There is a very simple question, about literary maps: what exactly do they do? What do they do that cannot be done with words, that is; because, if it can be done with words, then maps are superfluous. Take Bakhtin’s essay on the chronotope: it is the greatest study ever written on space and narrative, and it doesn’t have a single map. Carlo Dionisotti’s Geografia e storia della letteratura italiana, the same. Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, the same. Henri Lafon’s Espaces romanesques du XVIIIe siècle . . . Do maps add anything, to our knowledge of literature?
Village stories were a popular British genre of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, peaking with Mary Mitford’s Our Village, published in five volumes between 1824 and 1832. The village was Three Mile Cross, in Berkshire (figure 1, below), a dozen miles south of Reading, on the road to Hampshire; and the road is explicitly foregrounded in Mitford’s opening sketch, where it also forms the basis for her presentation of the village as one house after another along a ‘straggling, winding street’. So you think, ‘Yonville’,footnote1 and imagine this village of two or three hundred people as a mere site of transit between larger places (Effi Briest: ‘no, the Gdansk–Berlin express does not stop here . . .’). Easy.
Then you make a map of the book, and everything changes. The twenty-four stories of Mitford’s first volume, figure 2 shows, arrange themselves in a little solar system, with the village at the centre of the pattern, and two roughly concentric rings around it. The first ring is closer to the village, and focuses largely on personal relationships (‘Ellen’, ‘Hannah’, ‘Cousin Mary’); the second ring, more numerous, is at a distance of a couple of miles, and emphasizes natural spectacles (‘Frost and thaw’, ‘Violeting’, ‘The first primrose’), plus collective events like cricket and maying. But in both cases the road ‘from B– to S–’, so present at the beginning of the book, has disappeared: narrative space is not linear here, it is circular. Which is surprising: while mapping nineteenth-century genres for the Atlas of the European Novel I encountered all sorts of shapes—linear trajectories, binary fields, triangulations, multi-polar stories—but never a circular pattern. Where on earth do these rings come from?
John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730–1840:
There is a sense in which an open-field parish in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries [which is exactly what the one in Our Village is like] could be said to have a different geography according to who was looking at it: thus, for those of its inhabitants who rarely went beyond the parish boundary, the parish itself was so to speak at the centre of the landscape . . . For those inhabitants accustomed to moving outside it, however, and for those travellers who passed through it, the parish was . . . defined not by some circular system of geography but by a linear one.footnote2