By SEAN PIDGEON - The Wall Street Journal
Literary depictions of public houses are inevitably held to a higher standard of authenticity than, say, imaginative portrayals of lush springtime woodlands or shimmering wheat-fields in August. Writers are allowed considerable artistic latitude in describing such glories of nature and landscape, but any false note in a pub scene (pints of bitter served in the wrong kind of glass, the publican calling time an hour too soon) may be fatally damaging to the reader's suspension of disbelief.
Graham Swift, in his 1996 Booker-winning novel "Last Orders," describes the fictional Coach and Horses this way: "Chilly, a whiff of disinfectant, too much empty space. There's a shaft of sunlight coming through the window, full of specks. Makes you think of a church."
He's nodding slyly at the secular sanctity of the pub; at the same time, he wins instant legitimacy for this imagined setting by appealing to a kind of sense-memory that puts us in mind of similar spaces we've inhabited.
The artistry of Thomas Hardy's pub descriptions in his 1874 "Far From the Madding Crowd" forces us instantly to capitulate. "These owners of the two most appreciative throats in the neighborhood, within the pale of respectability, were now sitting face to face over a three-legged circular table, having an iron rim to keep cups and pots from being accidentally elbowed off; they might have been said to resemble the setting sun and the full moon shining vis-à-vis across the globe." The denizens of the Buck's Head Inn could be nothing other than real.
In "Our Mutual Friend," written in the mid-1860s, fellow Victorian Charles Dickens applies his descriptive touch—not known for its lightness—to a pub called the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters. His topic is the wood that forms the beams and partitions of the inn.