Who has not been strangely and unexpectedly moved, at some point, on encountering an object associated with a famous writer? I first experienced this sensation at the Brontë Parsonage Museum when looking at a dress worn by Charlotte Brontë. In that moment the petite gown impressed upon me something I had long known, but never felt: a sense of the author as a real person. I appear to be in good company. In 2015, I helped to organize a conference at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester, which explored ‘Placing the Author: Literary Tourism in the Long Nineteenth Century’. Alongside the conference we launched the Postcard Project to learn about present-day practices of literary tourism. We invited participants to send a picture of themselves at a destination associated with a famous author and answer two questions: why did you go and what did you take from the experience? We received more than 40 responses, mostly from within the academic community. Some romanticized or ironized their visits. Others reported a deeper sense of connection to author and text. Several highlighted the personal, affective dimensions of their experiences. How respondents chose to place themselves within the literary landscape fascinated me. People posed with varying degrees of confidence, alone or with companions, besides statues, paintings, and exhibits, and in front of facades grand and modest. A few contributors made themselves at home by taking a seat or adopting a version of period costume. In two submissions the participant knocks on the front door, as if they are about to call upon an author still in residence, rather than visit a tourist attraction.1 As Alison Booth notes in her recent study, Homes and Haunts: Touring Writers’ Shrines and Countries, literary tourism is often seen as separate from the serious business of scholarship. New Criticism edged out the topo-biographical approaches that flourished in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. We no longer think it is important to visit an author’s home to understand her work. And yet, as the Postcard Project testifies, literary sites retain their power to haunt and fascinate. Booth’s study is in part a compelling survey of the sites, texts and practices associated with the development of literary tourism. It deploys close, surface, distant and symptomatic reading practices to navigate an eclectic range of material and builds upon the growing body of work in this field by focusing on the role of transatlantic exchange and exploring the genre of homes and haunts. It is also a homes and haunts narrative in its own right, interspersed with details of Booth’s own travels in the footsteps of previous literary pilgrims. Sometimes moving and often comic, her account probes the ‘strange and potentially ludicrous phenomenon’ (27) of literary tourism from cultural-historical and candidly personal perspectives. In the tradition of past homes and haunts writers, Booth invites readers to accompany her on a tour. The itinerary includes stops in the Lake District and Stratford-upon-Avon; excursions to sites associated with Mary Russell Mitford, the Brontës, and Elizabeth Gaskell; and visits to the homes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. The final leg takes in Dickens Country via the Charles Dickens Museum, the now defunct Dickens World attraction, and the Dickens Festival in Rochester. Before setting out, Booth provides a helpful orientation chapter. This explores the origins of literary tourism in practices of religious pilgrimage, country house visiting, and the Grand Tour, and introduces underpinning concepts related to gender, class, nationalism, haunting, and thing theory. Booth suggests that ‘anyone who is averse to theories of various stripes should feel free to turn off the audio guide and choose their own way through these rooms to the gift shop’ (16). But I suggest persevering, not least because the detailed footnoting provides a useful field guide to prior work in this area. Central to this study is the articulation of homes and haunts as a distinct genre of non-fiction writing, which developed alongside the rise of popular tourism and flourished from the mid-Victorian period to the end of the Second World War. Homes and haunts promised immersion in an author’s world, offering readers a mix of travel writing, potted biography, literary extracts, topographic description, and lavish illustration. The intention was to entertain as well as inform, bridging high- and middle-brow forms and attracting a broad readership in the process. These texts model hospitality and reception in multiple interesting ways. Most obviously, in cases where the subject is still living, narrators describe visiting famous writers at home and locate authors within their cultural milieu and national traditions. At the same time, Booth argues, ‘textual pilgrimage has performative designs’ (61): the form’s complex narrative voice, marked by use of optional imperatives and the future tense, anticipates re-enactment by the reader. Homes and haunts writing inspires imitative acts of pilgrimage; some of these pilgrims go on to produce their own accounts; and over time literary haunts accumulate richly multi-layered narratives. The sheer volume of potential material is intimidating, but Booth’s selective approach is productive. She focuses on a limited range of celebrated figures who were either objects of pilgrimage in their own right, or ‘literary go-betweens’ (6) who helped to establish pilgrimage traditions through their work as editors, memoirists, and literary hosts. This foregrounds the contributions of individual personalities, while also identifying intriguing correspondences and broader thematic resonances. For example, in examining Washington Irving’s and William Howitt’s descriptions of Charlecote Park (home to the myth of Shakespeare as the ‘deer-slayer poet’ ), Booth explores the fashioning of legends, gendered biography, and bathetic encounter. She is particularly good on the ways in which writer-pilgrims (such as Irving) become part of the attraction, just as Irving’s graffiti becomes another exhibit of note at Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Among the chapters that follow, I particularly enjoyed Booth’s reassessment of Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village and her thwarted attempts to visit the author’s one-time home at Three Mile Cross (now the site of ‘Healthworld’). A lengthy fourth chapter explores various writers’ attempts to establish residence in historic houses and neighbourhoods. Geographically and conceptually Booth covers a great deal of ground here, resulting in a series of examples that are well-sketched but lacking in cohesion. Chapter five benefits from a narrower focus on Carlyle’s House, examining how responses to this literary house museum reflect wider trends in historical interpretation. Over time, the dominant narrative of guidebooks and homes and haunts essays shifts from the celebration of Thomas Carlyle’s genius, to the domestic drama of the Carlyles’ unhappy marriage, to Virginia Woolf’s reflections upon the lack of domestic conveniences and the resulting waste of female talent. Throughout, Booth treats her subjects generously; nearly every episode is full of lively anecdotes and interesting details, as well as some serious scholarly insight. Having spent several months as a postdoc at the refurbished Charles Dickens Museum in 2013, I was looking forward to the final chapter, ‘Haunting Dickens World: To Be Continued’. In many ways Dickens is the ideal figure with which to conclude this study: his works inspired numerous topo-biographical essays as devotees sought originals for the places that feature in his fiction. At the same time, Dickens’s cultural portability and enduring popularity enable reflection on the present-day industry of literary homes and haunts. Participatory heritage is emphasized: Booth cites Claire Whetton’s ‘Dickens on Tour’ exhibition at the Dickens Museum, which invited people to take a picture of Dickens on their summer holidays and tweet the results; the exuberant costume parade at the biannual Dickens Festival in Rochester; and the immersive multi-sensory experiences on offer at Dickens World. All too soon, we move to Dr Johnson’s House as a counter-example, which is less about reconstructing the past than preserving the site’s convivial spirit. With tantalizing brevity, Booth then indicates the recent resurgence of homes and haunts collections, ‘sometimes as the thing itself or as a meta-commentary on it’ (279); new spatial approaches to literature made possible by digital mapping; and the hospitable role that professors might play ‘as curators and guides in practical reader response’ (280) to audiences beyond the Academy. Booth is a knowledgeable and entertaining travel companion. She winningly confesses to secret longings that many of us share in, such as the desire to sit in a famous author’s chair (although fewer, perhaps, will admit to thinking that Thomas Carlyle is ‘not bad looking’ with ‘a bit of the Teddy Roosevelt about him’ ). For me, one of the pleasures of this book was revisiting places I had already been, and seeing them through her eyes. There are also the curiously jarring moments when her visits capture an unfamiliar version of a literary site, most notably when she visits Elizabeth Gaskell’s house at 84 Plymouth Grove, prior to its 2014 restoration. As such, Booth’s own account consciously achieves the same haunting effect of belatedness that she observes in earlier homes and haunts narratives. In places I would like to have seen the underpinning lines of argument more strongly articulated; in others I would have liked to linger. But it is in keeping with the generous spirit of the volume as a whole that it provides a richly suggestive foundation for further exploration, rather than closing down the conversation with definitive answers. Homes and Haunts is absorbing, eclectic, and companionable in the fullest sense – even if the journey does involve the occasional pleasurable diversion. Footnotes 1 The Postcard Project gallery is available online: <https://placingtheauthor.wordpress.com/category/postcard-gallery/> [last accessed 12 April 2018]. © 2018 Leeds Trinity University This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Victorian Culture – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 23, 2018
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