The romance and horror of the navigable world
I amuse myself by finding patterns in and between the books I tumble into, or stumble over, or on occasion drag myself through, grumbling. Lately, I have been able to gather many of them loosely with a theme I think of as the romance of the navigable world.
These books do not shatter or rebuild the world; instead, they share the pleasant and dangerous fiction that the rules of the world can be learned. It is a dream that unites aviation histories and Regency romances, crime fiction, and business development guides.
I noticed it first in the novels—a spate of melodramas and murders, set in worlds where dress and reputation, expectations and manners all have consequences as immediate and unavoidable as gravity. Whether country houses or paparazzi-ridden theatrical districts, these are self-contained universes, fascinating as a painted backdrop, but robust enough to contain and push back against the characters. And the bouncing—or breaking—of characters against those boundaries gives these stories impetus, whether to comic or tragic effect.
It powers the finely sprung engines of Georgette Heyer’s Georgian-era adventures (most recently I read Charity Girl (1970)), whose characters thread careful paths between propriety and disaster. It manifests in the social media gauntlet run by the thespians of Lucy Parker’s London Celebrities romances (2015—2020), and—more gently—in the deceptively quiet country setting into which the bored party girl of Margery Sharp’s The Flowering Thorn (1934) transplants herself.
The murder mysteries amplified this consciousness of the world. Beyond clocks and timetables, clues and red herrings, they are built on fraught and trembling webs of keenly observed social tensions—beautiful, complicated dances of human pride and personality. A prime example is Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison (1930), in which detective Lord Peter Wimsey first encounters accused murderer and writer-sleuth Harriet Vane, not to forget the rather rollicking path trampled through social and actual laws in Sarah Caudwell’s novel of hapless barristers, Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981).
The pattern continued in books more concerned with natural laws: fairy-tales of steel and gravity, circulatory systems and self-improvement. These proved, after all, to be fantasies of a person being able to understand such things at a moment in time. They included the currents and gusts of early flying lessons in T. H. White’s England Have My Bones (1936) and the even earlier aviation experimentation in Richard Holmes’ history of ballooning, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (2013). Add to this Shastra Deo’s poetry collection The Agonist (2017), with its fascination for the visceral, luminous poetry of the body and the medical language used to describe it. The authors of a number of creativity and business texts also appeared to believe their books dealt with immutable truths.
In the space between their covers, the world makes sense.
This, on its own, is an enchanting idea.
There are other charms held by these books, of course. There is, for example, the language. The recreation of a world in which character and reader can become competent requires a loving eye for its details. This makes a space for lyricism, not merely for aesthetic reasons but for the meaning and importance those details (of dress or the angle of a wing, tone of voice or name of a bone) acquire when they push back against the people moving among them.
I also love the structures that emerge in stories which believe the world must operate a certain way—grand antagonists are not always necessary. A puzzle may be enough to sustain a plot, or a very slight disorder may send characters scrambling to set it to rights or simply to keep ahead of the rippling and inevitable consequences. There is, too, the pleasure of growing to know a certain world better than a character (who is eternally experiencing it for the first time), and being able watch their progress with more amused affection than anxiety, and of learning to game a system, whether to subvert it for justice or simply to cheat.
And I am endlessly lured by the tutorials these books offer the reader in the mysteries of human interactions, the spells of manners or words that might help to evade or achieve a particular end, the everyday magic (the deep kindness and violence) of speech. The security and even power that comes with learning the rules of the world can be vastly intriguing to read or, as in Flyaway (2020), to write.
For while a navigable world is a pleasant fiction, it is also a dangerous one.
There is the danger of breaking rules, of being among those the rules are not designed for, and the horror of rules that exist but are as-yet unknown—the last emerged in the folk horror I’ve been reading, such as Paul Cornell’s Thatcher-era Chalk (2007), and in Shaun Tan’s surreal picture book Rules of Summer (2013).
Reading so many books which fit this pattern, however, I also began to feel keenly the dangers of these stories en masse—especially since so many share similar cultural backgrounds.
Compelling as it is to become expert in navigating them, the beauty of these worlds invoked a deep nostalgia. Besides this, I know myself that when I’ve worked out the rules of a game and know how to win it, I’m likely to resist changes that will benefit other players—the same may apply on a larger scale. Some stories did use this resistance to change for distinct elegiac effects—the tides of history and technology sweeping narrator and reader onward, leaving the protagonist and story anchored in a receding distance. Many of the books I have mentioned, however, belong to or underpin genres that have tended to the conservative.
(As an aside, I have clearly, for assorted reasons, been reading a lot of mid-century genres-of-manners. But part of the game of pattern-finding is to loop in as many books as possible, and I don’t want to leave out Kim Scott’s Taboo (2017), which broke open the rather claustrophobic effect of this particular pattern. It is by no means a romance of the navigable world, or even a tragedy, although it is about tragedy. Taboo, however, does consider the shapes made by artificial imposed orders, and the consequences for people who choose to, or will not or cannot use those systems to their advantage—while also partially unmaking those systems.)
But genres move and change, as anything living must. These reliably navigable worlds—the idea, the conceit, the threat of them—are fragile as a porcelain figure.
Even subtly, brittleness is built into them. Rose-coloured as the stories may be, the worlds are rarely utopian, and even in some of my favourite novels the literary gymnastics the author engages in to create the fairy tale are not always graceful. I am excessively fond of Eva Ibbotson’s upstairs/downstairs romantic comedy A Countess Below Stairs (1981), but there is some complicated footwork involved in setting up the necessary air of enchantment in a book that begins in an atmosphere of extreme wealth on the evening of a revolution.
And in the most scientific of cases, the world as it is described is temporary. It can only be filtered through the human experience of it, at a particular point in time. The mapping of earthquakes and the means of getting out of the air and onto the ground are bounded and defined by politics and technology, culture and personality, and are short-lived in any given form—they are, ultimately, just as temporary and temporal as the significance of the proper length of evening gloves, or the imperative of obtaining vouchers to Almack’s.
The unavoidable, fleeting, and particular humanity of all these books is, for me, their greatest charm. One of my favourite quick-reference books is The Ladybird Book of Trees (1963, by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, illustrated by S. R. Badmin), with its filigrees of branch patterns and its ‘correct, clear and interesting text’. I have more detailed art reference books, but the charm of this one is how clearly it is what Badmin saw and Vesey-Fitzgerald thought, when they looked at English landscapes in the early 1960s. It is just as much a snapshot of a moment in time as is David J. Schwartz’s The Magic of Thinking Big (1959), which gives uncanny insight into the experience of being an ambitious salesman in mid-century, middle-class, college-educated, suburban, white America. The same could be said of Marjorie Hillis’ judgemental and lively Live Alone and Like It (1936) which, while being advice for single women in Depression-era New York, manages to feel like a collection of miniature bohemian novels and turns out to be the better business guide for the creative freelancer.
My favourite aspect of these books, however, with all their prejudices and failings, is the respect they bring to both the physical surfaces and the concealed mechanics of the world (human and otherwise). I do appreciate the enchantment of functional objects and competent people. But more so, I am fascinated by the vigour of books that appreciate the functionality and power of things that might otherwise be dismissed merely as enchanting.
I did read some of these books for the comfort of returning as a reader to a familiar and well-mapped world. But looking back at this particular array of volumes, with all their problems and preoccupations, I am thrilled again by the sense of physical engagement with all aspects of a clockwork world, and by the potential to raise to narrative prominence stories about the parts of life that are not always seen as significant in the broader swathe of literary history. This might be the study of birdsong or the correct deployment of tweed, but when reading them as a writer, the possibilities, the lessons, and the scope for the imagination reach, quietly and powerfully, far further.
Kathleen Jennings is a Ditmar Award–winning writer and World Fantasy Award–winning illustrator based in Brisbane. In 2020 her Australian Gothic debut Flyaway was published by Picador and Tor.com, and her poetry collection Travelogues: vignettes from trains in motion was published by Brain Jar Press. She is online at tanaudel.wordpress.com (blog) and kathleenjennings.com (portfolio).