The writer’s desk

The writer’s desk

One of Goethe's desks in the Garten haus

Weimar is home to a lot of history, not least the Weimar republic, Hitler, and Buchenwald – but I went to research happier times, the so-called ‘Goethe-zeit’ when Goethe, having single-handedly dreamt up German romanticism with his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), and having recovered from a sort of nervous breakdown by taking a sabbatical journey to Italy, returned and invented anti-Napoleonic Weimar classicism. Here the big founding four of German national literature were convened within a blue-stocking, courtly, proto-university. Here Herder, Wieland, Goethe and Schiller sparked off each other, not to mention, in their turn, Nietzsche, Andersen, and Pushkin. It is, in short, a town where a great deal of writing has been done, and it therefore contains a remarkable collection of celebrated writers’ desks.

 But what is a writer’s desk, or rather, what does a desk mean? We might try out the proposition that a writer’s desk makes a series of statements about the act of creative writing, and especially the acts of creative writing carried out by that particular author. It’s worth saying here that there are writers whose desks are almost not desks at all.  I’ve already in this blog mused a little on the proposition that Austen’s desk makes about genteel, amateur, female literary work. Similarly, Charlotte Brontë did not have what we could nowadays call a desk at all, but instead a portable writing-desk (now held at the British Library) which reputedly she carried out to a particular flat stone by a stream on the moors above Haworth, where she drafted Jane Eyre. A stone as a desk – it is appropriate both to her outsider status as a woman author, and to the mythology of the moors that has come to surround the Bronte sisters’ literary output. This desklessness, simultaneously real and ideological, is not confined to women authors but extends to certain male poets as well. Here Burns is of especial interest. As a civil servant (an excise man) he had a number of desks, and such was his celebrity shortly after his death that many of them were preserved and are now scattered between the Burns properties in Alloway and Dumfries, and the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, and for all I know to the contrary, in private collections as well. But the idea of the ploughman poet making up songs on the braes o’ Doon did not and does not sit very easily with the middle-class grind of the desk. A few years back, Burns’ desk was redisplayed in the Birthplace slightly tilted up, as though flying away, and all the papers on it were cunningly displayed on invisible wires as though caught by a great gust of wind.  Burns, that particular display said, may have worked at a desk in a particular place, but he wrote in a Caledonian gale of inspiration. The desk may be said to be ideologically embarrassing to the idea of Burns; writing lyric poetry is effusion or dream, not clerical work. Indeed, arguably the most powerful invocation of Burns in the act of writing is not with pen and paper at all, but with a diamond ring on the glass pane of a pub window. This seems truer to our sense of him as a poet who overwrites location.

One of the effects of the advent of the word-processing computer is that the idea of the act of writing has changed utterly. Firstly, the act of writing has become imaginatively less organic. There is an imaginative world of difference between the idea of a living hand curled around a living quill-pen and the idea of fingers tapping a standardised mechanical keyboard, whether typewriter or computer. The transmission of ideas through the body onto paper has become measurably more alienated.  On the other hand, writing for publication – the business of making notes, drafting, redrafting, the making of manuscript ‘fair copies’, copy-editing, and proof-reading – has arguably become more ‘magical’, because more invisible. Wordsworth, for example, composed first in his head, then in scribbled-down sections, and then he got his womenfolk to make fair copies for the press. You can still see the first proofs from the printer for Balzac’s Comédie Humaine laid out on his desk in Paris, covered not just with handwritten corrections but with extensive rewriting before going to second proof stage. If the archival material survives, as in the case of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, it is often possible to track poems in detail from initial conception, through subsequent revision. Although the moment of inspiration is invisible, its realization is not. All of this is disappearing from cultural ordinariness. By comparison, the transition from blank page to finished product is almost eerily instantaneous with a computer – a computer turns an author into a reader at the exact moment of writing. Tracking the process of drafting and redrafting has become much more difficult, although the British Library now archives writers’ old computers, with post-it notes still stuck on their shells, and are working on how to archive the changes hidden deep within the machine. This modern scene of writing throws into strong relief a conventional idea of the writer at his desk, which we almost certainly owe to Victorian cults surrounding Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, of which more in a later blog. For now, though, we might say that the dominant cultural trope imagines a professional author as seated at a desk piled with papers and books, working with a pen, by artificial light. That trope is both invoked and challenged by the desks on display in Weimar.

In Goethe’s so-called ‘Garten-house’, where he lived as a young writer and which he kept as a retreat for the rest of his life, there are three desks on view. Somehow a writer should not have three desks – we want one privileged locus of work. Worse, two of them immediately and strongly disrupt our twenty-first century idea of the writer at his desk, for they are designed for standing or near-standing rather than sitting. This was not as unusual as you might think. Goethe’s view was that sitting was bad for the digestion (probably true); perhaps this was what impelled Victor Hugo to build a similar standing desk in his house in Guernsey.  Moreover, Goethe seems to have preferred to write not with a quill (which scratched and interrupted his flow of thought because of the necessity of frequently dipping it into the inkwell) but in pencil. Nor (at any rate in later years, when he was living in the much bigger house up the hill in Weimar) was he alone. Instead, in this dedicated study, he typically dictated to an amanuensis and copyist while walking round and round the table. 

This last practice reinstates the ‘romanticness’ of writing. It separates inspiration from the mere labour of writing – here writing really is just copying down. Schiller’s desk also displays romantic inspiration, but by describing its absence. It displays a facsimile of the last half of his last, unfinished play, laid out on its surface.  Here the manuscript speaks not so much of the labour of writing but of the tragic cessation of writerly imagination. Right next to the desk is Schiller’s bed, adumbrating the pathos of his early death.

The solidity of these desks, houses, and the romantic stories of writing attached to them rather belie what actually happened. Writers write elsewhere as often as they write at home, especially if they can get a free or cheap meal and escape domestic demands (think of J.K.Rowling). Iphigenia auf Tauris and Maria Stuart were actually written at the Duchess Anna Amalia’s summer retreat a few miles away. Goethe seems through much of his life to have written on the run, in notebooks, on travelling writing-desks, even on old theatre tickets stuffed in his pockets. But the writer’s desk remains a privileged locus, evidencing in an uneasy blend the idea of writing as located, magical, timeless inspiration, and writing as a sort of physical slog that takes a good long time.

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Austen at her desk

Last June, I went to Winchester Cathedral to marvel at their flower festival, and, as a scholar of Austen, to photograph the grave, brass plaque, and stained-glass window that between them memorialise her there. Plunging into a particularly excited and dense crowd down a side-aisle, I discovered Austen herself. And here she is.

 In the two hundredth year of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, creating this large and lavish display was reserved by the Winchester Cathedral flower arrangers to themselves. It was located almost on top of Austen’s grave, in the centre of the aisle. Behind her gravestone, there is a late 19C brass plaque, put up by her nephew at the moment when Austen was first becoming a canonical novelist, in large part as a result of his Memoir of Jane Austen published in 1870. And above that, there is a memorial stained glass window, put up even later, in the early twentieth century. The display itself suggested at least two mendacious things: first, that ‘the English country garden’ in the late eighteenth century was full of peonies. Secondly, that Austen was in the habit of working in the garden on furniture that if it had been outside on this particular summer’s day would certainly have been ruined by torrential rain. But the installation had a sort of truth nonetheless – the ‘Englishness’, femininity, and controlled domestic compass of Austen’s fiction is congruent with this fiction of an idealised country garden, and the prevailing popular sense of Austen as a woman writer who composed within and about the confines of the domestic was convincingly staged.  In fact, there is a long tradition in travel-cum-biographical writing of the ‘homes and haunts’ genre, stretching back to the early 1910s, of visiting Chawton Cottage and imagining Austen,  imagining her characters, or imagining Austen looking out onto the garden and imagining her characters.   The traditional English garden is often enough specified as Austen’s ground of inspiration, and as the best and most natural backdrop to her particular evocation of English society.  

Within this frame, a number of other rather conventional things are re-stated about catching genius in the act of creative writing. The inclusion of a dummy Austen insists, for example, on the need to imagine and re-animate the volume of the writer’s body – here, with an unusually and unintentionally macabre literalism, actually rising above Austen’s bones. It insists on the importance of the writer’s hand, foregrounded carefully on the writing-table. It points to the indirection of the reader’s relation with the authorial body, which is only inferred or created by readers from the writing, by positioning the dummy in such a way that the writer’s back is turned away from the viewer, and the face is completely hidden. It details not only the embodiedness of the author but the materiality of the business of writing, assembling here its tools, the chair, desk, inkstand, quill-pen, and paper.  Finally, it emphasises the moment at which writing comes into being, when the paper is almost blank, when the first famous sentence is written, but discarded by its originator, when the second attempt is about to be made. It is interested in the moment when a quotation is originated, before it knows and is known to be a quotation.

Of course, nothing in this tableau of the writer at her desk in the garden is ‘authentic’ — except the considerable amateur affect invested in it. The table, for instance, is not the famous twelve-sided walnut table in Chawton Cottage, on which Austen is said to have written. That said,  it looks quite like it, which suggests that the Cathedral flower arrangers expected that at  least some of the visitors would be familiar with what Austen’s table looks like, as  familiar as they are with the opening of Pride and Prejudice. This is merely a representation of the writer’s desk and a fanciful one at that.  But what it can tell us about ‘real’ writer’s desks is simple but important – it tells us that even the real thing is self-representational, and that what it must strive to represent is the writer at work. This is not as easy as it might sound at first. The writer’s desk (and the writing materials associated with it) are culturally required to describe something immaterial and invisible, and quite possibly entirely fictional – the supposed instant when something happened that has subsequently come, often by slow accretions, to certify the genius of a person and a place, and often the productive confluence of the two.

In microcosm, the problem of making the writer’s desk into the Writer’s Desk is a matter of what John Urry long ago in The Tourist Gaze called ‘site sacralization’. Even if you have the very table, it is only a table until it is provided with markers of signification and valuation, and framed within a narrative of the moment of creation. The production of this ‘aura’ (to borrow Baudrillard’s famous term) is what collectors, curators, and visitors all work at. It is one important way in which ‘genius,’ or rather the cultural fiction and functionality of genius, is produced through representation, performance, and reiteration.

It is therefore instructive to compare the Austen display in Winchester Cathedral with the permanent display in Chawton Cottage – not so much to draw out the differences between the floral fantasy and the real thing, but to get at the marked continuities between them.

This battered, undistinguished and rather rickety piece of Regency furniture is displayed in Chawton Cottage as Jane Austen’s writing-table. It certainly belonged to Chawton, was inherited by Austen’s sister Cassandra and bequeathed by her in 1845 to a manservant; thereafter it found its way back to the cottage when it was being set up as a heritage site in the 1920s.   The table in Winchester Cathedral required gravestone, brass plaque, memorial window, a bonneted dummy, writing materials, and apparently discarded manuscript to stage it as ‘Austen’s table’. By comparison, the contemporary display of this table seems almost ostentatiously understated – a window, a chair, a table, an empty crystal inkstand and a single quill. This is partly possible because the house itself acts as narrative frame.   Nevertheless, this table is, as in the floral display, clearly not just a table. It is ostentatiously not for further use. Protected behind a perspex screen, it is to be seen but not touched. Paradoxically, the very absence of the writer’s body fulfils the same role as the dummy seated on Austen’s grave – it represents the space of the writer’s originating body, while describing its vanishedness. The solitariness and domesticity of the act of writing in the garden staged in the cathedral is re-described here in terms of the quiet sitting-room, which comes with a famous story of the door with the creaking hinge that supposedly gave Austen enough warning to conceal her writing from all but her close intimates. The transparency of perspex produces on the one hand the value of the object through introducing distance and encouraging focussed meditation, and on the other hand, according to Anna Woodhouse, a readerly, fan-style, identity shaped by aspirational desire.[1] Genius-as-a-commodity is therefore produced by a negotiation between reader-tourist and curator around an object seen through a transparent barrier.  Or one might speculate that the perspex functions to denote distance in multiple ways – the distance between use and celebrity value, between organic material and immaterial narrative, between material conditions of production and the miasma of reputation, between pieces of paper and the accolade of ‘genius’, between reader and author, and the ever-enlarging distance in time between reading and composition. Above all, it marks the distance of present-day consumer from long-dead genius. 

All writer’s desks differently inflect this common description of genius. Yet some are more unusual than this would suggest, and this desk is one of them. There aren’t many women authors who have ever been designated geniuses, even in the nineteenth century which was particularly fond of the idea and the category. It’s a specialised and interesting category. One might think here, for example, of Germaine de Stael and George Sand. Fewer still have continued to be regarded as geniuses, but among their number we can (still) include Austen.[2] Austen’s writing-table at Chawton is very unusual among curated writer’s desks in that it bears hardly any marker to single it out.  There is no claim to provenance, and few traces of ‘work’. No paper, no ink, no paper, no sand-sifter, no proofs, no personal belongings, no books, no candle, no brass plaque or inscription, just a single feather. This is a willed blankness.  (There is a history to the display of this table, but I only have space here to describe how it appears nowadays.) Although it is probable that Austen sat at this table which was clearly never designed as a writing-table, her writing-desk was something else altogether – a handsome and expensive mahogany writing-box which opened into a slope and would have sat on the table itself.  Gifted in 1999 by an heir, Joan Austen Leigh, to the British Library, it is now held in the Sir John Ritblat gallery, together with its contents, including Jane Austen’s eye-glasses and her sewing kit or ‘housewife’.[3] That, if anything, is the true paraphernalia of genius. But so far it has had little purchase on the representation of Austen in the act of writing. So what does this contrived blankness at Chawton say about how our culture imagines the nature of Austen’s ‘genius’?

