Monday, April 08, 2013

Imagining Airenchester in The Raven’s Seal: A Guest Post by Andrei Baltakmens

In writing historical fiction, novelists must re-create the living world of the past using the tools at their disposal.  In his historical mystery The Raven's Seal, Andrei Baltakmens takes these world-building techniques to a new level, imagining the 18th-century cathedral city of Airenchester and constructing and populating it from the ground up.  Within the following detailed essay, Andrei explains the choices he made.  The Raven's Seal, called "a superb mystery with vibrant characters" by the Historical Novels Review, was recently named a finalist in ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year Awards in the historical fiction category.  It was published by Top Five Books in November 2012 ($14.00, trade pb, 416pp).


Imagining Airenchester in The Raven's Seal
Andrei Baltakmens

I preface my novel The Raven’s Seal with an epigraph from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. “With cities, it is as with dreams,” writes Calvino, “everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire, or its reverse, a fear.” I kept this quote with me for a long time, simply because it suggests a wonderful connection between cities, fictional cities, puzzles and mystery.  Invisible Cities is, among other things, a reimagining of one city: Venice. It shows how fiction gives us a multitude of ways to imagine a city so that we can see our relationship with our own cities anew, and to my mind the best historical fiction also allows us to reflect on and revise our relationship with our own times. The Raven’s Seal, as a historical mystery, was written primarily to engage and entertain, but it is through the city that I created as the setting for the story, as much as the prison that was to be the locus of the mystery, that I wanted to suggest some of the social themes that give a novel depth and resonance beyond the turns of its plot.

But why create an imaginary city when the most familiar examples of the eighteenth-century prison (such as Newgate, Kings Bench, or the Marshalsea) were in London? In the first place, I felt that London and Newgate were perhaps too familiar; astute readers, versed in the politics and events of the era, would be looking too closely for real-world correspondences and details that would distract from or obstruct the pace of the mystery. I took inspiration, as usual, from Dickens in this, since Dickens set his first murder mystery, the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in the fictional cathedral town of Cloisterham, where the details of the plot and locales would be under his control. Like Dickens, I wanted the power to create an atmosphere of mystery and move my characters on a stage of my own design, and hence Airenchester (my own cathedral city) was founded. And like the Bellstrom Gaol, which I could fill with incidents and character, Airenchester became a place I could populate myself. It took on its own life and peculiarities, while also reflecting some of the most interesting elements of the period of the novel.

Certainly, the eighteenth century, the beginning of the modern period broadly understood, holds enormous interest for any writer. One thing my research into early-modern crime and the birth of the prison revealed was that the eighteenth century, rather than being sedately Georgian and orderly, was a period of significant social upheaval in Europe, due to changes in population, changes in agriculture and the growth of industrialisation, changes in crime and punishment, and critical changes at the core of society, in work and the acquisition of wealth, and in the rapidly widening gulf between the wealthy and the poor. The upper-classes rose on the tides of empire and capital, while the dispossessed saw their livelihoods removed, as cottage industry collapsed and the old systems of communal ownership were dispensed with. This last movement, the enclosures by which common lands were expropriated, legally or otherwise, by the wealthy, was something I was only able to refer to in passing as part of a broader conspiracy in my novel, but we tend to overlook how radical and far-reaching this change was. Today, when governments and lobbyists plan the privatisation of state assets and programs, or our DVDs become unplayable in different regions, governments and corporations are retreading the old path of the enclosures movement.

This background developed slowly through research and writing. Airenchester did not appear at once but accumulated. The prison, the notorious Bellstrom Gaol, materialised first, brooding on a hill, in my mind’s eye somewhat like Edinburgh Castle (though the Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh’s medieval prison described by Sir Walter Scott in The Heart of Midlothian was also at the back of my mind). But who had an eye on the Bellstrom? To show how the ruling classes of Airenchester had separated themselves from crime and poverty, as they had in London, I created the upper-class quarter of Haught, on its own hill opposite the prison and the slums that sheltered beneath it. There had to be a river, of course, like London, and like the city of Christchurch in New Zealand where I grew up (Christchurch, now sadly damaged by a series of earthquakes, is often described as the most English city in New Zealand). More neighbourhoods, roads, rookeries, twisting lanes, bridges, taverns, counting-houses, businesses, and thieves’ dives appeared along the river as the story grew. The physical conditions of the city also call out the people. For example, like all cities of the era, the streets were entirely dark at nightfall, necessitating link-boys with torches to light the way and the largely symbolic watchmen to monitor vagrants and disorder. Then there came the clerks and merchants, rakes, footpads and harlots to fill those streets. It is still astonishing to me that the city formed by imagination and the needs of a narrative attained enough coherence that a skilled illustrator (Jeffery Mathison) could make a workable map of the places I described.

All this would be simple stage dressing if this imaginary city could not suggest something of the real historical conditions of the time and, by extension, give the reader some pause for reflection. The sharp divisions between lower-class and upper-class in Airenchester, the desperation of the slums and the proliferation of crime, the indifference of authority to suffering and the inequalities and corruption that haunt the society of Airenchester are real issues that persist today. The broader availability of credit in the eighteenth century, the growth of financial speculation and the “bubbles” and financial collapses that these precipitated—all features of the society of Airenchester—became eerily relevant during the global financial crisis. Airenchester is also the site of a mystery wrapped up in a gaol at the core of the city. The clues to that mystery are not, by design, hard to uncover, but they point everywhere. Uncovering the mystery shows, I hope, something unexpected about Airenchester, and the patterns of power and crime that define it. I hope that readers will look for these echoes, the rebus that conceals both desire and fear, in my imaginary city.


Andrei Baltakmens was born in Christchurch, New Zealand. He has a Ph.D. in English literature, focused on Charles Dickens and Victorian urban mysteries. His first novel, The Battleship Regal, was published in New Zealand in 1996. He has published short fiction in various literary journals, including a story in the collection of emerging New Zealand male writers, Boys' Own Stories (2001).

For five years he lived in Ithaca, New York, where he was part of the professional staff of Cornell University. He is currently a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, where he lives with his wife and son.

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