middle portion is devoted to the Romantics. We don't really expect to learn anything new about William Wordsworth and, indeed, we don't get anything more than a quick run past his favorite spots. A curious photograph of Tintern Abbey has the ruin tucked away beneath the graveyard and makes the abbey difficult to see. Surprisingly, though we are treated to a very pleasant appreciation of Dorothy Wordsworth, whose "Journals" have given us the record of her life shared with brother William. The part on the Brontes is filled with over simplified psychological explanation and is not an ornament of the book.
The next portion, "The Industrial Scene," is especially good on how Charles Dickens evoked a horrific landscape in the city (London in chapter one of "Bleak House"), or the industrial town (Coketown in chapter five of "Hard Times"), or the rainy setting of a country house (Chesney Wold in chapter two of "Bleak House"). This section also has a nice discussion of Mrs. Gaskell, writing on the North of England, but Drabble's antipathy to D. H. Lawrence's philosoghy prevents her from giving him a sympathetic treatment.
The photographs interest us in a variety of ways. The mixture of black and whites with color spreads makes us wish for more in full color. Lewinski has not taken standard, picture postcard tourist shots. A view of Penhurst, seat of the Sidney family, shows the great house flanked by two arching trees in the foreground, but unaccountably, there is a very large bull right in the middle of the picture. The shot of the church of Little Gidding, a retreat made famous by Nicholas Ferrar in the 17th century and memorialized forever by T. S. Eliot in "Four Quartets," doesn't give a sense of the small edifice situated in the beautiful rolling hills of Huntingdonshire. There is a catch view of St. Paul's Cathedral in London from across the Thames: Lewinski was in a darkened sitting room and the dome of St. Paul's is centered in a windowpane. Some of the color photographs are truly exciting: The view of the Malvern Hills is extraordinarily beautiful and Lewinski has also caught an absolutely stunning depiction, on a double-page spread, of the mountains of Snowdonia, a source of inspiration of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
This kind of book, of course, always tempts the reviewer to charge the author with omission of this or that. So Drabble should be chastised for leaving out not only Cambridge, but also any discussion or mention of Susan Hill, Penelope Mortimer, Seamus Heaney, Ian Hamilton-Findlay and Pamela Hansford Johnson. And there is no commentary whatsoever on Ireland!
The book is uneven, for some authors don't get enough discussion and others get too much. However, "A Writer's Britain" would make a beautiful gift for people interested either in photography or in English literature. Margaret Drabble, whose novels often feature quirky characters, has written a tolerably quirky book on landscape as described by British writers.