The clue, I think, is the marginal, even opportunistic scene of writing that both the writing desk in the British Library and the table in Chawton Cottage in their own ways dramatise. At the opening of the Millennium exhibition at the British Library, Claire Tomalin, as biographer of Austen, said of the writing-desk that it demonstrated that ‘All you need if you are a writer is a desk, a pencil and of course a great brain.’[4] (Never mind that Austen did not write in pencil.) She had much the same to say about the table at Chawton, emphasising its smallness: ‘This fragile 12-sided piece of walnut on a single tripod must be the smallest table ever used by a writer…. Today, back in its old home, it speaks to every visitor of the modesty of genius.’[5] This sentiment – the sense that any woman could be a genius if Austen could be out of such supposedly modest conditions — can be verified by recourse to the blogosphere, well-populated by Austen enthusiasts. This is Cindy Jones, posting an account of her literary pilgrimage to all places associated with Austen in 2010:

Standing in the simple room where the modest writing-table occupied a spot near the window, I felt my Jane Austen’s presence.  Not the celebrity icon, but the unaffected woman reined in by class, money, and gender.  … Jane Austen was the person I had imagined: physically present at the little table, yet mentally far away, working in a universe of her own creation.  And this is what we both understand:  being stranded on a desert island is not a problem as long as you have paper, pen, and writing-table.   Her writing-table is the most unassuming piece of furniture with the most impressive back-story I’ve ever met.[6]

If Jane Austen could do it, then so can we; and if immediate inspiration eludes us budding geniuses, we can always buy some scented drawer-liners and head over to the tea-shop, where they have invariably stopped serving tea five minutes ago.


[1] Anna Woodhouse, ‘How glass changes the way we see the world’ Four Thought Radio 4 29 May 2013, downloads.bbc.co.uk… fourthought_20130529-2059a.mp3

[2] Cf. Deirdre Shauna Lynch, ‘Jane Austen’s Genius’

[3] Freydis Jane Welland, ‘The History of Jane Austen’s Writing-Desk’, Persuasions 30.

[4] News, Views & Titbits  republished from http://www.jasa.net.au/newsdc99.htm last accessed 19 June 2013

[5] Claire Tomalin, The Guardian Sat 12th July 2008 ‘Writer’s Rooms: Jane Austen’

[6] Cindysjones.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/i-met-jane-austens-writing-table last accessed 19 June 2013

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Dogs of Genius

Post 9 Dogs of Genius

August 2013 In the dog-days of August all academics should be on the beach rather than in the research library. It is the silly season, and its silliness may suitably tinge even the serious business of thinking about the nature of authorial celebrity and the cultural purposes it has served and continues to serve. In such a frivolous mood, it gives me to think about authors and their dogs, or rather authors whose celebrity has included a sense of their love of dogs.

Now it has to be admitted that many authors are much more strongly associated with cats. Think of Petrarch, of Smart, of Johnson, of Colette. There is much to be said for a cat – it is silent, undemanding, and used at any rate to belong to the kitchen – it was not so much a pet as a tolerated inmate in urban or country household, it came and went as it list, much, one might think, like writerly inspiration.  Dogs, on the other hand, are another matter entirely. Dogs are never just dogs, though cats are usually just moggies, cheap, disposable, spinsterish, sat on the mat, as indoorsish as a writer. For after all, writing for much of the history of literary culture has tended to involve paper and pens and ink, and all of those are easier to manage indoors, even if Wordsworth did manage to think up ‘Michael’ balanced on the ruined wall of a sheepfold in the vale of Grasmere.  Unlike cats, dogs have historically been markers of class status: whether working-dogs like the deer-hound, lapdogs like the Pekinese, or terriers for ratting. Dogs are very much of the outdoors, and specifically bred to different sorts of sporting pursuits – by extension, therefore, they carry class meaning. An author whose persona includes a dog at the edge of the frame is saying something about themselves. Take Lord Byron, for instance. If you go to his ancestral home Newstead Abbey and prowl about the grounds, sooner or later you will come across a large and surprising monument, topped with an urn. On closer inspection, it proves to be a monument to Byron’s beloved dog Bosun, or Boatswain. 

Bosun, as a Newfoundland dog, was special in his own right, and was also a regular companion to Byron.  Byron’s affection for Bosun was real enough but what interests me here is what proclaiming that affection does. It underscored Byron’s credentials as an aristocrat with a country estate on which such a dog could run.  Bosun was also an exotic, not an indigenous breed of hunting-dog, very much of a piece with Byron’s self-presentation of himself as only unwillingly British.

By contrast, Walter Scott’s dogs would seem to have described him more unproblematically as a country baronet. Domiciled in his country retreat Abbotsford, his pack of beloved dogs, ranging from terriers to his famous deerhound, Maida, were a feature of Abbotsford life and were always commented on by visitors.  So famous were they that Maida was included in the portrait sculpture that sits within the Scott monument in Edinburgh.

Scott’s beloved dogs certified Scottish country-life, a life of hunting, shooting and fishing, a life of leisure and land management – a life of which Scott provided an excellent simulacrum for his admiring visitors, but which was funded by a legal practice, and by writing.  Maida epitomised Scott’s fantasy of being the deer-hunting baronet, and for the nation, it provided an externalisation of the supposed ‘healthiness’ of Scott’s fiction – not too intellectual, always good for you, unimpeachably masculine.

And what of women writers? Did they ever have dogs? Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lapdog spaniel, springs to mind, although he achieved fame not so much in his own time as through Virginia Woolf’s portrayal of him in her cod autobiography. Still, in general, literary genius has been more glamorously identified with wilder animal-daemons than dogs — hares in the case of William Cowper, foxes in the case of Ted Hughes, ravens in the case of Philip Pullman. Only thus can we account for Norman Mailer’s dog-tribulations – it is said that this king of macho-fiction was embroiled in perpetual dog-fights with persons who showed the merest glimmer of a sneer at his beloved dog, a poodle.

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Travels in the Library

Post 8 Travels in the Library

July 2013 These last two weeks, I have been hunkered down in the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, reading. To my right, coat, bag, phone, and a pile of eighteenth century calf-bound books stashed in grey cardboard boxes.  These are the travel-books that have never done much travelling themselves. Instead of falling to pieces in a long-dead traveller’s pocket in some hotel or inn, they are the one copy of that book that a copyright library like the Bodley is entitled to.

