Authors as Statues

 

On April 23rd this year of lockdown, I celebrated Shakespeare’s Birthday by standing outside the Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Henley Street, which would usually have been filled with flags, processing dignitaries, onlookers, and living statues was almost deserted. So I had an excellent view of Stratford’s latest exercise in place-making, a new statue of Shakespeare, standing plumb in the middle of the street on a modest plinth close by the Birthplace.

This life-size bronze by James Butler RA was funded by a local businessman and was erected, according to the local paper, in late June 2020. It was a couple of months late, given that originally it had been intended to unveil it as part of the 2020 Birthday celebrations, cancelled owing to the pandemic. Realistic in mode, it cost 100k and is wonderfully conventional, depicting Shakespeare in compulsory puffy trousers, clutching the compulsory quill in one hand, a couple of pieces of parchment in the other, and wearing the sort of harassed expression one well might if trying to compose deathless drama with a quill on loose-leaf with no inkpot to hand while standing outside in the sway and jostle of a crowd of tourists.[i]  Less conventional than all of this, however, is the quotation from The Tempest 5.1 carved as a curl of prose into the stone pavement at his feet: ‘Oh wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such creatures in’t!’ Miranda’s words are here put into Shakespeare’s mouth, displacing the more usual identification of Shakespeare with Prospero whose dry riposte to his daughter’s remark, ‘’Tis new to thee’, suggests a much more cynical view of the shipwrecked courtiers who have been misbehaving all over the island. Shakespeare-as-Miranda is made into an approving spectator of the global tourists milling through Henley Street – in 2016, with the commemorations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, tourist numbers to the Shakespeare properties were estimated at some 825,000.[ii]  The statue, then, is the latest expression of Stratford-upon-Avon’s ‘glocal’ status – a horrid word, which, however, usefully encapsulates the idea that a locality might paradoxically have global significance.

Over the coming series of blog posts, I am going to be exploring the practice of erecting statues of authors, describing how the practice has evolved, outlining its characteristics and variants, and asking what the function of statues of authors is in creating a sense of place. Shakespeare will inevitably flit in and out of my discussion, because as a ‘world literary giant’, to borrow the name of a square in Shanghai in which a statue of Shakespeare also stands, for rather over 250 years he has been rendered expensively statuesque in nearly all possible aesthetics. I’ll be posing generic questions to a series of statues: How big is the statue? What is it made of? Where is the statue placed? What is the author represented as doing? How does the figure relate to place? Is it made to ‘say’ anything, and if so, how? Above all, what and who is it for?

[i] Henley Street Shakespeare statue set to arrive next week (stratford-herald.com)

[ii] Shakespeare draws in record visitor numbers (stratford-herald.com)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Belated birthday wishes for Shakespeare

As I walked past Shakespeare’s deserted Birthplace on April 23 this year, I thought back to past celebrations of Shakespeare’s birthday…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the past twenty years or so I’ve walked in the invariably chilly Shakespeare birthday procession to lay flowers on Shakespeare’s grave and so on to a grand lunch in Shakespeare’s honour, rubbing shoulders with mayoral chains, national treasures, and occasional ambassadors. Before then, though, far from the Warwickshire epicentre of Bardolatry, deep in the American mid-West, I once gave a Shakespeare dinner to mark the date.  Inspired by an American book washed up in the town’s second-hand bookshop, I concocted an enormously complicated menu which I inflicted on local Shakespearians.  The preparations involved (squeamishly) taking out a contract on a local baby goat. I sourced edible musk, the only rosemary bush in Indiana, and a plastic mould for making a life-sized ice-swan.  The menu ran to sack and claret, manchet-bread and sallets of scallions, boiled leeks, herbs and flowers, salmons pickled in red wine, roast kid stoffado with a pudding in his belly, and a dysshe full of snow, pausing for appropriate diversions and amusements before moving onto a formal ‘banquet’ featuring ipocras, shell-bread, dates stuffed with callishones, spiced peaches and the inevitable apples, and a gilded marchpane.  There was a 4-page menu, garnished throughout with quotations from Shakespeare.

