We’ve all heard about “setting as character,” but knowing that it’s a good idea and being able to do it are two different things. I’ve found that a good way to learn how to write well about settings is to study the works of those who excel at it. One summer in England, taking classes in Oxford, and dazzled by the beauty of the colleges and the town, I decided to read books set there, to learn how others described it.
One of the best books describing the Oxford of its period is Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, 1935 (one of my favorite mysteries). Read the book and view the luscious video! (For more on Dorothy Sayers, http://www.sayers.org.uk/). Another is, of course, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, 1944, which paints a glorious picture of Oxford in the 1920s. (Don’t miss the original television series, featuring among others, Jeremy Irons.) Mind you, the Oxford accommodations we saw had little in common with the luxurious rooms described by either Waugh or Sayers. But the beautiful city with its splendid architecture can’t be ruined, even though Cornmarket Street is lined with U.S. fast food outlets.
Antonia Fraser’s Oxford Blood, 1985, a mystery set in Oxford, is in some ways, a 1980s sequel to Brideshead. Oxford Blood has interesting twists, including its concept, but it also has serious flaws—for example, the murderer is not exposed by the detection of the heroine, but caught because he strikes again. Still, Fraser’s Oxford—that of a “golden lad,” Viscount Saffron—is as opulent and richly decorated as Waugh’s Oxford.
J.C. Masterman’s 1933 Oxford Tragedy, is a successful mystery, and it includes well-written settings:
Only a Philistine of the first water could fail to be impressed by the beauty of the dining-hall of St. Thomas’s. The long tables and benches almost black with age, the lights on the tables which left the great space above dark and mysterious, the beautiful sixteenth-century roof, now only dimly seen, the rows of stately portraits along the walls; the high table where the silver showed white against the background of the bare oak table beneath it—all these made up a picture, which no amount of familiarity could ever make other than a marvel of beauty to my eyes.
… there is no place more pleasant than Common Room, no hour more wholly pleasurable than that spent in it immediately after dinner. For here the Fellows of St. Thomas’s, having dined, settled down to enjoy the comfort of port and dessert, of coffee and cigars. I had come, as I grew older, to look forward all day to that hour in the evening which I most enjoyed. The good wine, the flow of conversation, the ritual of the table at once dignified and almost stately and yet homely as well, exercised a soothing effect on my nerves and filled me with a sense of physical and mental well-being… life there suited itself to my every mood. If I felt festive and sociable there were always others ready to meet me halfway. If on the other hand a black shadow of pessimism was on me, the room seemed to attune itself to me. I thought of it then as the home of a multitude of my predecessors—who had drunk their wine and lived their short lives there since the foundation of the college.
The narrator’s admiration of his surroundings and his respect for the company he finds there is almost destroyed when he learns that one of his colleagues has been murdered, almost certainly by another colleague. The contrast between how he sees the setting before and after the murder is most effective.
I didn’t like one of the best known mysteries set in Oxford. It has what I consider a major flaw. Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, 1946, is more farce than mystery, and is often silly. Stripped of all the waggery, dopey exclamations (“Oh my paws!), boring repartee, chase scenes, nude bathing, etc., the plot of The Moving Toyshop is mildly interesting, although it relies on too many coincidences. Despite its flaws, Crispin’s descriptions of Oxford are exquisite:
Through a rift in the trees he caught his first real glimpse of Oxford—in that ineffectual moonlight, an underwater city, its towers and spires standing ghostly, like the memorials of lost Atlantis fathoms deep…in the quiet air he heard faintly a single bell beating one o’clock, the precursor of others which joined in brief phantom chime, like the bells of the sunken cathedral in Breton myths rocked momentarily by the green deep-water currents, and then silent.
And a little later:
Out of the grey light came a gold morning. The leaves were beginning to fall from the trees in the Parks in St. Giles’, but they still made a brave show of bronze and yellow and malt-brown. The grey maze of Oxford—from the air, it resembles nothing so much as a maze—began to stir itself…shops opened and buses ran; the streets were thronged with traffic. All over the city, in college and belfries, the mechanism of clocks whirred, clanged and struck nine o’clock, in a maddening, jagged syncopation of conflicting tempo and timbre.
Because the book is so silly, the marvelous settings seem discordant. It’s as if two different authors wrote it, one who devised the idiotic characters and flawed plot, and another who so beautifully described Oxford. Still, anyone interested in Oxford should at least skim this book to read Crispin’s descriptions of the world in and around Oxford.
Crispin, Edmund. The Moving Toyshop, 1946.
Fraser, Antonia. Oxford Blood, 1985.
Masterman, J.C. Oxford Tragedy, 1933.
Sayers, Dorothy. Gaudy Night, 1935.
Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited, 1944.