16

All place names in Charlotte Brontë's The Professor appear to be obscured. A few examples from the novel's first chapter:

That gentleman and Lord T. knew well enough that the Crimsworths were an unscrupulous and determined race; they knew also that they had influence in the borough of X——; and, making a virtue of necessity, they consented to defray the expenses of my education.

...

I asked, moreover, if he could give me employment. His answer expressed no approbation of my conduct, but he said I might come down to ——shire, if I liked, and he would ‘see what could be done in the way of furnishing me with work.’ I repressed all—even mental comment on his note—packed my trunk and carpet-bag, and started for the North directly.

...

“After two days’ travelling (railroads were not then in existence) I arrived, one wet October afternoon, in the town of X——.

Why is that? Is this peculiarity specific to Brontë, or a wider convention?

  • 8
    I recall from a college class that this tic of obscuring names (usually the names of people) was supposed to make it look as if the novel was actually reporting on real events, so the writer was trying to protect the reputation of real people. I don't have a source for that, however. – Lauren Ipsum Mar 6 '17 at 10:51
  • 7
    This is a wider convention -- I've seen it used often, including to recreate the feeling of this period and style -- but I don't know its meaning or origin. I've always assumed it's to give a sense of being a real place, but without being insulting or sensational towards an actual place -- and/or, to avoid committing to a real place in the first place :) – Standback Mar 6 '17 at 10:52
  • 2
    So, it's not a case of the editor forgetting to fill in the blanks then @Standback? ;) – user8 Mar 6 '17 at 10:55
  • 2
    This 2007 MetaFilter thread discusses, with links to older discussion threads and sources. ask.metafilter.com/72590/Why-censor-town-names – Spagirl Mar 6 '17 at 11:01
  • 3
    It's pretty common in XIX and XVIII century Russian literature as well. The first comment by @LaurenIpsum is pretty much correct in this case - Pushkin, for instance, obscured the names of certain characters (who may have been inspired by his acquaintances). – Gallifreyan Mar 6 '17 at 11:52
12

Is this peculiarity specific to Brontë, or a wider convention?

It's most definitely a wider convention. There are hundreds of books from the same era - not only in English literature; Dostoevsky did it too - which obscure place names, personal names, or even dates in this way. And it seems there are almost as many different reasons for doing so: the more I research this topic, the more possible explanations I find. I'll summarise some of the potential reasons here and then give a list of links for further reading.

  • To make it feel as though the author is reporting real events which need to be redacted. Imagine if the novel was about real people and places; some of the names might then need to be redacted in order to preserve the anonymity of those involved. By including such redactions in fiction, the author is giving the readers a subtle impression of authenticity - and perhaps even of scandalousness: "ooh, what's being described here is so exciting that they can't even reveal the names involved! this must be juicy gossip!"

    Sometimes this conceit of preserving the anonymity of (fictional) people or places is even mentioned explicitly. In Treasure Island, for instance, the coordinates of the island are often mentioned but never explicitly stated; supposedly this is because the story is a true one and the narrator wants to prevent anyone else from finding the island and going to seek the treasure.

  • To avoid having to do detailed research into a real place. If the author had used the names of real locations, they would have had to either research those locations and make sure to get every detail correct, or report on them inaccurately. The former would have been a lot of work, and the latter might have been seen as undesirable or bad writing. (Personally I enjoy reading books which describe real places accurately, and I try to do the same in my own writing. But then I have the advantage of Google Maps and Street View, enabling me to actually look around a town and describe its layout and buildings; Victorian-era authors were less fortunate in this regard.) Nobody wants to be inundated with angry letters from readers about how these two streets don't actually join or how there's no family of this name in this village.

    Another possibility, of course, would have been to make up imaginary place names and use those instead. Naturally, this has also been done by many authors, and in many different ways. Leaving aside the obvious case of fantasy fiction set in entirely imaginary worlds, even an imaginary location has to be set somewhere in the real world. Thus we have the fictional Midlands town of Middlemarch, the fictional English county of Barsetshire, the fictional Northern town of Coketown - and that's in 19th-century English literature alone.

  • To make the novel more broadly appealing by avoiding specifying its setting. A novel set in a particular, specified, place or time might be most appealing to readers who know the place well or live in the same time, but by avoiding specifics, an author might enable everyone (or at least, a wider group of people) to identify with the story equally well. If a book is set in Manchester, then people who don't live in Manchester must perforce view the story from a distance, and people who hate Manchester might not even read it; if it's set in X——, then hey, that could be my town!

    (Again, this argument is one that appeals to me personally. One of the main reasons fantasy is my favourite genre is that it throws off the shackles of real society and doesn't affect the prejudices of readers. If I read a book in which, say, the hero is part of a real-world organisation which I dislike, that's likely to spoil it for me; but in a wholly imaginary world, my prejudices will affect my experience less.)

  • As a little nod and interesting tidbit for readers 'in the know'. Sometimes a location can be redacted but still described so that anyone who's familiar with its general surroundings can work out exactly where it is. I've heard that this is possible in Crime and Punishment - street names have been censored, but anyone who knew St. Petersburg could easily tell which street was being described. This enables some readers to get an extra buzz from 'sharing a secret' with the author, while not lessening the experience for those who aren't in the know.

    Some authors also achieved this effect by describing real places but giving them fictional names. Thomas Hardy was a notable example: for anyone who knows England, his "Christminster" is very obviously Oxford, his "Casterbridge" is Dorchester, and so on (see also this post). Another example is Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, a thinly veiled sketch of her childhood home Knutsford. Sometimes this makes the first point above a more real issue: descriptions are redacted because they actually are of real people and places, not just because the author wants to give that impression. An amusing example of this is in Lorna Moon's novel Doorways in Drumorty, which uses the fictional town of Drumorty to paint a picture of her own home town of Strichen; the residents of Strichen were so scandalised that her book was banned in the local library there!

References:

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy