There is something unsettling and indecorous about thinking about the chair as the ground of writing – something altogether too reminiscent, as Simon Goldhill has put it, of the writer’s buttocks. The paraphernalia of writing which connects hand and eye to paper, is perhaps a safer way of thinking about the agency of the authorial body in relation to the literary work.
Shakespeare’s Quill, Stratford
Ben Jonson argues that Shakespeare is ‘a monument without a tomb/And art alive still while thy book doth live’. Scholars are divided as to whether the original monument on the wall of the chancel of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford commemorating Shakespeare originally held a plaster quill between its fingers (there’s a hole there), but in recent years the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations have invented a new tradition, the ‘ceremony of the quill’. In this the head boy of the school Shakespeare that attended carries a specially prepared quill from a goose reared at Mary Arden’s Farm. He parades it from the town centre to the monument, climbs a flower-bedecked ladder to the monument, and replaces last year’s pen. The result is a monument that hybridises plaster with ever-renewed organic material, making it more ‘alive’. It’s also a ceremony that accidentally alludes to the old story that Shakespeare attended the funeral of Edmund Spenser in 1599 and in common with other poets, threw his quill into Spenser’s grave. It has long been a fantasy that it could be exhumed (see upcoming post).
Also on Shakespeare and Stratford see https://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=127 and https://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=190
Hardy’s Pens, Dorchester County Museum
These, unlike Shakespeare’s quills really are Hardy’s own pens. Hardy was a great self-mythologiser – he marked each of his pens with the name of the novel that he had written with it, then archived it, and took a fresh pen for the next. This never would have been possible with quills of course, because they simply wore out through constantly splitting and being sharpened; but it was quite an extravagant habit to adopt with steel pens.
Also on Hardy and Dortchester see https://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=143
(Not) Joyce’s spectacles
Writers’ spectacles are often as celebrated as their pens – an image of Virginia Woolf’s eye-glasses decorates a souvenir coffee mug sold at her Sussex house in Rodmell. They serve as a way of imagining the authorial body focussed on writing; they provide a way of ‘looking through the author’s eyes’. Where they don’t survive they may still be usefully evoked. These are not James Joyce’s spectacles; they are spectacles of the period used to dress a reconstruction of Joyce’s writing room in the James Joyce Centre, Dublin. As anyone familiar with photographs of Joyce will know, he certainly wore glasses, and so these glasses helpfully evoke the particularity of Joyce’s celebrity.
(Not) ‘Wordsworth’s’ Typewriter, Allan Bank, Grasmere
Wordsworth of course wrote with a pencil or a quill, not a typewriter. I include this here all the same because it underscores the way in which creative writing is not thought of precisely as mere writing, and certainly not as mere ‘work’ within popular culture. Visitors to this National Trust house are therefore invited to experiment with expressing themselves by writing with obsolete technology – according to the curator, so popular is emulating Wordsworth upon a typewriter that the house continually has to replace the typewriter because it breaks under heavy use.
Also on Wordsworth and Grasmere see https://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=185 and https://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=195