My Favourite Writer’s House

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s currently a boom in the making of writer’s house museums across the world, and twenty-first century culture bids fair to produce more and more writer’s house museums. The internet revolution continues to produce a proliferation of forms of new subjectivity and celebrity; the virtualisation of culture produces as an equal and opposite effect an urgent desire for personal, lived experience; we live in an era where the local faces off against the global with ever-increasing intensity; the pressure for self-expressive yet commercially-viable creativity shows little sign of weakening. Faced with this, tourists will undoubtedly continue their quest to construct themselves as individuals in relation to common cultural memory. They will make their imaginations at home in iconic literary places, take selfies of themselves to share the statement ‘I was there’ with a community of like-minded fans, and buy souvenir tea-towels and mugs to gift to others and to enrich their own domestic spaces. But it’s anyone’s guess whether eventually it will become unnecessary to have done much reading of books at all… future tourists may be driven by the desire to locate and create memories of some as of yet unimagined form of immersive virtual experience.

But, meanwhile, here’s this postcard as a souvenir of our adventure. It’s a picture of my absolutely favourite writer’s house. (Note the plaque!) Hope you like it too. After all, we both spent quite a while here.

 

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Exit Through the Gift Shop: Taking Things

In my last few posts I’ve talked about what it was that romantic and Victorian visitors brought with them, and left behind, when visiting writers homes and haunts. Today we shall explore the third and final part of this trilogy: what the tourist took away. (I have a weakness for tea-towels, myself, even though I do have a dishwasher).  Just like today, nineteenth-century tourists typically brought back with them mementoes by which to remember their visit. The very cheapest and easiest thing to take was a flower or leaf, which you could press between the leaves of a book. Continue reading

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Exit through the Gift Shop: Bringing Things

 

If my endless accounts of literary stalking have inspired you to embark on your own visit to a writer’s house, there is one vital item that you’ll need to squeeze into your suitcase, if you’ve not done so already. As I touched on in a much earlier post about the author Jean-Jacques Rousseau (see http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=162) sometime around the 1780s a new reading practice emerged: that of bringing books to re-read on the spot where they were set, or had been composed, or sometimes both. Originally this was the practice of the elite, but by the 1830s it had been adopted by a wider public. The evidence for this trend resides in private papers, in published accounts which represent the practice, and in the shape of publications designed to facilitate it. A Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, and the Alps of Savoy and Piedmont (1838), for instance, contained Rousseau, Byron, Voltaire, Gibbon and Germaine de Staël helpfully excerpted to fit in a pocket. The Handbook provides, in the words of the author, a compendium of ‘deathless associations’ efficiently indexed to ‘immortalised localities.’ So, whichever ‘immortalised locality’ it is that you’re off to on your trip, be sure to immerse  yourself fully in Victorian reading culture, by packing your copy of your favoured author’s works.

 

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Shakespeare’s New Place

Let me fast-forward two centuries from my last post, fly back across the Atlantic, and transport you to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon. The redevelopment of New Place commemorating Shakespeare’s death in 2016 offers a test of the extent to which the idea of the house of genius set within enchanted ground is still operative in the world of writer’s house museums. Unlike any of the houses that we’ve travelled to thus far, there is very little trace left above ground of New Place, the house that Shakespeare bought in 1597 when he had become a wealthy writer. All the same, the superficially radical redevelopment of 2016 remained remarkably true to the roots of the writer’s house museum in romantic and Victorian culture. That is to say, it is founded on and expresses the romantic belief that there is such a thing as genius, that genius is shaped by its environment, and especially by its native landscape, and derives its force from the Victorian sense that if environment gives genius its ‘national’ character, Shakespeare’s is best celebrated or appreciated by the nation ‘on the very spot’ where Shakespeare lived, worked and died in April 1616. Continue reading

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Irving’s Sunnyside

 

From a tower in Kent to a country retreat in upstate New York: today’s destination is Washington Irving’s ‘Sunnyside’, founding site of American literature. Continue reading

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Vita’s Folly

Over the past couple of months I have taken you on numerous trips to writers’ houses scattered all over the place : we have trekked across the moors to the Brontës’ home in Haworth, admired the desk at Walter Scott’s house in Abbottsford, and felt dizzy and bewildered while touring Hans Christian Andersen’s home in Odense. Recently, I have extended my thoughts from writer’s home, to writer’s landscape. I have been considering what putting a writer at the centre of a landscape, rather than a house, does to the landscape for the reader. The effect, I feel, is particularly interesting when the writer in question is a woman, as it reveals so much about how a woman-writer might think about writing, and be thought as a writer, in relation to the domestic. Continue reading

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Dumas’ Prison

Dumas house

Bonjour readers. Today we are in France, a little beyond Paris, visiting the so-called Chateau Monte Cristo. This was built by Alexandre Dumas père, one of the most successful novelists of the nineteenth century. Begun in 1846 and finished in 1847, the Château’s design was commissioned from Hippolyte Durand, the leading architect of the day, as something reminiscent of the Renaissance. The towers are surmounted by Dumas’ initials carved in stone, together with his personal motto, and the head of Dumas himself appears amongst the series of heads of other famous writers (Shakespeare, Virgil, Goethe) which decorate the exterior at first floor height, looking out over the front door. The Château itself, then, is entirely fitting for a writer specialising in historical subjects like Dumas, a best-selling exponent of historical fiction. Continue reading

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Hawthorne’s Window

It is a widely held romantic notion, that by gazing out of the window of a room in which a favourite author once sat, we gain privileged access to that very same view that inspired the great works of the famous writer. The extent to which our admired authors were taken by their window views, however, is a matter of contention. Older housing stock, with the exception of that built by wealth for show, often turns its back upon the wind, and therefore upon the view, and chooses smaller over larger windows for the sake of snugness. Nowadays too (I reflect, as I watch with regret yet another undergraduate pull down a blind over a window in the Reading Room so that she can continue to stare into her computer screen free of the glare of natural light), the real purpose of windows has been forgotten. For most of history, as far as the writer is concerned, windows were not primarily desirable for the view they offered (which must frequently have come with a nasty draught), but for the natural light they offered to assist with reading and writing. They were not, in short, solely for looking out, but for letting light in. Hence, John Joseph Enneking’s canvas Interior with Figure (1892) shows a man reading with his back to the window to make the best use of the light. Continue reading

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Freud’s Mirror

It is not accidental that mirrors in writer’s house museums are sometimes written up as ‘having once shown such and such’s face to herself’, or as prone to showing the author’s ghost. Nor does the mirror stop at showing lost bodies. It may shadow lost spaces. Perhaps the most remarkable instance of a mirror functioning as a witness-object in this respect is the one that presently hangs against the window of the study that Sigmund Freud used in his apartment on the Berggasse in Vienna. At the first glance it is simply unusual: it is small, rectangular and inexpensively framed; its positioning on the window is unorthodox and provides no surface for toiletries or shaving equipment, and anyway, it hangs just behind Freud’s desk, a position that would have put it just behind the doctor’s left shoulder.  A photograph of 1938 confirms this positioning. Continue reading

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