The Geography of Character

When most effective, the world inhabited by fictional characters strikes the reader as a concrete place and expresses the characters’ shifting emotional states.

In The Author’s Craft, Arnold Bennett describes a street as “a mirror, an illustration, an exposition, an explanation, of the human beings who live in it.”

In other words, in a novel: A street is never just a street.

Bennett’s referring most directly to the novice writer’s tendency to pin down a place’s blunt reality and let its telling details slip away – unnoticed, unseen, unremarked. It’s not only French streets that are “full of character” to English eyes, he admonishes, but also the streets of “Manchester, Leeds, Hull and Henley,” no matter their numbing familiarity.

So-called “realistic” novels that better belong to the 19th century (though they do experience a happy revival from time to time) put their faith in photography-like observations. More contemporary works – besides incorporating fewer exclamation points, a trait Bennett’s novels seems to have shared with that of Upton Sinclair – prefer select details that tantalizingly suggest the whole in the manner of impressionism.

The point stands nonetheless: How can writers effectively portray the world if they can’t even see it? More contemporary writers would add: How can readers experience any truth of the world if they don’t see it through the eyes of specific characters? It’s all relative.

Einstein first published on relativity in 1905, developing, refining and building upon the ideas of others. In the same way, new writing techniques and movements don’t spring forth spontaneously – fully formed from Zeus’s skull as the Greeks would have it. They must be present, even if implicitly so, in the works of earlier writers and thinkers, who leave it to successors to the make omelettes from their predecessors’ unhatched eggs.

For Bennett, the geography of character is shaped by but does not fully infuse the geography of place. He nonetheless draws a strong connection between the two, one that he encountered in life as well as art.

In The Old Wives’ Tale, protagonists Constance and Sophia occupy not only concentric geographic realities – in their case, England, the county, the district, the Five Towns and, finally, the square – they are effectively circumscribed by their own conflicting sense of wants and duties.

For his two sisters, coming of age means cleaving to geography most genuinely expressive of innate character.

Bennett writes in his preface to the novel that “Constance was the original, Sophia was created out of bravado…” but he might also be talking about himself: He might have stayed in the Five Towns and followed the original path laid down by his father, settling into the law with time; instead, driven at first by nothing but bravado, failure nipping at his heels, he followed his own future to the “desert-like freedom of great cities.”

In turn, Constance spends her life in Bursley, while Sophia’s “passionate” nature compels her to follow in her creator’s footsteps. She escapes the Five Towns first to London and then to Paris. (Adam Gopnik, in Paris to the Moon, the chronicle of another such odyssey, observes that “you can run away” but “you can’t run away from yourself.”)

The true geography guiding Sophia’s life remains that of her own intransigent temperament, founded on “haughty moral independence,” and even more so, the Baines character, newly valuable when set against disorientingly unfamiliar terrain. Paris provokes the emergence of familial traits as a “continual antidote against the general madness” surrounding her.

Later in the novel, across the span of years, Sophia finds much to admire in a letter from her unchanged sister, the diplomatic entreaty of the ambassador from home:

Constance personified for her the qualities of the Baines family. Constance’s letter was a great letter, a perfect letter, perfect in its artlessness; the natural expression of the Baines character at its best… [and] Sophia was convinced that no one but a Baines could have written such a letter.

She felt that she must rise to the height of that letter, that she too must show her Baines blood. And she went primly to her desk, and began to write (on private notepaper) in that imperious large hand of hers that was so different from Constance’s….She finished the letter in a blaze of love, and passed from it as from a dream to the sterile banality of the daily life of the Pension Frensham, feeling that, compared to Constance’s affection, nothing else had any worth.

In the end, Sophia has lived the life of a Baines in Paris – not the Paris, for there is no such place, but a particular Paris, Sophia’s Paris. That city, no matter its undeniable “bright, clean, glittering” loveliness, she reflects from afar, never offered her a beautiful life, only the echo of “regular, placid beauty” that has “passed into history.”

At the same time, it’s tempting to imagine what this “racehorse…quivering with delicate, sensitive, and luxuriant life” might have done with the Paris of Lambert Strether, laid out banquet-style in Henry James’s The Ambassadors.

Might not Sophia, had she been set free to roam Strether’s “vast bright Babylon,” have tasted something in the air, “something mixed with art, something that presented nature as a white-capped master-chef”? Would not the “cup of [her] impressions,” too, have “seemed truly to overflow?”

Bennett reportedly didn’t feel he could rescue Sophia from the fate decreed by her own Englishness, her Baines-ness, but D.H. Lawrence could and would. According to Bennett biographer Margaret Drabble, Lawrence conceived his 1920 novel The Lost Girl as “a deliberate attempt to find some other sexual emancipation for the Sophia-type: his draper’s daughter becomes neither a landlady nor a courtesan, but finds her sexual salvation, in true Lawrentian style, by running off to Italy with an Italian actor.”

A little more than decade after the novel’s publication, Bennett himself “ran off” with an English actress.

Then again, Sophia’s Paris isn’t James’ Paris. What’s more, it isn’t actually Bennett’s Paris, for she’s his elder and not his contemporary. Bennett’s Paris, an untouchable fantasia, appears before Sophia like a hot air balloon – literally in The Old Wives’ Tale – born up on gusts of hope and exhilaration that are not quite her own. It comes down again all too quickly, yanked back to the earth by the fixed plumb line of the past.

Image: 1908 Paris Air Show.

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