Literary shrines and the people who worship them.
Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By HELEN RITTELMEYER
The Brontë estate in Yorkshire reveals the dark side of writers’ homes, and not just because of all the moors. The Brontë sisters tend to attract hysterical fans—“going to Haworth feels like joining a cult”—and the museum at Haworth Parsonage certainly reflects a certain obsessiveness, which forces Goldhill to confront the voyeurism of his mission. In Charlotte Brontë’s room, her very shoes and stockings are part of the exhibit: “What Victorian woman, let alone the cripplingly shy Charlotte, would want her used underwear on display?” It is also Goldhill’s misfortune to have brought as his traveling companion a friend who once saw the original manuscript of Jane Eyre in the British Library. This friend finds nothing at Haworth Parsonage half as moving as beholding the page where Charlotte first set down “Reader, I married him,” which leaves Goldhill wondering if the sisters’ intimate belongings have been exposed not only tastelessly but pointlessly.
So he reverts to his former skepticism, which is only compounded by his stay in Stratford-upon-Avon. Sleepy Stratford became England’s Shakespeare capital in 1769, when David Garrick decided to spearhead a grand celebration of “Avonian Willy” there. A parade was held and bad verse tributes were recited, but not a single play was actually performed. The tacky, faux Elizabethanism of the modern “Stratford Shakespeare Experience” suggests to Goldhill that, two-and-a-half centuries later, the Bard’s hometown fans still haven’t learned how to celebrate him properly.
Freud’s home in London has its tacky side, too. Not only are there fuzzy “Freudian slippers” for sale, but excerpts from The Interpretation of Dreams have been hung in exceedingly obvious places throughout the house. (The famous dream of the burning child is posted by the fireplace.) But two things redeem even the plush dolls in the gift shop. One is Freud’s office, untouched since his death, which is remarkably unlike the austere rooms fashionable with modern analysts. With its piled Persian rugs, vibrant red pillows, and mantelpieces full of archaeological oddities, it strikes Goldhill’s wife (whose mother is a psychiatrist) as “a cross between an office and a bordello.” The second redeeming feature is the visitors’ book which, interestingly, is overwhelmingly populated with psychoanalysts and psychology students and professors. Apparently, even professional demystifiers have their holy shrines, which is somehow reassuring.
It is fairly unusual for a university professor to write a travelogue. Most of the great British travel writers are just the opposite, college dropouts or never-wents: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Bruce Chatwin, and Colin Thubron among them. Being autodidacts, they collected bits of knowledge like magpies, which suits travel writing far better than the academic’s approach, methodically subordinating every new observation to some main thesis. If Goldhill had approached his journey more like a magpie, he might have found a better answer to his question. Scott’s suits of armor and Emily Brontë’s schoolbooks are not very interesting as expressions of artistic genius, but to someone who finds them simply interesting on their own terms, they don’t have to be.
Helen Rittelmeyer is an associate editor at National Review.