Two very different traditions of eating in honour of Shakespeare’s Birthday have emerged over the last two and a half centuries in Britain and America.  In Britain the tradition of celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday with an annual dinner pre-dates David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769 by at least fifteen years. By 1755 there was at least one group celebrating the date, according to verses ‘On the annual meeting of some Gentlemen to celebrate SHAKESPEAR’S BIRTHDAY,’ published in The London Magazine. Garrick’s Jubilee featured a great deal of dining on an unprecedented scale, including a Shakespearean breakfast and a banquet for upwards of 700. By 1827 the newly-formed Shakespeare Club in Stratford was providing not only a pageant and a procession, but a dinner for 200, followed by a public breakfast the day after.  By 1830, the dinner was for 300, and the public breakfast was packed out, largely because, as usual, it was pouring with rain. The public breakfast at the White Swan on the next day (April 24th) was served to yet another 200, and the day concluded with a private dinner for the Royal Shakespearean Club and their guests for a mere 100, followed by toasts, presentations and songs.  Apart from the sheer size of these dining events, what they had in common was the snob-value of the food, theatrically profuse in range, amount, and luxuriousness.  This pattern persisted later in the century and in other clubs, as William Harris’s history of the Birmingham Shakespeare Club makes clear.  Founded in about 1860 on the back of an older club which had regularly held dinners to celebrate the Birthday, they ran large-scale celebrations for the 1864 tercentenary, which included a ‘soiree’ for 250 on the 22nd (to which even ladies were invited) grandly provided with ‘special cards of invitation’, ‘an illustrated programme’, souvenir ‘ornamental badges’, a shrine mounted on a stage which held a bust of the Bard, a bust flanked with painted views of the church, the birthplace, Shakespeare surrounded by all his characters, and, mysteriously, ‘some oil-paintings’ and ‘Shakespeare photographs,’ all tastefully decorated with masses of symbolic evergreens.   There were addresses, a performance of an original cantata, readings from the plays, and performances of Shakespeare songs, a public breakfast, and finally, an Anniversary dinner for 250 persons on the evening of the 23rd.

None of these menus required any historical research on the part of the cooks.  No antiquarian desire to recreate a Shakespearean cuisine was involved. Instead, the sheer scale of the food on these occasions was meant simultaneously to demonstrate the wealth and importance of the guests and the importance and abundance of Shakespeare, the whole combined in a rite of national consumption.  It would not be the English but the Americans who would translate this nationalist metaphorics of food into more self-conscious ceremonies of consumption.  This impulse can be seen at its crudest and most exuberant in the all-male social event given on April 24th, 1891 by ‘The Britons of New York’ their ‘Annual Banquet of St George’s Society at Delmonico’s’. The pièce de resistance was two enormous sides of roast beef each weighing approximately 100 lbs (c. 50kg), followed by a large amount of plum pudding.  At first glance, this dinner, flown with ex-pat nationalism, seems to have little to do with Shakespeare’s Birthday, except that one of the toasts given was to ‘The Memory and Genius of Shakespeare.’  But in fact ‘each topic on the toast list was adorned by a Shakespearean quotation’ and it is this practice of extensive quotation which distinguishes nineteenth-century American habits of eating in honour of the Bard. The Shakespeare Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1851 and still extant, provides an example of this habit.  Membership of the club was men-only and by invitation. In addition to its regular reading meetings, at which members could expect light refreshments ‘soup, terrapin, salad and cheese, an ice, or meringue’ or ‘oysters, salad, and ale,’ followed by a demitasse and cigars, the club organised annual dinners, interrupted only by the Civil War years.  These dinners, originally given in December, were moved on the tercentenary in 1864 to April, becoming Birthday celebrations, despite the difficulties – loudly lamented – of getting enough of interest to eat in that chilly and dismal month. Like the Birthday dinners being held in Britain, these annual dinners were the occasion for a display of profusion and luxury, for menus which translated into another medium the perceived richness and amplitude of Shakespeare’s works.  What sets these dinners apart from their English predecessors is the practice of constructing ‘a bill of fare’, which took ‘infinite delight in weaving quotations from the plays into the evening’s scheduled proceedings.’ The menu of the Montreal Club in 1884 for dinner given for 21 uses quotation from the plays to comment upon the courses and conduct of this gargantuan feast. Shakespeare is made to remark slyly and jovially here to his fellow-diners on the pleasures of cessation between courses of this monstrous feast, on the possibility of indigestion after lobster, on the diuretic effects of asparagus, on the laxative effects of fruit, on the excellence and skill of the cooking, and finally to wish them a pious goodnight.