In their pages I have been travelling across Europe at break-neck speed. I have left from Dover by packet and hurried to Dieppe, taken carriage or post-horse through Rouen to Paris, paused to sample Paris society before taking the road again for Nice or Marseilles, packed again to travel across the Jura and so arrived in Turin and then onwards; I have travelled to Plymouth, taken ship via Biscay and been landed sick in Lisbon or Leghorn; I have been ferried to Brussels and then been rowed down the Rhone into the heart of Switzerland, paused in Geneva, made a series of excursions around the Alps, hurried over Napoleon’s new road through the Simplon pass and so down to Milan and then through the Veneto to the sleazy delights of Venice. I have travelled by packet, row-boat, cabriolet, calèche, char-a-banc, post-chaise, private carriage, cart, by donkey and on foot.  I have viewed antiquities, art, churches, literature, landscape beauties, geology, local customs, and considered the political and religious state of the nations. I have travelled with poets young and old, bad and good, with a honeymooning wife and a middle-aged Oxford don, with an engagingly silly young gentleman pedestrian and with milord’s six carriage entourage complete with library and menagerie, with intrepid women and invalid men. I have travelled with some of the best company the age could offer – with Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley, Rousseau, Madame de Staël, William Beckford, Lady Sydney Morgan, Humphrey Davy, Chateaubriand and many others.

The object of this odd and enthralling exercise is to write a conference paper to an unnervingly tight deadline. I am trying to describe how travel and tourism lived out and inscribed a global literary culture across the European map. My interest spans from the late 1780s through to the 1830s, but this paper is about the years immediately following Waterloo, when English travellers flooded into continental Europe and conducted a stock-take on the wreckage of what was left after a world war. I’ve been trying to work out what were the must-see literary locations for the post-Waterloo traveller. What emerges looks something like this:

 Literary Locations: The Top Ten

  1. Voltaire’s chateau, Ferney
  2. Locations associated with Rousseau’s novel at Clarens and Vevey, on the shores of Lake Geneva
  3. Rousseau’s houses at Motiers, and Ile St Pierre in Lake Bienne
  4. Gibbon’s summerhouse, Lausanne
  5. Petrarch’s house, Vaucluse
  6. Petrarch’s house, Arquà
  7. Juliet’s tomb,Verona
  8. Tasso’s cell, Ferrara
  9. Ariosto’s armchair, Ferrara

10.  Virgil’s tomb, near Naples

11.  Loch Katrine, associated with Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake

But there were, of course, others. One of the more surprising is the so-called ‘tomb of Narcissa’, the poet Edward Young’s daughter in what are now the botanic gardens in Montpellier. Buried there at the dead of night because she was a protestant, the young woman’s grave became a paradigmatic romantic location, as the many plaques there, quoting Young, Valery and Gide on their visits now attest.

As a risky generalization, what gets romantic tourists going is solitary figures expressing extreme and irresolvable emotion in extreme settings. These figures may be historical or fictional; what is essential is that they should have a first person voice, which must place them in the setting and suffuse it with ‘associations’. The tourist then revives these within their memory, and the travel-writer reiterates this process by selective quotation.  The figure that links the most important sites is imprisonment or exile.

So much for the basic academic enquiry I’m working out. Round the edges of it, though, all these travellers come alive – the exasperatingly silly, the depressingly practical, the man of the world, the crashing bore – no doubt all dragged at the heels of the same long-suffering post-horses.  What discomforts, miseries and adventures these privileged travellers endured – the bride who found herself giving birth at Como on her extended honeymoon and a few days later having her new baby baptised in the snows of the Simplon pass because there was an English clergyman passing through; the undergraduate who thought it would be reasonable to walk the St Bernard Pass bare-legged one night in December; the woman whose daughter sickened, died, and was buried in a matter of hours at Rome; the callow lawyer of ‘military height’ who narrowly escaped enlistment into the Prussian army!

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Petrarch in Love

Post 7 Petrarch in Love

Once again, off in pursuit of Petrarch. This time, not to Italy but the south of France.  Petrarch got about a fair bit – born in Arezzo, mostly brought up in Avignon, studying in Montpellier and feted in many courts across Europe, including Paris and Rome.  In many of these places he is celebrated with plaques, but the two places most associated with him are the house in which he died, in the Eugaean Hills above Padua, and Fontaine-de-Vaucluse in Provence. The Petrarch who is celebrated in these two places however, though historically the same person, is very differently imagined. One is ‘French’, one ‘Italian’. He identified himself as a Florentine, apparently out of intellectual snobbery, because his family was native to that city, expelled in the same political purge that sent Dante on his wanderings. The plaque above, put up in the village of Vaucluse, lays claim to Petrarch in French because ‘nul lieu ne fut plus cher a son Coeur/ni plus propice a sa gloire’, that is to say ‘no place was closer to his heart, nor more suitable to [the celebration of] his fame.’ That’s one in the eye for Arqua-Petrarca.

Fontaine-de-Vaucluse is not easy to get to, and that was largely the point of it for Petrarch, fleeing, as the plaque above puts it, from worldly pleasures. As the name suggests, it is a village in a dead-end valley, closed at the further end by an enormous limestone cliff. At its foot, out of its mostly unmapped, immeasurable, underground cave-system, rises the river Sorgue.  The green swirling pool under the cliff which is the fontaine itself was long reputed fathomless. When the water-level is high the water pours in a huge white stream across boulders down through the valley, joined by streams from both sides that also spring from the cliff. The wonder is the water, as clear as glass, almost a platonic description of water, bright green over the waving weeds, a brilliant turquoise where the flow has been violent enough to scour the weed away in underwater pools to leave only white sand. The place had been a wonder well before Petrarch ever set eyes on it.

Today we drive up one side of the river in a rental car. In the nineteenth century the roads were rough enough and the place so remote to deter even the intrepid traveller Marianne Colston from lugging her young baby along on the expedition – and she had baptised her daughter at the inn on the Simplon pass in the Alps in winter. Like Colston, we’re in search of Petrarch’s famous retreat. Here he took a small house, made a garden, amassed a large and remarkable collection of books, and devoted himself to a life of literary retirement and cultivation of the mind. Here, according to his many letters that describe, meditate and mediate this project, he conceived and executed much of his enormous literary and intellectual output. Even in his lifetime, he could plausibly claim that though the Fontaine had been celebrated as a natural wonder before he chose it as his home, his residence had vastly increased its celebrity. By 1525, early books containing drawings and maps of Vaucluse are already identifying Petrarch’s house – this was roughly the date when those Austrian students were carving their names in the mantelpiece in Petrarch’s house in Arqua. But whereas the Petrarch celebrated in Arqua is the man of the Italian Renaissance, in Vaucluse Petrarch appears as emphatically French, and the prototype of the Renaissance lover. This is probably a nineteenth-century formulation, born of nationalism, and in particular of the division of what we know as Italy between Napoleon’s France, the king of Rome, and later Austria.

