Reading is a way of travelling – a way of expanding our own universe. As George R.R. Martin puts it: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The man who never reads lives only one.’ Curling up with a book may well be a great way to escape as we face further months of travel restrictions, but can what you’re reading today actually persuade you to start planning a trip? As a novelist, I strive to create a powerful sense of place and the books I most admire feature settings so compelling they behave almost like characters in the story. Let me tempt you.
1. ‘Phraxos’ – Greece (The Magus)
John Fowles’s 1965 masterpiece, The Magus, is set mostly on the fictional island of ‘Phraxos’, inspired by the real-life island of Spetses. There, the author spent some time teaching English, just like his young protagonist, Nicholas Urfe. Although ferries and hydrofoils link Spetses to Athens, this is a two-and-a-half-hour trip, to an island with a population of just a few thousand and only one large settlement. No private automobiles are allowed, so the pace of life feels different. Fowles conveys this otherworldliness in captivating prose, describing Spetses’ landscape ‘covered with pine trees, Mediterranean pines as light as greenfinch feathers. Nine-tenths of the island was uninhabited and uncultivated: nothing but pines, coves, Silence, sea.’ Even better, the place seems to be mysteriously alive, with habitations ‘herded into one corner . . . a spectacular agglomeration of snow-white houses around a couple of small harbours.’ Curious readers will, of course want to catch a glimpse of the villa where the book’s antagonist, a man who plays mindgames with the young teacher, lives in the hills. It’s a building with the power to disturb: ‘too reminiscent of the Côte d’Azur, too un-Greek. It stood, white and opulent, like Swiss snow, and made me feel sticky-palmed and uncouth.’ The internet is full of accounts of those who’ve tried to identify the villa, and there are various owners who claim their house is the one. Perhaps the only way to get to the bottom of the mystery is to go there in person, as Nicholas Urfe discovers: ‘The most important questions in life can never be answered by anyone except oneself.’
2. ‘Thornfield Manor’ – Peak District, UK (Jane Eyre)
The Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, created some of the most memorable locations in literature. Emily’s Wuthering Heights and its haunting farmhouse on the Yorkshire Moors are certainly unforgettable but go hunting for the house and you’re likely to be disappointed. A ruined farmhouse called ‘Top Withens’ sits high above the village of Haworth where the sisters lived, but I do not recommend you make the hike there. Far from being lonely, you’ll be one of thousands of tourists, following signs in English and Japanese. Worse, Top Withens’s claim to be the real ‘Wuthering Heights’ is disputed, to the extent that the building’s listed status has been removed.
Instead, why not focus on the equally haunting ‘Thornfield Hall’, from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The passionate affair between a young governess and Mr Edward Rochester is played out in the Hall’s ‘chill and vault-like’ atmosphere. Gothic contrasts between light and darkness, warmth and cold, tease us throughout the book. Jane arrives at a house shrouded by night, where ‘candlelight gleamed from one curtained bow-window.’ That single candle and the house’s ‘three storeys’ become of huge significance when Jane later discovers a hidden member of the household living under the same roof. On her first, innocent day though, ‘early sun’ lights up the hall’s ‘grey front’ which we discover is ‘not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat: battlements round the top.’ This description matches the attractive North Lees Hall, which Charlotte visited several times in 1845, two years before the novel was published. Walking in the Peak District is reward enough in itself, but on this hike, you can glimpse North Lees Hall, and enjoy a valley Charlotte appeared to love.
3. ‘Hamden College’ – Vermont, USA (The Secret History)
If you’re ‘ready to leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime’, then you will want to visit Bennington College, Vermont – the barely-disguised setting for Donna Tartt’s cult classic, The Secret History. Tartt attended Bennington and in her debut novel she skewers its elitism while borrowing its red-brick and white clapboard clock towers to cast a spell on lovers of the campus novel. In the book, we find ourselves as intoxicated by the heady university atmosphere and its dark underside, as Tartt’s main character, self-confessed murderer, Richard is. He’s a student from nowheresville thrust into a ‘country from a dream’ where the sun rises over mountains and birch trees at night rise up ‘in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost.’ Richard has a ‘whitewashed room’ ‘with big north-facing windows, monkish and bare, with scarred oak floors and a ceiling slanted like a garret’s.’
4. Ingolstadt – Germany (Frankenstein)
Mary Shelley’s iconic Promethean tale takes place in various locations around the world, but one of the most fascinating has to be the Old Anatomy Building in Ingolstadt, where Frankenstein studies and brings his pitiful and monstrous creature to life. Now home to the German Medical History Museum, the building was constructed in the early 18th century to house the university medical faculty. Its cornices, pilasters, mansard roof and arcades, and gardens in the Linnaeus tradition, provide visitors with a pleasant prospect that belies the building’s gruesome past, when real experiments on corpses took place. It’s rumoured that the Illuminati was founded here. Shelley does a brilliant job of implanting a sense of place with very few words: ‘white spire’; ‘galleries’; ‘staircase’; ‘solitary chamber’; ‘charnel houses’. The spare description allows us to become as immersed and obsessed as Frankenstein himself with his unholy task.
5. Culbin Forest and the Moray Coast – Scotland (Sea of Bones)
My political and psychological thriller, Sea of Bones, spans the UK, but the place where chief-of-staff Juliet MacGillivray must learn to come to terms with her grief and her own failings is her family’s summerhouse on the Moray coast. Set among pine trees planted to stop coastal erosion, near the site of the lost village of Culbin Sands, Juliet walks among trees feathery with lichen to mudflats where seabirds call. Trace Juliet’s footsteps as she uncovers a disturbing mystery, taking in Macbeth’s Cawdor Castle and the ethereal Elgin Cathedral, known as the Lantern of the North.
6. Sacra di San Michele, Italy (The Name of the Rose)
It may seem perverse to want to visit the Italian monastery that Umberto Eco had in mind when he wrote The Name of the Rose. After all, his book is a medieval murder mystery buried in labyrinthine layers of fictional texts and translation, that deliberately throws into question semiotics, symbols and historicity. But it’s precisely Eco’s clever and atmospheric puzzle-making that makes readers want to go to the heart of the novel. And that heart lies on a rocky mountain top in Piedmont. The 10th century abbey of Sacra di San Michele sheltered a Benedictine community for over 600 years. A local peasant girl threw herself from one of its towers, now named after her. Another ‘attraction’ is the ‘Stairway of the Dead’, adorned with the skeletons of dead monks. Never mind the spectacular Alpine views, perhaps the real draw for booklovers is the monastery’s 10,000-tome library.