Still Life was my favourite volume of AS Byatt’s Frederica Potter quartet, and because the author and the central family are from Yorkshire I probably gave it more leeway than I otherwise would. However, since Frederica is doing English at Cambridge for the duration of the novel, there are passages (as there are throughout the series) which assume an intimate knowledge of the ‘greats’ of English Literature, some of which I’ve barely heard of. In case this sounds like the flipside of those people who really annoy me by boasting of their mathematical inadequacies, I’ll reiterate my fondness for Anthony Trollope and remind everyone that I do read a lot, it’s just that most of it probably wasn’t on 1950s Oxbridge reading lists for English Lit. I’m often mistrustful of the so-called greats, the cynic in me assumes it’s a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes until I’ve satisfied myself otherwise: people say Shakespeare is good because other people said so before them and they don’t want to look like philistines. So I read Byatt’s words, undoubtedly missed a variety of allusions and themes (though nothing vital to the plot, as far as I could tell), and pitied the working class character from Sheffield who feels compelled to read Shakespeare because his father-in-law looks down on him for not doing.
The other aspect of a central character doing English at Cambridge is the university itself. Like military or police ranks (I need something more than calling one man Detective Inspector and another Detective Sergeant to make me understand which one’s in charge, I have on occasion found out but it refuses to lodge in my brain), Oxbridge colleges and customs are somehow assumed (particularly in Literature) to be universally understood in England. None of my friends went to either, I have no first-hand experience (except a one-day conference at Cambridge a few years ago) and no particular interest in them, and if (as Byatt does in Still Life) you mention the name of a college but not which of the two institutions it belongs to, I will be none the wiser, thus spending a short time in confusion if this is an important point. I could of course do a five minute search on the internet and come away enlightened but somehow I think that’s missing the point (and not possible if I’m in the bath) – I feel I should be able to read a novel and pick up all the important facts from within its world, not from my own head or a reference book.
A similar thing holds with locations. I’ve set a few stories in a loose kind of way in places I’ve lived, often using the street-map as an anchor in my head; John Braine seems to have done that in Room at the Top, conjuring visions of Bingley (where he had lived and so have I) in my head with his descriptions of the fictional Warley but not sticking exactly to it. Being exact about location risks alienating outsiders by assuming an offhand reference is enough for them to understand a variety of facts about the situation, which you then rely on. I admit that I have a Northern chip on my shoulder, mere mention of London is often enough to get my hackles rising, but I do get annoyed at all the London-based fiction which references street-names, shops, landmarks as though the reader ought to recognise and be informed by them, and I’m wary of doing that myself.
If I was feeling generous I’d say that all those London writers aren’t being arrogant and assuming we all know London like the back of our rough Northern hands, they’re just writing from the heart and they don’t care if we all get all the references. When someone mentions without detail a person, place, film, play, song, book or painting in a piece of fiction, as long as it’s not integral to the plot it doesn’t matter if half the audience shrug and pass over it; the other half will get an extra layer of meaning, a shared moment of understanding, and an insight into the author. It’s only when an author assumes that because we read literary fiction we must also know the plots of every Shakespeare play that we’re in trouble. Or that because they mention St Paul’s we’ll all know what other landmarks the character can see.
So if you’ve never been to West Yorkshire, never seen Billy Liar, This Sporting Life, The History Boys or LA Without a Map, let alone despaired over a half-century of bad planning in Bradford city centre or marvelled at the remaining architectural gems, I won’t hold it against you, and I’ll try not to shut you out.