At the centre of the village of Vaucluse, bustling this morning with a market and long crocodiles of school-children, there stands a neo-classical column. This is the column Napoleon put up in 1804 to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of Petrarch’s birth. Not only did this make Petrarch into an honorary Frenchman, it put the Napoleonic seal of approval on him. Napoleon was a great one for commemoration as befitted a child of a revolution that had to invent a state and its rituals from scratch – he regularly visited sentimental literary locations, and this was one of the most important of them for contemporaries. The column wasn’t originally placed here; with an imperial sense of importance, Napoleon caused it to be placed in the mouth of the cavern, where it seemed so unsuitably phallic and otiose that continual protest eventually resulted in its re-siting in 1827.

Why celebrate Petrarch’s birth here? One reason is the fame of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, a cycle of 750 love-poems addressed to an unidentified married woman, ‘Laura’, both in her lifetime and after her death. Petrarch met Laura, according to these poems, in Vaulcuse, and they made Vaucluse into an emotional geography of modern love. Another reason was that Petrarch himself identified the source of his poetic inspiration with the river-source, so that Vaucluse could be celebrated as the place of the birth of his genius. But Petrarch achieved an additional, special importance in the early nineteenth century because he accidentally became a romantic revolutionary in the mould of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose works, especially his sentimental fiction and autobiographical writings, presided over the French Revolution His extensively autobiographical letters, his obsessive love for a married woman, and his evocation of this particularly beautiful and exceptional watery landscape as the ground of both love and genius – all serendipitously doubled the romantic enthusiasm elicited by Rousseau’s autobiographical writings Confessions and Rêveries of a Solitary Walker together with his novel Julie: ou, La Nouvelle Helöise for associated landscapes. Petrarch under the pressure of this analogue was promoted to a quintessentially romantic subjectivity, and the place became a suitably romantic location even though Petrarch’s house and garden had long vanished, and even the house pointed out to eighteenth-century travellers such as Casanova was at some juncture destroyed. What Petrarch had conceived as Virgilian retreat was now reinscribed as a Rousseaustic retreat into the wonders of nature; and Petrarch’s European wanderings now seemed analogous to Rousseau’s successive exiles. Tourists went to marvel at the pool, imagine Petrarch walking there, imagine the moment at which he imagined the apparition of Laura there, and to express this experiment in subjectivity through composing and leaving their own signatures, inscriptions, and effusions.

Today Vaucluse is so full of people avoiding the heat of the plain that it scarcely feels much of a retreat.  The left-hand bank of the river Sorgue  is devoted to the sort of tourist stalls that spring up around a natural wonder – olive bowls, lavender soap, thin white shirts, 3D postcards of ginger kittens superimposed on a picture of the Fontaine and sending ‘gros bisous’ to prospective recipients, ‘glaces’ in neon colours, a spelunking museum, a traditional paper mill. The river is hung with batons for white water canoeing, and out over its now concreted banks decks with bars and cafes have been built.  Petrarch seems pretty invisible here, but, past all these delights, and walking on up to the source, you come to a rock wall with three plaques celebrating Petrarch, one in Italian, one in French (see above), and one in Esperanto in barely veiled competition.  On the right hand side of the river, all is more Petrarchan. Beneath the ruined chateau and through a rock tunnel sits the Musée Petrarch, conjecturally on the site of the original house and garden. Set up in first in 1927 and reopened in 1986, it contains a spectacular collection of books and prints chronicling the history of Petrarch’s reputation – successive representations of him, or Laura, and of the locality.

 At Arquà, the cult of Petrarch references Laura through the sixteenth-century frescoes commissioned by an admirer, which show, for example, his discovery of the bathing Laura. But, on the whole, Laura is eclipsed there by the story of Petrarch’s death at his desk which is reified in Petrarch’s vast tomb sited just down the hill.  At Vaucluse, the important tomb has always been that of Laura. The existence and identity of Laura herself has often been contested; so too the whereabouts of her tomb. In the early nineteenth century, it was being shown in a monastery in Avignon. Much earlier, though, Francis I deemed it politically desirable to play up the fact that Petrarch had been in love with a French woman, and commissioned a search to find her tomb. The courtier charged with the task prudently ‘found’ a tomb and its occupant was duly exhumed. A young woman’s skeleton was discovered, accompanied by a small metal box containing a scrap of parchment bearing a set of initials which could be, and very naturally were, construed as Laura’s; Laura’s tomb was declared discovered, and Francis himself was said to have taken his mistress along on a jaunt to pay his respects.

Perhaps even more telling than juxtaposing these two tombs is to counterpose the representations and celebrations of Petrarch’s two supposed lovers, his cat and Laura.  I’ve already written a bit about Petrarch’s cat in a previous post – here is a tongue-in-cheek translation made by my daughter of the Latin inscription supposedly spoken by the cat that appears beneath its displayed body:

‘The Etruscan poet burned with double love;

I was his greatest flame, Laura came after;

And now, I wonder, what provokes your laughter?

If she was granted beauty from above,

She makes me, by compare, the faithful one;

If little books she inspired

For my part I ate mice just as required

And kept them from the sacred bounds beyond

So my great master never was distracted

Or startled by those squeaking bold incursions.

And, although dead, I still perform my duty.’

Thus runs the epitaph we love redacted

On Petrarch’s cat – and do not cast aspersions.

For thus we see, mouse-catching excels mere beauty.

Both cat and Laura inhabited real bodies even if they have only conjectural reality. The celebration of Petrarch’s cat valorises the Italian over the French, domestic management over illicit obsession, the old Petrarch over the young, the bookish over the lyric, the study over the source. One might then juxtapose the cat with the astonishing evocation of Laura (above) that looms in the middle of the house at Vaucluse. Headless, vastly elongated, it represents a woman’s body with two backs – one clothed in bridal white, one in funereal black.

The cult of Petrarch’s houses is so long-lasting and begins so early that it seems to pose a serious challenge to the otherwise tenable hypothesis that imagining the author on or through location is essentially a romantic matter, and a matter, very often of romantic nationalism. It rouses the question of what the distinction is between the author Petrarch as he is imagined successively by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantics and through to the present day.  Was Petrarch was celebrated as a modern classic, as he himself imagined himself as the colleague and son of Virgil and Ovid, and did Vaucluse then become a French extension to the ‘classic ground’ of  southern Italy? This is a research question for another day, because it would require a wholesale investigation and analysis of visits to Vaucluse before 1800 to determine what visitors were ‘in search of’, and what responses they were engaged in reiterating.

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Corelli-day

Post 4 Corelli-day

April 27 2013 I’m floating in a jet-black shiny gondola, reclined on black velvet cushions and guarded on both sides by brass horses with curled fish-tails, embellished with black tassels.  Behind me there’s a gondolier in traditional blue and white striped shirt, black trousers and boater; before me rises a knife-like grey metal prow over a deck ornamented with golden cherubs and curlicues and a large vase of fabric lilies – the prow switches gently back and forth as the oar behind me dips into the water and pushes it away with a quiet gurgle below the keel. It’s freezing and about to hail.

