Francis Brett Young - The Mercian Novels

The Mercian Novels

The central project of Brett Young's career was a series of linked novels set in a loosely fictionalised version of the English West Midlands and Welsh Borders. The Mercian novels were originally inspired by the construction of Birmingham Corporation's Elan Valley Reservoirs from 1893–1904, and the country traversed by their associated aqueduct. The Black Diamond (1921) tells the story of a labourer working on the aqueduct in the region around Knighton, while The House Under the Water (1932) deals at length with the construction of the reservoirs themselves. The series expanded into a wide-ranging study of Midlands society from the 1890s through to the outbreak of the Second World War. Although linked by recurring characters, each of the Mercian novels can be read as an independent work. They range in style from the atmospheric psychological horror of Cold Harbour (1924; praised by H. P. Lovecraft) to the romantic family saga of Portrait of Clare (1927), which won that year's James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Like Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels, the Mercian novels are unified by their setting - a semi-fictionalised realisation of an actual geographical region. While some actual place-names appear unchanged (e.g., Kidderminster, Ludlow, Malvern, Shrewsbury, Worcester), most locations appear under a fictional name (Birmingham = North Bromwich, Halesowen = Halesby; Dudley = Dulston; River Elan = River Garon). Other locations appear to be fictional conflations of various real-world places; e.g. the Black Country town of Wednesford; resembling in many respects the actual town of Wednesbury but located by Brett Young in the Stour Valley (and seemingly unrelated to the real Wednesford, near Cannock), and the hamlet of Cold Harbour; modelled on Wassell Grove near Hagley but described by Brett Young as overlooking the Black Country.

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