How to Read a Novel: Week #4

Part four potted

ACRAT CoverI have completed the fourth and final week of my online course, How to Read a Novel (with the University of Edinburgh), in which we turned our attention to setting. We looked at the impact a novel’s geographical setting has on its plot or mood – whether town or country, local or abroad, detailed or vague.

In addition to reading short extracts from various books, we particularly scrutinized excerpts from Jo Baker’s dramatic novel A Country Road, A Tree, where setting plays a crucial role.

Here is a condensed record of my activities over the past week:

4.1 – 4.20 >> SETTING >>

Introduction to setting: In a short video, Lead Educator Dr Alex Lawrie introduced us to the theme of setting. We were asked to consider what impact a novel’s location has on its characters and plot.

Set the scene: We looked at the influence geographical setting has on a novel’s plot or mood, and at the relationship between environment and character, i.e. how an individual’s disposition might be linked to their surroundings. We were asked to upload a photograph of where we live to the Flickr album How to Read a Novel (#FL Novel) and suggest what sort of novel might be set there. Alternatively, we were given the opportunity to choose a different location and match it to a plot. I felt that my rural home would probably make a good setting for a children’s mystery or an old-fashioned whodunnit.

City novels: In her video, Dr Alex Lawrie used examples from James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to show how city settings can become integral to the workings of a plot. She explained how carefully mapped journeys can build up a realistic picture of a city, and ensure that characters bump into each other, allowing the narrative focus to transfer from one person to another.

Environment and atmosphere: In her video, Dr Lawrie talked about the way relatively anonymous urban settings can still evoke a distinct atmosphere. She explained that authors such as Jane Austen and George Eliot paint a convincing picture of rural life by offering thousands of small details about fictional villages.

Space and mood: We turned our attention to the rather less tangible category of ‘space’ to consider the type of mood or tone that is evoked by the environment. In particular, the impact a setting might have on a character’s perception of their circumstances, or how the environment might affect an individual’s mood or general condition. For example, in what way might a change of scenery trigger a transformation in their circumstances? Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 novel Madame Bovary was used to illustrate this point.

Environment and character: We saw that some authors use of setting works in a different way: rather than an individual thinking about their environment in a certain way because of their mood, the backdrop can instil the novel with a specific atmosphere, and this in turn underscores, or draws out, key aspects of a character’s personality. This was highlighted by reading from Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights.

Environment as a plot device: We considered the many famous authors who have chosen rural settings for their novels, and just like the Brontë sisters with West Yorkshire, became firmly linked with that part of the country. Thomas Hardy, for instance, set so many of his books in Wessex, he is now synonymous with the area. We also looked at the specific changes a physical environment can enact on a character, such as the American novelist Henry James who set many of his novels in Europe. Similarly, E.M. Forster’s stories often took place in foreign countries, triggering a sexual transformation in his English characters.

How much have you learnt about setting? We took a slight breather with a quiz, in which some of the questions referred to ideas we’ve examined in the context of setting.



Overview of A Country Road, A Tree: We applied our understanding of setting to Jo Baker’s 2016 historical novel, A Country Road, A Tree, in which Samuel Beckett’s experiences in France during the Second World War are recreated. Setting is central to this book, and the ways in which various places are depicted give us a great deal of information about the condition of Europe at the time, as well as the mindset of characters.

Paris in wartime: We examined Jo Baker’s description of Paris under Nazi occupation in the summer of 1941. In addition to the city’s layout, she offers us a glimpse of the sensations and memories evoked by what Beckett sees, and his consequent fears for the future.

Evoking an atmosphere: In the second half of the novel, Beckett and his girlfriend,
Suzanne, stay just outside Roussillon, in Vaucluse, south-east France (the young playwright having once again joined the Resistance). By reading excerpts from the novel, we learn that a journey Beckett makes to pick-up explosives leaves him disorientated due to a lack of recognisable landmarks or signposts. This provides a good example of how a vague and indeterminate setting can evoke an atmosphere – in this case, one that is dangerous, clandestine and utterly exhausting.

Space and mindset: We returned to the concept of ‘space’ and the way in which a character’s mindset might come to affect the way they perceive their environment. Jo Baker makes use of this to good effect: as we see from her description of the coastal town of Greystones, County Wicklow, at the start of the novel.

Setting and tone – your turn: For this assignment we were invited to read through a passage from the novel and formulate our own responses. We were asked to gauge the tone of the excerpt and to determine Beckett’s state of mind. Also, to ascertain what other effects were produced – for instance, what was the impact of two lines taken from the middle of Dover Beach, the 1867 poem by Matthew Arnold? We were encouraged to draw on specific examples to support our analysis, and to write our answers in English, using no more than 250 words.

Review another learner’s assignment: Once we had submitted our own assignment, we were given the opportunity to read the response of another learner and provide them with constructive feedback.

Reflect on your feedback: We were able to read reviews of our own work from others on the course.

Locations in the novel: We were asked how successful we felt Jo Baker’s various descriptions were in creating a specific tone for her novel.

Meet the author: We watched an interview with Jo Baker in which she reflected on her experience of writing the novel, with a special emphasis on setting, the creation of Beckett the character, and the novel’s prose style. Finally, we were asked how important we thought accuracy is in novels that are based on real people and events. Which is more important, the truth or the story?

Book club: This was an opportunity to share our thoughts about the book with the rest of the learning community. We were asked if there was anything we particularly enjoyed about the novel, and how realistic we felt the depiction of Samuel Beckett was. Did it make us want to read more about him?


Awards Ceremony highlights: The winner of the 2017 James Tait Black Prizes was announced at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 14th August 2017. We watched a short video and interview with the winning author.

Thanks and congratulations! We were congratulated for reaching the end of the course.


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12 replies

  1. Thanks for these posts – I’ve enjoyed hearing about this course and have bookmarked it for the future (I’m in the middle of an open learning course at the moment and really have to restrain myself from signing up for EVERYTHING!).

  2. This is a really cool post! And very unique. I’ve never seen it before.

  3. I liked Julian Barnes’ article on returned to EM Forster – partly because at the end he said that he’s been rereading some DH Lawrence and thinks he might rethink him too. I’ve had a thing about DH Lawrence for some time. Loved him when I was in my late teens and early twenties but felt I’d been there done that. However, I have been wondering whether I should rethink that.

  4. The more you’ve shared about this course, the more eager I am to tackle it. I’ve enjoyed several futurelearn courses, with many more that I would love to do, but this one is top of the list now. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Paula.

  5. I am loving this series you do. And I never realized how big a role the settings play in a novel before. Now I think I will always make an attempt to give it more attention.


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