- Reviewed by
The complete title of W. J. Keith's new book encapsulates both the virtues and the failings of its argument. In Regions of the Imagination: The Development of British Rural Fiction, Keith defines regional fiction as a tradition separable from historical, realistic, local, romantic, provincial, and other kinds of fiction, all of that overlap with Keith's concept of regional fiction in at least some specific works. The word regional, however, carries with it a number of unflattering connotations which are hard to overlook. Although the audiors Keith cites do form a group with recognizable common characteristics, he must attempt to articulate those characteristics in a semantic minefield. The word imagination in the title, however, points to Keith's effective insistence that the techniques and concerns of romance can be just as germane to the success of regional fiction as are realistic concerns.
Regional fiction, according to Keith's working definition, comprises "all those novels, irrespective of their verisimilitude or romantic leanings, that present a locality distinctive in its character and related (at however great an imaginative remove) to a corresponding countryside identifiable on a map of the United Kingdom." Although this definition seems straightforward enough, Keith soon [End Page 682] complicates it by adding one more test: the region in question must, for his purposes, be rural. Thus, whereas Hardy's Wessex is a prime example (one might say the central example) of such a literary region, Dickens' London is not. Professor Keith must, of course, limit his project as he sees fit, but I wonder if some other term than regional might have better served his purpose.
The term regional fiction also raises a spectre of marginalization for those who have seen how many writers of fiction—particularly women writers—have had their works belittlingly called regional. Keith himself performs valuable acts of reconstruction in serious discussions of Constance Holme, Sheila Kaye-Smith, and Mary Webb, but he fails to confront the way in which the tradition he outlines and admires has been scorned in the past. Whereas he is conscious of, among other things, Scott's and Hardy's absence from F. R. Leavis' "great tradition," Keith does not directly address the peculiarly pejorative use of the term regional in the assessment of women writers.
Keith's most valuable assertion criticizes the realistic bias of much earlier writing on regionalism. Topographical accuracy alone does not achieve the strong sense of place we expect in regional fiction. We gain just as much regional consciousness from the curse of the Ravenswoods in Scott's Bride of Lammermoor as from Hardy's description of the relentlessly mechanical harvesting procedure in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Both realistic and romantic details have their place in defining a "region of the imagination."
The authors whom Keith groups together in Regions of the Imagination do form a satisfyingly coherent tradition, even if that coherence is more practical than theoretical. Keith includes discussions not only of standard authors such as Scott, Emily Brontë, Eliot, Hardy, and Lawrence, but of lesser-known writers who are just now being reexamined: R. D. Blackmore, Eden Philpotts, Sheila Kaye-Smith, Mary Webb, and John Cowper Powys. Keith's wide reading, clear style, and sympathetic discussion make this book valuable in offering new contexts for works familiar and unfamiliar, realistic and romantic. [End Page 683]