Vita’s Folly

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

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Dumas’ Prison

Dumas house

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

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Hawthorne’s Window

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

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Freud’s Mirror

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

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Hans Christian Andersen’s Rope


After years of traipsing to writer’s house museums, I have come to the conclusion that there is, and always has been, something that threatens to be inconveniently over-material about these sites. By this, I mean that the writer’s house, and the physical items inside it, may not always offer an adequate reflection of the author’s writing. This is much less of a problem around authors famous primarily for their ‘lives’ (as in the case of Johnson), their autobiographical writings (as in the case of Rousseau or Wordsworth), or their realist fiction (as in the cases of Austen, Christie or Dickens), because the idea of place is hard-wired into their narratives. Much trickier, however, are authors famous primarily for works of fantasy, such as Hans Christian Andersen, a man who constructed even his autobiography as a fairy tale, publishing The Fairytale of My Life in 1847. Continue reading

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Johnson’s Coffee Pot

If, like me, you love a hot brew, then ‘Dr Johnson’s teapot’, now held at the Houghton Library in Harvard University, is a must-see. Dating from c. 1765-68, this item was certainly used at 17 Gough Square, and certainly belonged to the house’s owner, Dr Samuel Johnson. Less certain, however, is whether the pot was intended for the making of tea or coffee. Having first been purchased by Henry Constantine Newell, the pot was acquired by the American collector and Johnson enthusiast A. Edward Newton in 1927, at the height of Anglophile literary collecting in the States. By this time, the coffee-pot seems already to have been identified as a teapot, because it was used at a tea-party to recreate the Johnsonian Literary Club at Newton’s home, Oak Knoll, Boston, on December 11th 1932, complete with servants in eighteenth-century costume. It continues to be described as a teapot in the Houghton Library’s online exhibition, despite the fact that the exhibit also includes the manuscript in which Johnson gifts it as a coffee-pot to his longstanding black manservant Francis Barber. Continue reading

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Dahl’s Shed

I’ve meant to go and see Roald Dahl’s famous writing-hut for ages, and today is the day.  It’s an excellent example of an author’s writing-space presented as a place in which you can encounter the moment of creative genesis, which all the same works as a sort of elegy.   Continue reading

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Brontë’s Bonnet

Clothing very often holds a privileged position within house-museums dedicated to women writers.  Charlotte Brontë’s old bedroom includes  two glass cases containing clothing either ‘worn by’ or ‘carried by’ Charlotte, as the captions point out. One cabinet, positioned in the centre of the room, consists of a dress draped with a shawl, a half-folded parasol, a pair of stockings, a pair of gloves, and a fan. In a separate case, located against the bedroom wall, is all that remains of Charlotte Brontë’s wedding outfit: the wedding-bonnet and veil. In this, she married the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls in Haworth parish church on June 29, 1854. Brontë’s first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, noted that locals described her as looking ‘like a snowdrop,’ in her white muslin dress topped off with this pale green-trimmed bonnet and white lace veil. The famously quiet wedding was followed by an unexpectedly happy marriage which was cut short by the bride’s death from complications associated with her pregnancy. Faded and partially dismantled though it is, displayed in the bedroom in which she died on 31 March 1855, the wedding outfit is nowadays – and has been for some considerable time — one of the most celebrated items in the collections of the Haworth Parsonage Museum.  Continue reading

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Cowper’s Nightcap

In order to write this post, I will need to put on my thinking cap. We’re all familiar with this phrase as a figure of speech, but in the nineteenth century, there was indeed a strong connection between thoughtful writing, and the wearing of headgear.  Continue reading

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Dickinson’s Humming-Birds


In 2010 the photographer Annie Leibovitz paid a visit to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. Out of that trip she began to put together a book of photographs and accompanying text, which she published subsequently as Pilgrimage (2011). Almost the first photograph in the book is a full-page plate showing in extreme close-up a large Victorian glass dome filled with small, brilliantly-feathered birds, including five humming-birds poised as though in flight. Such explanation as is offered within the caption for the inclusion of these birds within Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage is puzzlingly unhelpful:


Life in the Dickinson family was complicated by the fact that Austin Dickinson [Emily’s brother] had a lover, Mabel Loomis Todd. After Emily died, Todd edited her poems and oversaw their publication. She also founded the Amherst Historical Society in 1899 and arranged for a friend of hers to leave her eighteenth-century house to the Amherst History Museum. A vitrine with stuffed birds from the former owner is in the museum’s Todd Room. Continue reading

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