These masculine gatherings were very different to the gatherings of all-female Shakespeare clubs.  If the men were enjoying extraordinarily protracted dinners in the private rooms of hotels or clubs, followed by toast after toast, the women were typically arranging to meet at each others’ homes in rotation. If the Shakespeare club of Aberdeen, North Dakota, is anything to go by, they were markedly more abstemious.  In 1910, for example, after some years of serving ‘dainty refreshments’, the club agreed that every other meeting would offer a supper ‘to be served at 6.30, limited to six articles of eatables.’  Such modesty, however, masked fiercely competitive catering, eloquently attested to by the minutes.  By the 1920s and 30s they were organising three formal dinners, one in October, one at Christmas, and one as a ‘guest day’ (which may have coincided with the Birthday), complete with an extensive musical and dramatic programme.  The Aberdeen Club’s interest in ‘daintiness’ as opposed to deliberately antiquarian gargantuanness is probably not merely a reflection of changing times and the lack of professional kitchens.  However different in its expression, this female Club was re-stating the notion of Shakespearean ‘refinements’ of intellect and the palate, here in a feminocentric fashion and setting.  This was common to women’s clubs more generally.  A little book published in Pasadena in the 1950s, entitled Dainties that are bred in a book: the Shakespeare Club cook book, dedicated ‘to those women whose vision, loyalty, and service, brought the Shakespeare club into being,’ deploys quotations from Shakespeare throughout that taken together imagine an orderly domestic universe, evoking the business of catering and cooking, delicious homely meals, a perpetual round of generous hospitality.  If the men’s dinners take as their core comedic figure Falstaff and their core narrative a combination of Falstaff’s drinking at the Boar’s Head and Justice Shallow’s dinner for him in Gloucestershire, the women’s meetings take Perdita or Mistress Ford as their presiding genius – the Queen of the sheep-shearing feast, the merriest wife in Windsor.

None of these exercises in Shakespearean eating, however, demonstrate much desire to eat actual Elizabethan English food.  With the exception of gestures towards ‘the roast beef of old England’, the recipes and menus are contemporary in conception. It would take the best part of 100 years for Shakespeare enthusiasts to develop a taste for antiquarian cookery, and it would emerge as a delight of American ladies. Which brings me back to the book I found in that second-hand book shop. Entitled Dining with William Shakespeare and published in 1976, it took its inception from a social event run for the Eugene Oregon Shakespeare Club in 1966.  The Oregon club had been founded as a women-only group in 1908, and was formally constituted as a club in 1912.  In 1966, the author invited the club back to her home after a performance of Twelfth Night for ‘an after-theatre Shakespeare collation’ cooked up from recipes drawn from a reprint of Platt’s Delightes for Ladies. The antiquarian impulse did not exhaust itself with the menu, but extended itself to the table-setting. Predictably, a quotation-menu presented the dinner as a feast for the intellect and imagination. Madge Lorwin’s Renaissance parties caught on immediately.  In quick succession over the next ten years she produced an Elizabethan feast with a ‘Shakespeare quotation menu’ for 400 in association with the University of Oregon Museum; another Elizabethan feast for 200 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Ben Jonson’s birth, this time with Elizabethan music and costumed waiters; and at least another two for the Ashland Renaissance Institute’s Shakespeare Festival.

A much more scholarly production than the Pasadena cookbook, Lorwin’s book nevertheless shares with it a strong sense of the domestic, the biographical, the marital, the comedic, merrieness, and the seasonal:  the menus include ‘A Bill of Fare to Celebrate Shakespeare’s Birthday’, ‘A Dinner to Honor Mistress Shakespeare, Anne Hathaway’, ‘A Feast for Beatrice and Benedick’, ‘A May Day Feast’, ‘A Dinner for Rosalind and Orlando’, and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Banquet’.  This eminently practical cookbook provides a script for food-theatre, but it is also a piece of historical imagination, almost a form of historical fiction.  It’s only those who are a long, long way from Stratford-upon-Avon who must travel to Merrie England by travelling back into their own country’s pre-history, and so it is only they who customarily use Shakespeare’s texts and Shakespeare’s food as the necessary vehicle.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Virtual landscapes

Looking into my files, I find this, written just on a year ago…

May 2020. Lockdown. Luckily I am not confined to a parlour with only a dead lover and a pot plant on the windowsill for company like Keats’ Isabella; I’m more of a sulky Coleridge, living in close-up time and space, imprisoned in a smallish circle of house, garden and trips to the allotment to check on my black-lipped broad bean flowers and watch the bees trundling between them. In March my diary shook all its pages out, preened and prinked, and emerged pristine and blank.  So now I shan’t be visiting the villa to which Bocaccio’s young things fled to escape the plague raging in Florence.

All my literary landscapes now lie folded away in my files and books, like so many Victorian pressed flowers. They seem more than ever not so much tourist destinations as forms, however life-like, of individual and collective memory. But, of course, they always were that. The question is — what do they remember, what have they forgotten, and, what should they remember or be remembered for, and how? How should modern places account for and be accountable to old texts?  The answers to these questions depend upon what you think literary landscapes are needed for (if at all).  In the past, I would have pointed to the construction of a collective cultural imaginary expressed as literary geography. But here I want to put in play another thought as to the function of literary landscape: the virtues and vices of it considered as idyll.

