The Magazine

Pilgrims’ Progress

Literary shrines and the people who worship them.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By HELEN RITTELMEYER
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The question asked in Simon Goldhill’s new book is why someone who enjoys an author’s books would want to examine the house where he wrote them. The Victorians were the first people to turn writers’ houses into pilgrimage sites, and Goldhill—who is a Cambridge scholar of the Victorians as well as the ancient Greeks—can’t see why this quasi-superstitious practice didn’t go out of fashion along with the six-day bicycle race. Why should I visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, he asks: “I haven’t visited my own birthplace.”

Photo of Sigmund Freud’s study in London

Sigmund Freud’s study, London

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But year after year, tens of thousands of tourists visit the five shrines on his tour—the homes-turned-museums of Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, the Brontës, William Shakespeare, and Sigmund Freud—in search of some insight or connection. So if Goldhill starts off skeptical of these pilgrimages, he also has reason to take them seriously.

His journey begins with Sir Walter Scott’s estate, which at first seems like a sensible choice: Scott, unlike any of the other authors, intended his home to be a destination and an expression of his personality. He purchased a property known as Clarty Hole (“roughly translated, ‘sh—ty dump’ ”), renamed it Abbotsford, and stocked his ever-expanding mansion with a vast collection of historical objects: French cuirasses salvaged at Waterloo; a replica of Robert Bruce’s skull; even “a piece of oatcake found on a dead Highlander at the battle of Culloden.” Scott welcomed visitors to his palace of memorabilia; he was reputed to give excellent guided tours. After his death, his own relics—the clothes he wore for his final portrait, his ink-blotter, a lock of his hair—were put out for display with the rest.

Given all this self-conscious effort, one might expect Abbotsford to present in their purest form all the reasons to visit a writer’s home. But its design is too deliberate. Goldhill thought the house “reeked of Scott”—and not even Scott the writer but “Scott the manipulator of his image, Scott the keen antiquarian.” So the leadoff visit is in some sense a failure, but a failure with a lesson to teach about the dangers of being too literal. Ideally, a writer’s home should offer insights that can’t be found in his work, supplementing his writing the way body language supplements speech. At Abbotsford, Scott isn’t using body language; he is playing charades.

Goldhill’s trip to Wordsworth country is much more profitable, because he arrives with a specific mystery to solve. Wordsworth’s years in the Lake District spanned two separate residences, Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, and it is generally thought that the year he moved from one to the other was the year his talent began to desert him. Dove Cottage is a small, dark, converted pub where he lived with wife Mary and sister Dorothy when they were all poor. Rydal Mount, where the three of them moved when Wordsworth became eminent and financially secure, is much grander and seems exactly like a place where a sage would do his entertaining. We can see the outlines of our tragedy already. The question is whether visiting the two houses adds anything to this story of fame and creative decline. Surprisingly, Goldhill the skeptic answers yes.

There is no desk in Wordsworth’s study at Dove Cottage. He did most of his composition outdoors on long walks, lowering his voice when anyone passed him “so as not to appear mad,” and when he returned home, Mary or Dorothy would sit with a writing board on her knees and take dictation. Before his visit, Goldhill never understood why Wordsworth “didn’t just write down his own poems” in the Dove Cottage years (which produced “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and the “Immortality” ode). Having experienced the claustrophobic atmosphere for himself, Goldhill concludes that it had something to do with “the symbiotic life—intricately, emotionally interconnected—of the three adults in the close quarters of the
tiny rooms.”

Rydal Mount, on the other hand, is Wordsworth’s Abbotsford: high ceilings, sweeping staircases, a dining room clearly intended for many guests and meals of several courses. Wordsworth devoted meticulous effort to designing the terraced garden, arranging the flowerbeds to frame optimal views of the lake. Goldhill arrived already knowing that Rydal Mount was a wealthier man’s house, but it took a visit for him to realize that it was also a willing
public celebrity’s.