Shopping for Soap, Fudge and Biscuit Tins

John Pemble

  • The Literary Tourist by Nicola J. Watson
    Palgrave, 244 pp, £45.00, October 2006, ISBN 1 4039 9992 9

Literary tourism is naff. It means coach parties, blue plaques, monuments, the National Trust, Friends of this and that. It buys from Oxfam books like The Brontë Country, Dickens’s London, With Hardy in Dorset, Literary Bypaths of Old England, The Land of Scott. Academic libraries don’t cater for it, and academic critics have about as much regard for it as they have for Disney World or back numbers of Reader’s Digest. It’s been out of favour since at least the 1750s. The Reverend Francis Gastrell, who owned New Place, Shakespeare’s home in Stratford, was so incensed by tourists trespassing in his garden and knocking on his door that he first chopped down Shakespeare’s mulberry tree, then demolished the house itself. Influential opinion soon rallied round the cause of ‘heritage’, however, and buildings with literary connections were respected. Not so the visitors who paid to see them. First Coleridge and the Romantics, then Henry James and Virginia Woolf, then the New Critics of the 1930s, followed by Barthes, Derrida and the deconstructionists, have scolded literary tourists. ‘The author’s dead!’ they’ve told these vagrant supplicants again and again. ‘So go home, sit still and read the works!’

There’s clearly a lot more behind all this than intellectual snobbery and public nuisance. It could be significant that Gastrell was an Anglican clergyman, because sectarian iconoclasm seems to lurk somewhere in the story. It’s all about books and journeys, after all, and the Book and the Journey are powerful religious archetypes. But Christianity has traditionally been divided over which takes precedence. On the one hand, there’s Catholic piety, which popularises the Journey over the Book; on the other, Protestant piety, which popularises the Book over the Journey. In the literary tourist, heading for a writer’s birthplace with a biography in his luggage, it’s easy to spot the Catholic pilgrim, led by hagiography to the shrine of a saint. And it’s just as easy to spot the Protestant pilgrim, whose destination is Jerusalem, in the travel writer, who expounds the eucharistic mystery of place.

Too easy, perhaps? Nicola Watson has moved the discussion on. In The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain, she argues that literary tourism is historically and geographically specific. It’s peculiar to the long 19th century and to the territory of its poetry and fiction. She recognises some affinity with religious pilgrimage, but claims that literary tourism is essentially secular: a response to the modern phenomena of mass readership, realism in fiction and nationalism. The fixation on houses and birthplaces signified a desire to make personal contact with writers. Realism in fiction challenged readers to verify texts by checking them against facts – to discover places and characters who were, so to speak, authors of the author. Nationalism required eminent literary graves to sanctify the native soil and compensate for the inadequacy of Westminster Abbey, where it was impossible to muster the right feelings of awe and reverence. Poets’ Corner, a clutter of sepulchral furniture and bric-à-brac where poets were either remembered and not buried or buried but not remembered, was more like a basement than a pantheon. So the nation took its atavism elsewhere: to places like Stoke Poges, where Thomas Gray was buried in the churchyard he’d made legendary, and especially to Stratford, sanctified by the grave of Shakespeare.

This argument about nationalism isn’t watertight, since it was London that spoke for the nation, and London never got Shakespeare back, though in the name of the nation it requisitioned some notable corpses. It got Dickens’s, despite his wish to be buried in Rochester; it got Robert Browning’s, though Browning had wanted his remains to join those of his wife in Florence; and it got most of Thomas Hardy’s – all except the heart, which went to Stinsford. But it never got a toenail of Shakespeare’s.

What Watson says about mass readership and realism plausibly explains the paradox in literary tourism, which wants to put writers back in their houses while at the same time deleting them from their fiction. And it helps to solve an abiding puzzle in literary history: why do reputations disappear? One of the most remarkable instances of a summons to remember being defied by the will to forget is provided by the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, the biggest memorial to a writer in the world. The fact seems astonishing, so completely has the veneration that raised this Gothic confection evaporated. It survives, Watson tells us, as ‘a blackened viewing platform’, looked after by a custodian who couldn’t care less about Scott. And there’s nothing by Scott on sale in the giftshop at Loch Katrine, once universally famous as the domain of The Lady of the Lake.

The contrast at the heart of Watson’s book is between Abbotsford, the showcase that Scott constructed to exhibit himself, and Haworth Parsonage, home of the Brontës, which ‘dramatises female authorship as unsuccessful to the point of invisibility’. Abbotsford is a forlorn witness to failed apotheosis. It was built for visitors; but few now come and its future is uncertain. The parsonage at Haworth was built for privacy but the streets of the village are jammed with people who want to look at it.

There’s no lack of such contrasts, especially among 19th-century writers. Think of Bulwer-Lytton and Dickens; Mrs Henry Wood and George Eliot; R.D. Blackmore and Thomas Hardy. All were equally popular when alive. Looking back at Scott’s heyday, G.K. Chesterton marvelled in 1904 at ‘the way in which a whole period can suddenly become unintelligible’. Watson offers a partial explanation. She reckons that the ‘spectacular popular forgetting’ of writers like Scott and Blackmore has something to do with their documentary realism. They borrowed heavily from history in order to fortify their fiction, and this factual alloy has now detached the works from their authors. What is really myth or romance has ‘decayed back into history in popular memory’.

It’s an unsettling feature of this revisionist book that the impression it leaves is fundamentally unrevised. Watson has aimed to do more than just reshape the history of literary tourism. She wanted to discover whether it’s of any use; whether this sort of supplementary ‘reading’, this roaming beyond the text into topography and biography, into ‘context’ and ‘intertextuality’, actually works the wonders that the New Historicists claim for it. Does it really enhance the pleasure of reading? Enrich understanding of what’s written? Watson comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t work; and in delivering her verdict she leaves the standard valuation not merely intact, but strengthened.

When she highlights the contrast between Abbotsford and Haworth, she makes a fresh argument. When she talks about the similarities, she recycles an old indictment. We are told of superstition, mendacity and credulity subverting the authority of the text and even supplanting the act of reading. Tourists are quoted to demonstrate the tackiness of the Scott industry, the tawdry fiction of Abbotsford. Scott’s ancestral residence was an old farmhouse called Clartyhole, dressed up in sham baronial architecture and given a pseudo-medieval name. It was as phoney as the fake moonlight that illuminated the ruins of Melrose Abbey. ‘If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright,’ Scott had enjoined readers of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, ‘Go, visit it by the pale moonlight’; and so that they should not be disappointed on cloudy or moonless nights, a tour guide held aloft a candle on a long pole.

Watson detects in Haworth a more subtle, and therefore more insidious lie. It’s a ‘back-formation’: a reconstruction artfully blending biography with myth and contrived with less regard for truth than for tourists’ expectations. It fictionalises the Brontë sisters, traps them with their characters in ‘a dysphoric, not to say Gothic narrative of female repression, suffering and death’. As early as the 1890s, visitors were complaining that it traded in melodrama rather than in truth. The Brontës had not been isolated, impoverished, unrecognised. Charlotte, especially, had been socially and commercially successful. She had fame, friends, financial independence; and she had lived at Haworth because she chose to, not because she was suffocated by Victorian domesticity.

Houses can be manipulated to give tourists what they want, as Henry James makes clear in his short story ‘The Birthplace’. But the intractability of landscape inflicts a suitable retribution for the perverse demands of literary tourism. Rousseau and Scott depicted landscapes that could be recognised and visited, and so their stories and poems served as guidebooks. But writers whose topography was more alluring than accurate led the tourist on to vexation and disappointment. If you set out to explore Lorna Doone country, or Hardy’s Wessex, you were left only with the knowledge that either they never existed or they had been deleted by time and circumstance. The truth is that ‘the internal workings of an author’s works . . . produce place, not the other way around.’

This sounds rather prim, but Watson is entertaining, because she’s been entertained: she’s had fun visiting graves, going round houses, looking for places that don’t exist, shopping for soap, fudge and biscuit tins, doing all the things literary tourists do, along a trail stretching from the Keats-Shelley Museum in Rome to Poosie Nansie’s Inn in Mauchline (where Burns drank). All the same, she believes literary tourism is pointless and frustrating. It’s ‘typically defined . . . by nostalgic belatedness and by a constitutive disappointment’; and since ‘the power of fiction is actually confirmed by the tourist’s disappointment,’ the function of criticism is to engage with the thaumaturgic power of the imagination, not to go looking for miracles beyond it. Which all sounds very familiar. We hear again what Virginia Woolf was telling readers of the TLS a century ago; think of the irate Gastrell, wielding his axe.

Surely, I want to object, literary tourists must get some satisfaction. If their reward were nothing more than frustration and disappointment, they wouldn’t carry on doing it. Even Henry James allows his Stratford tourists a treat: a thrilling tour of the Birthplace provided by a guide who’s been transformed by the genius loci from Gastrell into Garrick. Like Nicola Watson, I’m much happier with travel writing, but it makes me uneasy that this should be so; that when writing or reading about literary tourism the urge should be so strong to reach for the axe, to fetch out the lexicon of accusation and rebuke. As Watson demonstrates, there are perfectly convincing secular explanations for the modern cult of literary tourism; and there’s a pagan precedent too, since tourists were visiting Virgil’s tomb in classical times. Furthermore, we know that the telling and hearing of stories has always been a social activity associated with journeys and migrations. The solitary, sedentary reader is an aberration, produced by the modern culture of print. Why, then, if you’re a New Historicist, does New Criticism sound like old Protestantism? Why, if you’re a New Critic, does New Historicism sound like old Catholicism? Whatever the reason, it’s added another paradox to the postmodern inventory of absurdity. When we think of free thought, we think of books and journeys – the agents of enlightenment, the anathemas of tyrants and inquisitors. But when we think of books and journeys, our thinking is not free. It’s still haunted by those ghostly archetypes.