These times of travel forbidden and museums closed have firmly put the ‘literary’ back into literary tourism. We are at present obliged to put the book back into booking.com, touring solely in imagination using books as our transport and accommodation. This brings into view the thing that has historically made people most anxious both about reading and about literary tourism: the sense that both offer illegitimate, perhaps irresponsible, escape from the social constraints of present time and space. Nearly any sort of reading removes us mentally from where, and who, and when, we are. Books are in and of themselves an elsewhere, and indeed an elsewhen, and very often, a way of being elsewise, and old books — combined with the modern habit of solitary reading – especially offer this facility. Nineteenth-century books very often reference real landscapes; this comes, as time passes, to promise a portal to an ever-more remote past. In the 21st century, by contrast, much recent imaginative writing deliberately both exploits and resists this sense of a real landscape. It is possible to get at this difference by comparing Wordsworth’s Lake District with Philip Pullman’s formulation of ‘Lyra’s Oxford’.  Even at the time it was recognised as spectacularly egotistical to make over an entire landscape into the backdrop for the ‘growth of a poet’s mind’. Two centuries later, once what can be seen is thought to be a matter of individual perception, and this is superadded to quantum physics with its postulation that there may be infinite alternative universes, any literary landscape is liable to foliate like puff pastry.  Thus Lyra’s Oxford (2003) creates a fantasy map of Oxford superimposed upon actual topography. Indeed, the trilogy His Dark Materials (1997), and its prequel-sequel The Book of Dust (2017) owe their grip on the cultural imagination to their creation of alternative worlds which both look like and unlike places that do definitely exist. They are worlds of the imagination into which readers are invited to escape through metaphors of reading – the swinging hand of an alethiometer, a bridge arching into the aurora, a knife slicing holes in invisible membranes, a canoe swept along on floodwaters.  The point of Pullman’s landscapes is that they are always both there and not there; they are a peculiar exercise in seeing through modernity to times and places and events that once were, or might have been.

As a longtime resident of Oxford I am struck by the degree to which Lyra’s world is that of the city and university – but for the most part only as once it was. Time is accelerating the evolution of Pullman’s landscapes into fantasy.  I know The Trout of old, but its peacocks have reduced to one. I know those hornbeam trees, now battered out of shape by passing lorries. I know that old railway siding and the deserted canal and that boatyard in Jericho – all vanished in part or whole. As a student, I climbed out of a mansard window and sunned myself on the lead roofs of Exeter College’s gatehouse, drifted through the wine-cellars of Brasenose College, flew in a hot-air balloon off the mound in New College, ran the length of the roof of the Great Hall of Christ Church, but I shall never be a student again.  But nostalgia — personal, authorial, or collective — is not the driver of the literary tourist game invented by Pullman’s fiction. The game here is to read Oxford at one and the same time through the twenty-first century lens of quantum physics and through the quintessentially Romantic mode of Blakean divination – to see through the material skin of things to another deep-down reality, that, once perceived, transforms and enlivens what is merely there. The pleasure lies in the very hybridity and inauthenticity of the landscape; all that is needed is for a few details from the book to be recognised in real space and time, to – apparently — betray a whole world of romance lying just beyond physical perception.

Pullman’s sense of the volatility and multiplicity of literary landscape may well suggest a new model for the art of imagining literary landscapes in the future. But at this peculiar moment of suspension, it feels as though literary landscape has retreated into the book as a snail recoils into its shell. For now, we will have to content ourselves with virtual idylls pursued in virtual geographies.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Literary Tourist Under Lockdown

17 May 2021 marks a further easing of lockdown restrictions. It hasn’t made that much difference to my life which looks as though it is going to continue pretty home-bound for the foreseeable. January 2020 I was hosting a very smart and select book-launch party at Keats House in Hampstead for The Author’s Effects: On the Writer’s House Museum. March 2020 I began trying out to the full the unalienated life of the writer as sentimentally celebrated in writer’s house museums — and that book.  Eighteen months back I was unwise enough to give up my garden office to my husband, and now he’s barricaded himself in so securely that I can’t get at any of my books. Six months ago I abandoned the discomforts of the kitchen table and retired up here to the attic. So here I sit in my version of the writer’s ivory tower, that looks over a drowning water meadow and thrums with the rain galloping on the skylights. And here it looks as though I shall remain.

Fortunately, there are two elements to being a literary tourist, travel and books — and books remain excellent magic carpets for virtual travel. So in the next series of posts, I am going to be reflecting on journeying to ‘relative ecstatic locations in space’ in imagination only.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment