Thursday, 18 May 2017

THE NOT-SO-BLEAK HOUSE: WRITERS' HOMES AS BIOGRAPHICAL MUSEUMS

THROWBACK THURSDAY

BY: SERENA YPELAAR

Cross-country literary tours. Annual pilgrimages to Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon. Hordes of people wandering Wordsworth House and gardens inspired by the metaphysical.

What is it about writer’s house museums that never cease to draw us in?

The authors whose homes have been preserved and opened to the public seem to maintain a mythical presence at the sites where they lived … or at least that’s what we like to imagine. But what does our interest in writers' homes say about our relationship with writers and the ways in which we try and connect to them? Why are writers' houses so popular?

Green Gables in Prince Edward Island receives visitors from across the globe. L. M. Montgomery often visited her cousins' Cavendish farm in her youth, and  based her wildly popular book series, Anne of Green Gables, on the location. Source.
Celebrity Status

When a prominent literary figure has a fanbase, their historic house is guaranteed at least a few visitors who travel (sometimes worldwide) to their favourite authors’ residences. Immersing one’s self in an author’s home life provides a means of bibliographical instruction that their books cannot; even nomads like Ernest Hemingway had residences, or stopping points, that now attract visitors.

Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West, Florida, where he is said to have worked on "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", among other titles. Though Hemingway only lived here for a decade, this place is associated with the author and remains a key attraction. Source.
Unsurprisingly, devotees of literature can find fascination in even the most menial elements of a prolific author’s lifestyle. With interpretative content, the rooms of the house can offer biographical insight into the person’s daily life, not unlike a regular historic house. This personal connection provides visitors with an opportunity to retrace authors’ steps long after they are dead and connect to their inner lives.

Resurrecting Momentous Events

“Jane Austen wrote Persuasion in this house.” (music to my ears - somebody please take me to Chawton, Hampshire!)

“Derek Walcott wrote a number of his poems here.” (Derek Walcott House, St. Lucia)

"This is where Samuel Johnson sat when he wrote the first dictionary.” (Dr. Johnson's House, London)

These types of impressions are part of the reason that writers’ houses maintain such appeal: something was created here. Many visitors have a strong attachment to the works an author has produced, and this emotional connection cements the allure of the place where it occurred. Whether it was a timeless novel, poetry, or short stories, in many cases the creative process began, evolved, or ended in these locations. If not, the house’s staff are responsible for clarifying that the author did not in fact produce their renowned works in the house.

The F. M. Dostoyevsky Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, was Fyodor Dostoyevsky's residence at the beginning of his literary career. Source.
Nevertheless, writers’ homes often evoke the physical connection that a number of visitors search for, within the context of the author’s biographical history. For instance, Edgar Allan Poe lived a tumultuous life at his Baltimore home, and penned numerous stories within its austere walls. The relationship between an artist's biography and their art is usually at the forefront of analysis - we tend to wonder if an author's own past directly influenced their work.

The most prevalent word on many writer’s house websites? “Inspiration”. These historic houses market themselves as inspiration for the works of the famous writer(s) who lived there, so you can witness for yourself how the environment purportedly influenced authors’ works. There is a humanity inherent in visiting writers’ houses – the focus is usually narrowed to a single individual who eloquently communicated with readers through the written word.

Brontë Parsonage is said to have inspired the works of sisters Emily, Charlotte, and Anne. Writer's house museums often market themselves as places of inspiration as though to challenge readers and visitors to find connections. Source.

Immortal, Like Their Literature

Writers’ houses have been preserved as icons of the authors that have gained reputations in history as creators. Their significance has therefore expanded to the point that their biographies are valued, preserved, and shared through their houses. James Baldwin’s house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, for instance, is in danger of demolition, but the ongoing fight for its preservation demonstrates a profound passion for his life and work.

Immortal no more? James Baldwin's home in France, where he lived until his death, is slated for demolition. Nevertheless, efforts are underway to preserve the late author's home. Source.
The symbolic status of the dwellings in which these artists resided, and the juxtaposition of the simple day-to-day tasks and their abstract visions of artistic and commercial success resonates with people, prompting an advocacy to protect what often appear to be small and unremarkable buildings. Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House, for instance, is of course less celebratory in tone but interprets the now well-known biography of a young Jewish girl writing a personal diary in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. These houses become icons of literary achievement, and the stories the authors told are revisited from a biographical perspective. 

Paying Homage

In a way, writer’s homes are a sort of shrine to renowned artists, their works, and their legacy. Regardless of whether they seem like biographical crypts, to many visitors they serve as a gateway to the lives of talented individuals they got to know via the page. In coming to cherish authors through their written works and learn how they expressed themselves, readers of classic writers are guided to their houses not only by the timelessness of their works, but by their own emotional connection to the human beings that lived there.

Have you visited a writer's house museum that stuck with you? Tell me all about it in the comments! 

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