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.”
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
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
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.