This isn’t the Grand Canal in Venice, where I was too cheap-skate last time to hire a gondola when following in the watery and lascivious peregrinations of Byron among the palazzi. No, the river is the Avon, the place is Stratford-upon-Avon, but it is a real Venetian gondola, about half-size, made for some late nineteenth-century exhibition in London, and it’s being propelled not by a Venetian but a gentleman from Oxford, one of the select few in Britain who specialise in rowing standing up. And what is a gondola Shakespeareanly named ‘The Dream’ doing here, swimming exotically between swans and rowing-boats, on a blowy April Saturday? And what am I doing in it? Well, I am, as ever, indulging in literary tourism. It is Marie Corelli Day in Stratford.

And who is or was Marie Corelli? She is Stratford’s other writer, who came to the town at the age of forty-five to recover from an illness, and stayed on to live in ‘dear Shakespeare-land’. Once celebrated as the woman whose novels outsold all previous books, she is now almost entirely forgotten, except in Nigeria. In Nigeria, she is still big, thanks to some publisher who, in the aftermath of the First World War and the consequent almost total collapse of her reputation, had the bright commercial idea of shipping his worthless stock to Africa. Corelli had a great eye for a publicity stunt – hence the entirely bogus Italian name (her name was Minnie McKay) which must have in turn naturally suggested the gondola, complete with a real Venetian gondolier. Mind you, he had to be dismissed six months later for pulling a knife in a brawl in the Dirty Duck pub. Thereafter, she was rowed by her gardener until he was called up and killed in the War. After that sorrow, she never took it out again and it sat in boathouse after boathouse until it was restored many years later.  In her heyday, though, Corelli’s stunt was so much one of the sights of Stratford that there was a (possibly satirical) postcard issued by a local newsagent, showing her drifting along in it, under willows and accompanied by a swan.

There’s another of her house, Mason Croft, now the Shakespeare Institute, where she set up house with her long-time companion and biographer Bertha Vyver. You can still see their initials entwined over the pseudo Elizabethan fireplace in the pseudo-Elizabethan hall with its motto ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’.  She was rich enough and famous enough in 1907 to lay on a private train from Oxford to bring Mark Twain up to stay with her. He was less than grateful. She was celebrated enough to be the inspiration for E.F.Benson’s character Lucia in his ‘Mapp and Lucia’ series of fictions. Corelli’s appetite for the Shakespearean is both lampooned and admired in the Lucia of Riseholme who boasts an especially ‘Elizabethan’ house, complete with a Shakespearean fantasy ‘Perdita’s garden’, and who triumphs as Elizabeth I in the local village pageant. In short, for Edwardians, to borrow the words of a poem by H. Chance Newton of 1902 –

….when ye go a-Barding

With deep reverence regarding

That Poet who has helped the World’s expansion,

Also (leftward from the station)

Go pay your adoration

At that other Stratford Shrine – Sweet Marie’s Mansion.

Here Corelli displayed herself as a writer – especially in the music room filled with instruments, flowers, caged birds and objets d’art, and, which was, according to Maureen Bell, garnished with ‘books…artfully displayed, left open at particular passages’ and ‘manuscripts – with ink pens carefully laid across them – …placed on desks to catch the eye of visitors’. Her will provided for the preservation of the house as a shrine to her work as a writer.

Today, Mason Croft is humming with excited admirers. They have laid on tea and cakes in the conservatory served by maids in Victorian costume, there is an exhibit of books, a silent film, a programme of talks, and a dramatised biographical reading in costume, all of which make up for my disappointment in not being able to ride in Corelli’s carriage because the horse has fallen lame. They are even launching an app, an eerie affair, which allows you to look at locations around Stratford through your phone camera, enhanced with the ghost or ‘aura’ of Corelli lifted from old photographs – a novel take on the sort of emotional experimentation typical of 19C literary tourism which entailed enhancing the scene with imagined figures.

My own interest in Corelli focusses upon her passion for Shakespearean Stratford. To this we owe the interior of Mason Croft, which offers an Edwardian take upon an Elizabethan building, and her famous folly which still stands in the back garden. This little piece of nonsense, an eighteenth-century folly which Corelli thought was Elizabethan, and which she called ‘The watch-tower’, became a deliberate exercise in evoking Shakespearean England, by which one might understand a loose concoction of diamond panes, dark wood, mullion windows, and a general air of having been borrowed from some Edwardian set for Twelfth Night. This is where she wrote, and where I, having obtained the key, sat in last autumn’s chill writing amongst a litter of dead woodlice about the business of making Stratford ‘Shakespearean’. For Stratford has not always looked as ‘Shakespearean’ as it now does – the pervasive black timbers and white plaster are very largely creations of the early twentieth century which stripped back later stucco and brick frontages.

Corelli deserves credit for having argued the necessity to do more than conserve just Shakespeare’s Birthplace, which had been saved for the nation in the 1850s. (For an excellent and detailed study of this, see Julia Thomas, Shakespeare’s Shrine.) This conservation impulse sprang from a strong sense that Shakespeare’s genius could be attributed to Stratford’s ambience. Her often unwelcome and controversial incursions into local politics and planning decisions mean that she still has a reputation as a meddlesome and eccentric middle-aged woman, but her actions were motivated by a strong sense of the desirability of conserving what was called at the time ‘Shakespeare-land’. Her fame meant that she was able to tread on a great many local toes to good effect, being personally responsible for orchestrating campaigns in the national press against the erection of inappropriate monuments near Shakespeare’s in the church, the demolition of Elizabethan cottages in Henley Street, and (the one she lost) the erection of the American fountain in Market Square. She was instrumental in the preservation of Harvard House (the home of the mother of the Harvard who went on to found the university in Boston), the Rother gardens, and the formation of a Guild in 1913 to protect the town’s heritage. In this, she was well ahead of her time – it would take the First World War to convince people generally of the need to save Englishness from the ravages of change – it was only in the 1920s, for example, that there was any concerted action to preserve Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, Johnson’s house in London, or Keats’ in Hampstead.

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Shakespeare’s Birthday

Post 3 Shakespeare’s Birthday

 April 20th 2013 From Shakespeare’s Verona to Shakespeare’s Stratford. Today it’s the Birthday Procession, to mark the Bard’s 449th Birthday, and so I’m togged up in my doctoral gown and picking up a bouquet of flowers to place on Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church. The Procession is rooted in the 1760s when David Garrick, the famous actor-manager, brought London aristocratic society up to Stratford for his Jubilee, designed to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday with a costume ball, a breakfast, a horse-race, a concert, a specially commissioned Ode, and a procession of costumed characters from the plays which was to march from the Birthplace (where Garrick had identified the ‘birthroom’) to the grave in Holy Trinity Church. In 1762* the Procession was rained off, but today it is beautiful.

