Reviewed by Harriet, 10 March 2020
This splendid and fascinating book – subtitled ‘On Writer’s House Museums’ – has been a long time in the making, and is certainly none the worse for that. To get an idea of the amount of research both at home and abroad that has gone into it, you need only look at the almost four pages of acknowledgments at the beginning, the 53 pages of notes and the 36 pages of bibliography. Of course you wouldn’t expect any less from a publication from OUP, but it would be hard to find an immensely scholarly academic book more readable than this one. This is how Nicola Watson describes the project in the Introduction. The book, she says,
is preoccupied with describing the materiality and immateriality of the writer’s house museum. It looks at the writer’s house as a cultural form, enquiring how, why, and when it emerged, what it was and is for, how it has changed over time, and what its future(s) might be.
You can be sure, then, that this is going to be much more than just a pleasant whizz around the world, looking inside the various houses and museums dedicated in one way or another to keeping alive the memory of the writer who once used or inhabited them. Not that that particular kind of pleasure, which I feel sure many people share, is unavailable here. By the time you get to the end of the book you will have ranged around England and Scotland, Norway, Italy, and Switzerland, and several of the United States. But all of your visits will have been enhanced by the nature and history of the edifice or artefact you have gone to that place to explore.
Writers, as Nicola Watson shows, are memorialised in widely varying ways, each of which has a chapter devoted to it. The first such chapter focuses on what could be seen as the most concrete legacy of the writer concerned: their actual remains. This led, at around the end of the eighteenth century, to a passion not only for visiting graves but sometimes of actually disinterring bodies and re-burying them in more suitable or dignified locations. What’s more, digging up a writer enabled another somewhat creepy practice – for this reason it is possible, when visiting Robert Burns’ Birthplace Museum, to view a plaster cast of the poet’s actual skull. And if you go to Rome, you can see the death mask of Keats, taken by his friend Severn after his death, while in the house in Hampstead where Keats lived before his final journey to Italy there is a mourning brooch containing a lock of his hair.
Bits of dead poets are one thing, but how about whole bodies? Perhaps fortunately, none appear to have been preserved in their entirety, despite the tantalising title to the next chapter, ‘Bodies’. These, however, prove to be the preserved, or in most cases faked, remains of birds and animals once owned by the writer in question. So here we find Petrarch’s cat, a mummified feline manufactured as a joke some three hundred years after the poet’s death, which has continued to attract tourists to the poet’s north Italian house for centuries despite being moved around the house at various times and finally having ended up in the kitchen. Then there are the hares, stuffed examples of which can be seen in the museum dedicated to the poet William Cowper, though not one of them is the real pet so much loved and written about by the poet. As for Poe’s raven, it, or rather the bird for which it is a body-double, it initially belonged to Dickens before making its way to America.
Another way of getting closer to the writer you admire, of course, would be to see the very clothes that they really wore when alive. You can look inside Agatha Christie’s wardrobe, ‘crammed with sumptuous occasion and evening wear’, though ‘a moment’s recollected thought would remind us that the crime-writer really cannot have spent the majority of her life in evening dress’. In Grasmere you can see Dorothy Wordsworth’s shoes, though unfortunately a rather natty pair of white kid boots she had as a teenager rather than the sturdy ones she would have tramped the hills in with her brother. Emily Bronte’s wedding bonnet is, however, genuine, but there is little documentary evidence that the white dress on display in Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst was actually the one famously worn by the poet. All these are examples of clothing worn by women writers, which, as Nicola Watson argues, ‘demonstrably teeters closer to the pornographic than the iconic or metonymic, for it tends to insist upon presenting the actual body of the woman writer in its entirety rather than arguing its apotheosis into authorship’.
And so on we go, through the chapters, each of which has an enticing title. There’s ‘Furniture: Shakespeare’s chair and Austen’s desk’; ‘Household Effects: Johnson’s coffee pot and Twain’s effigy’; ‘Glass: Woolf’s spectacles and Freud’s mirror’; ‘Outhouses: Thoreau’s cabin and Dumas’ prison’; and ‘Enchanted Ground: Scott’s Abbotsford, Irving’s Sunnyside and Shakespeare’s New Place’. The writers named in the titles are only tasters, though, as each chapter covers a wider range of ground. And that’s not to forget the opening and closing chapters: ‘Entrance this way’ and ‘Exit through the gift shop’. Nicola Watson has undertaken many physical journeys, and often tells us how she travelled or where she stayed when she got there, and even sometimes where she was sitting as she wrote the current chapter. But she also describes, in that final chapter, how her thinking about the project developed and modified over the fifteen or so years that the book was in the making.
Though I began by asking ‘what is a writer’s house museum, I soon found myself asking instead ‘what does a writer’s house museum do?’ and eventually ‘what does a writer’s house museum cause the reader to do?’ If writers’ houses give measure to the imagination, they actually measure the reader’s imagination. The body in the writer’s house is actually that of the reader, who impersonates the writer. Writer’s house museums are in fact all about readers, about the act of reading as bringing the author into existence.
I’m very happy to have the opportunity of reading this, and I believe my trips to whatever writers’ houses I may make in the future will be enriched by it.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Nicola J. Watson, The Author’s Effects: On Writer’s House Museums (Oxford University Press, 2020). 978-0198847571, 352pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)