‘Nothing can happen nowhere,’ Elizabeth Bowen once remarked, in a memorable if strikingly inelegant phrase. ‘The locale of the happening always colours the happening and often, to a degree, shapes it.’ Gillian Tindall takes this aphorism, if such it is, as the starting point for her immensely erudite exploration of the terrain that has influenced French and English literature for two hundred years. Her ‘countries’ encompass the countryside, towns and even houses, most poignantly, perhaps, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead, part Castle Howard, in fact, part Madresfield Court. Country houses, with their ‘memory of repositories of youthful dreams,’ she sees as ‘spiritual mansions of the soul’. Cities, on which she is already something of an authority (Bombay and London have supplied diverse material for her own non-fiction), are identified as metaphors both for alienation and hope, just as, in so many novels, the rural landscape has come to represent regret for an often mythical golden age.
‘My central concern is not with actual landscapes and dwellings,’ she explains, ‘surviving or banished, but with what these physical settings have become in the minds of novelists’. She is concerned with the literary uses to which places are put and the meanings they are made to bear. She believes