We start at the Mayor’s reception – in the ballroom in the Town Hall, which is filled with Shakespeareana, including, to my amusement, a statuette I’d never registered before, a replica of Juliet’s statue in Verona.  I talk with the deputy ambassador from Japan, the representative of the American embassy, and the Irish ambassador, along with the current triumvirate at the top of the Shakespeare Theatre heap — Greg Doran, Anthony Sher, and Simon Russell Beale. The procession includes schoolboys, Olympic volunteers, Stratford organisations of every sort, scholars of Shakespeare (including myself), clergy, the Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire, the Bishop of Warwick. It marches round the streets, unfurls flags, carries flowers to the church. As a scholar of literary commemoration, including this one, what interested me most was one particular innovation introduced last year—“the quill moment”. Described as a ‘cameo pageant’ in my ambiguous written instructions, this involves a school-group going to the Birthplace where last year’s Head Boy of Shakespeare’s school is presented with a quill, cut from a goose-feather from Mary Arden’s Farm. This is meant to symbolise, I suppose, the birth and youth of the writer and conveniently also suggests flight and transcendence. Anyhow, the ex-Head Boy then marches through the streets with the quill held aloft all the way through the town to the church where the procession lays down its floral offerings. He did it very prettily, but his arm must have ached horribly.

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Petrarch’s Cat

Post 4 Petrarch’s Cat

To a place sacred to another pair of lovers — Arquà Petrarca – a village set in the hills above Padua. Here Petrarch — whose sonnets celebrating his love for Laura are the source of the love-language that characterises Romeo and Juliet — spent the last years of his life. This place has been invented and reinvented from the fourteenth century onwards as a site of literary pilgrimage. So, fortifying ourselves with a Petrarch and Laura pizza, we set off to find the house – discreet to the point of concealment in strong contrast to the hoo-ha of signs and souvenir shops around the Casa di Giulietta.

Petrarch’s house is possibly the oldest writer’s house museum in the world — it has attracted enthusiasts ever since the poet’s death. Cut into one of the mantelpieces is the date, 13th October 1564, and all the names of a group of Austrian students who’d travelled all the way across the Alps to see the room in which Petrarch died. In 1816, Byron came here too, on his way from Verona to Venice.

 As Petrarch’s letters make clear, he consciously dramatised his poetic life of retreat here. He altered the house to be more poetic, adding a handsome portico. Here are all sorts of things that endeavour to realise and amplify the Petrarchanism of the place – his actual bookcase in the room in which he died, a series of lavish sixteenth-century frescoes describing his life and works, a box of earth brought over in the 1960s from his birthplace, Arezzo, and much more.

But what I am chiefly eager to see is Petrarch’s cat. Here it is — a real, embalmed cat – poor thing. It must, however, be one of the most famous writer’s pets in the world. It seems to have originally been displayed on a plinth, and is now set in a baroque wall tablet.

The verse below reads ‘etruscus gemino vates exarsit amore – maximis ignis ego, laura secundus erat, quid rides. divinae illam si gratia formae, me dignam eximio fecit amante fides; si numero geniumque sacris dedit illa libellis, causa ego ne saevis muribus esca forent. arcebam sacro vivens a limine mures, ne domini exitio scripta diserta daree incutio trepidis eadem defuncta pavorem, et viget exanimi in corpore priscem fides.’   This translates (rather roughly) as ‘The Etruscan Bard burned with twin loves – I was the greatest of his flames, Laura was the second. Why do you laugh? If it’s a matter of beauty and faith, I should have made ​​a superb lover. The Muse of Poetry gave no reason why I should not eat wild mice. I guarded the sacred threshold from mice to prevent anxiety that might have meant the fearful destruction of eloquent inspired writings. I died, full of life, my lifeless body faithful to the end.’

This cat is clearly a joke – and it was devised in 1635 by the then owner of the house in reference to a famous picture of Petrarch with his cat in his study. What interests me about this cat is what sort of joke it is. It’s a joke on the cultural investment in the rather notional love of Petrarch for the ever unattainable and unattained Laura (at best a sort of stalking, one could argue). But it’s also a joke at the expense of the cultural desire to possess the material traces of the (relatively speaking) immaterial — myth and story, words and sentiment. It is, above all, a meditation on the desire to re-embody the disembodied – to re-body Petrarch himself. It serves as a commentary on the long history of the fetishization of Petrarch’s remains — the way his bones have been subjected to a long series of disinterments, dismemberments, and evacuations. Nowadays, for example, the house holds a miniature copy of the tomb down in the church, which holds one of Petrarch’s ribs. Grotesque and magical, over-embodied, under-motivated, Petrarch’s cat perfectly describes the comic problem of displaying the writer’s house as the material conditions of the writing.

This was a problem in 1635 — it may be a problem for the future of writer’s houses, too. The poor cat has recently been demoted from ‘Venus’ room’ to the servants’ quarters. It suggests the possibility that other objects historically taken very seriously as material pointers to the embodiment of genius may also lose their power. For those in charge of conserving writer’s houses, the challenge is to find new ways of finding a ‘local habitat and a home’ for the ‘airy nothings’ of literature. But meanwhile I have unpacked my Casa Petrarca tea-towel, and my plaster figurine of Romeo and Juliet clinging together on their famous balcony is sitting next to my keyboard as inspiration, of sorts.

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Juliet’s House

Post 3 Juliet’s House

English demand also seems to have driven the development of ‘Juliet’s House’ as a tourist attraction. The poet Samuel Rogers wrote in his bestselling Italy: A Poem (1822-8) ‘Are those the distant turrets of Verona?/And shall I sup where Juliet at the masque/ Saw her loved Montague, and now sleeps by him?’ Rogers’ note to these lines makes it clear that he had viewed the house: ‘The old Palace of the Capelletti, with its uncouth balcony and irregular windows, is still standing in a lane near the Market-place.’ In 1829, the house was pointed out to Thomas Ireland’s party. Appetite for the house increased; in the late 1840s, the Baroness Blaze de Bury and her party engaged there in the sort of imaginative experiment typical of the literary tourism of the time. Blaze De Bury insists on the ‘truth’ of the story of Romeo and Juliet in a number of ways, adducing archival chronicles, comparing Shakespeare’s plays to the original accounts, and so forth, but her main system of authentication is the felt power of poetry to transform place: the house must be authentic because she experiences it as authentic: ‘Why, if you will but take the trouble of listening, you may hear them within calling ‘for dates and quinces in the pantry’; and as the evening shadows fall, masque after masque goes by to Capulet’s feast. Never tell me that Juliet dwelt not there, and that it was not through that gateway that Romeo passed…’.

