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, 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.

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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.

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My Favourite Writer’s House








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

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


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Exit Through the Gift Shop: Taking Things

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

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Exit through the Gift Shop: Bringing Things


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


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Shakespeare’s New Place

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

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Irving’s Sunnyside


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

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Vita’s Folly

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

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Dumas’ Prison

Dumas house

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

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