Despite the charm of the Baroness’ imagineering strategies it was not an easy trick to pull off.  The house was supposedly authenticated by a stone plaque showing a hat, and equally conveniently, for both visitors and proprietor, it was an inn and therefore readily accessible to the public. There its suitability as a site for ‘poetic memories’ ceased, as visitor after visitor complained. Dirty, dilapidated and commercial, it was unaccountably short of the essential balcony: ‘there is a balcony, certainly, but too high, I think, for even the ardent Romeo to have climbed’. No contemporary stage-production would have been possible without a balcony; equally no other depiction of the lovers’ mutual declarations could be imagined without a balcony, and a gothic balcony at that. No wonder tourists were disappointed.

On the one hand, then, visitors expected to see Juliet’s house; on the other hand, increasingly it did not look as it should – that is to say, how it had come to look on stages right across Europe. Between 1937 and 1942 it was therefore provided with a rose-window, a gothic-style doorway, and a balcony, of which it is regularly said that it is either a sarcophagus or a water-trough, in unconscious reiteration of the old arguments as to the provenance of Juliet’s tomb.  Since then it has continued to evolve, pressed on by Zeffirelli’s on-location filming in 1968.

Nowadays around a million visitors a year come to the courtyard. While continuities between early enthusiasts musing over the tomb and modern enthusiasts posturing on the balcony are very evident, there has been a shift away from the necroromanticism practised at the tomb towards a celebration of transgressive love at the house – a transgression and exuberance expressed in the mild vandalism of  fondling the right breast of the statue of Juliet, chewing-gum-attached messages, love-locks and the like.

The house itself is much quieter and was hosting a large and beautiful display of nineteenth-century womens’ clothes, plus a display of paintings of nudes writhesomely reclining. The rooms seemed to be filled with disembodied Victorian women viewing Juliet in what used to be called the altogether. The bed comes from Zefferelli’s film-set and was surrounded by ghostly-white Victorian underwear hanging on dummies. The intimation of Victorian erotica is appropriate, though – nineteenth-century investment in Juliet seems to have been fixated on the spectacle of Juliet horizontal and dressed in white whether in tomb or bed.Stepping out onto the balcony, I found I was liable to be immortalized all over the internet as a superannuated Juliet. In this orgy of Juliet-enthusiasm, Shakespeare seems a bit like a gatecrasher at the party; visitors don’t want access to him, but to Juliet. They can get it via the heart-topped ‘Juliet’s Desk’ from which you can email your problems to Juliet, who will, through the good offices of a Juliet club volunteer, answer with advice.

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Juliet’s Tomb

Post 2 Juliet’s tomb

To Shakespeare’s ‘fair Verona’. I’ve been invited to speak on Shakespeare tourism as part of a conference on Romeo and Juliet. In between sessions, I hurry off to places that early nineteenth-century English travellers passing through Verona put on the top of their must-see lists. Byron, Mary Shelley, Chateaubriand, Heine, Kotzebue, all came to see what was reputed to be the original Juliet’s tomb. In 1816, when Byron saw it, it was lying derelict in the garden of an abandoned monastery; later in the century it was moved under a portico and tidied up; and in the nineteen-thirties it was housed in a crypt adapted for it, mostly to make it look more like Juliet’s tomb in Cukor’s film. Nowadays you reach it through an elaborate installation of statues, busts, sculptures, paintings and plaques bearing quotations associated with the play and its author. This is what it looks like today, installed in an atmospheric crypt.

This tomb seems to have been invented in ravaged post-Napoleonic Europe almost entirely to please wealthy English travellers. There had been some tradition in the eighteenth century of the tomb of Juliet Capulet, but it had certainly disappeared. Yet the poet Samuel Rogers, who had hurried over onto the continent in 1814, fleeing back home after Napoleon’s escape from Elba, records viewing ‘with the eye of faith Juliet’s stone coffin, the niche for her lamp, the spiracle for her respiration.’ By the early 1820s viewing it with ‘the eye of faith’ seems to have been very much the order of the day, and tourists were romantically inventive. ‘With what feelings of fond, and pensive melancholy did I approach that shrine sacred to hapless, blighted love’ mused the anonymous author of A Classical and Historical Tour through France, Switzerland, Italy in 1821 and 1822 (1824, 1826), before exerting himself in extensive Shakespearean quotation on the spot. He is one of the first to note ‘the impress made purposely in the stone for Juliet to recline her head’ (again if you look at the picture above you can just see the ‘pillow’) and reveals that there was by now a visitors’ book in which it was customary to write ‘effusions’. Rogers also remarked that the coffin was already being damaged by English relic-hunters. If you look at the picture above you can see that the sides have been chipped away.  Chateaubriand, attending the Congress of Verona of 1822, said that the necklace and bracelets worn by Maria-Louise, Archduchess of Parma and widow of Napoleon, were made of the reddish stone of the sarcophagus. Valery wrote of a visit in the 1820s that ‘some illustrious foreigners and handsome ladies of Verona wear a small coffin of this same stone’ ; and in 1829, the traveller Maria Callcott remarked on meeting a gentleman, who, being ‘dans le gens romantique’, sported a fragment of the tomb set in a ring.

This habit was later satirised in The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole (1848) in which the souvenir collection of a woman traveller, the silly and victimised Mrs Hamper, contained ‘all sorts of Juliet’s tombs from Verona, to supply all of which that have been made from the monument itself, the original must have been an entire quarry’. Although by mid-century the tomb was regarded as a fraud, tourists still seem to have gone in for sentimental self-staging. William Harrison Ainsworth retailed a story ‘of an English lady, who, being missed, was found half dead and in a state of ecstasy – in a white muslin morning dress and satin shoes – in the tomb itself’.  The intention here is satiric— but it is much less clearly so in an 1846 report of an English male enthusiast laid at full length within the sarcophagus. These private rituals were matched by more consciously public ones; in 1887, a visitor reported the tomb’s inside as ‘strewn with visiting-cards – travellers from all parts of the world paying this tribute of respect to the memory of the unfortunate girl-bride’. There were even photographs amongst the litter, including one of a young lady superscribed with a message of sympathy for Juliet. This is the ancestor of the famous letter first left at the tomb in 1937.  Relic-taking is here replaced by message-leaving – but the impulse is very similar – a public display of feeling and empathy.

When I went (in the rain) Juliet’s tomb was virtually deserted. Nothing could more strikingly exemplify the difference between nineteenth-century and modern enthusiasm. The site is covered in graffiti, and you can still get married in the chapel above the tomb, but there is a certain dereliction in the air. Perhaps the lovers’ death together is less erotic than once it was. Scattered about the site are various monuments and sculptures that meditate upon Shakespeare and his works – an indigestible mix of older ideas, like the 1902 bust of Shakespeare, and very modern takes, like the vast double metal heart, made by the designer of Juliet’s desk. Most aggressive of all is a huge sculpture shipped over from China depicting what purports to be ‘the Chinese Romeo and Juliet’ that dominates the walkway to the tomb. It seems strange that Romeo and Juliet should have become some of the world’s most famous and influential people who ever lived, stranger still that they have become patron saints of marriage, given that the whole affair was more of a disastrous one-night stand.

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