Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Literary Haunts of Yesteryear

MOST mornings, a little self- consciously, I am standing  in a busy Melbourne street, waiting for the bus that is invariably late and grasping, a little uncomfortably, my heavy work books. I am often thinking about England.

I wrote a kind of review of some of the literary haunts I visited when I lived in England a number of years ago. I wrote the review when I got back to Melbourne, when the memories of England haunted me even more strongly than they do now.

Britain is full of literary treasures, not the least being the famous abode of many great novelists and poets. Now is not the best time of the year to motor around the British countryside. Put it off for a few months when the weather picks up and travel to some wonderful places where writers gained immense inspiration from their unique surrounds.

You might begin your journey in the south of England, and visit the National Trust property at Rodmell, Sussex known as Monk’s House. This was the property of Leonard and Virginia Woolf from 1919 until 1941, the time of Woolf’s apparent suicide. The river Ouse runs behind the property, and it was on a stretch of this river that Woolf’s body was found three weeks after she went missing. The centrepiece of the house must be Virginia’s bedroom, a small room with a single bed and a fascinating fireplace painted by her sister, Vanessa Bell, which features a small boat heading towards a lighthouse. This image played a significant part in Woolf’s literary career, an image straight from her 1927 masterpiece To The Lighthouse. Of less interest is Virginia’s study, altered after her suicide, but still containing her desk and writing paper. The garden is another showpiece. It contains a bust of both Leonard and Virginia, and offers some insight into the view Virginia would have had on countless days of writing and contemplation in her garden, including the fateful day in March of 1941 when she wandered toward the river and placed  heavy stones in her pocket.

Travel directly west to another part of England and you come across important literary associations of a very different kind, to Thomas Hardy, who spent most of his life in Dorset, and is chiefly associated with two houses only a few miles apart: Higher Bockhampton near Stinsford, where Hardy was born in a thatched cottage in 1840, and Max Gate, where Hardy moved with his wife Emma, both at the age of forty-five, at the time of The Mayor of Casterbridge. One of the rooms in Higher Bockhampton was the source for Hardy’s earliest writing, culminating in Far From the Madding Crowd, and the invention of Wessex, fostering his marvellous geographic imagination. The house is open to the public and is a treat to walk around, double-bent much of the time with its low white-washed ceilings and seven little rooms and stairs. There is a vivid sense of little being altered, and as a monument to Hardy’s early career it is deeply respectful.

Max Gate holds a different sort of interest. The upstairs section is closed, but the bottom part contains quite a lot of memorabilia, including Hardy’s desk and private book collection, as well as a photocopied scrapbook, all available for perusal. It makes an interesting visit, even with half the house closed off to private owners, and the fact that somebody in their wisdom removed Hardy’s study from Max Gate and put it on display at the county museum in Dorchester. A man who was tending the house when I was there recalled his delight when a big, burly man a number of years ago dropped in and asked a number of fascinating questions. After he left he realised this was Ted Hughes. You might wish to try and locate the famous picture of Hardy standing next to his bicycle, taken from within the grounds of his carefully nurtured garden.

Travelling further into the heart of England, directly west of London, is the border of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, and more specifically Kelmscott, the little Cotswold town famous for the beautiful, grand home let by William Morris, a man of many talents, including those of artist, writer, craftsman and socialist. Morris resided here in his self-contained manor on the upper Thames from 1871, during the latter part of a richly fertile life. His co-tenants were his wife, the Pre-Raphaelite darling Jane (Burden) Morris, and her lover at the time, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the famous painter with the equally famous poet sister, Christina. It is an impressive looking home made of stone, although not really a manor, and looks just like Morris’ drawing of it for his posthumously published book News From Nowhere. The house is full of reprints of Morris’ wallpaper and curtains, and every effort has been made to keep the furniture and look of the principal people’s bedrooms. You can see for yourself the wall hangings which gave Rossetti nightmares, and the room in which he painted some lovely pictures of Morris’ wife. Morris cared a great deal about animal life and his natural surroundings, and there is much to be appreciated of the setting of Kelmscott Manor today. Morris’ simple gravestone is an added feature of the town, lying in the garden of the local churchyard. Plenty of Morris purchases on offer, and highly recommended.

Dylan Thomas is another writer who is buried in the town he spent quite a bit of his life in. Laugharne is in the western part of South Wales, and it was here that Thomas found the inspiration to write famous works such as ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ and ‘Under Milkwood’. It is also the town that features the modest Brown’s Hotel, another feature of Laugharne that has become heavily associated with the poet. Thomas lived with his wife Caitlin, and their three children, in what has commonly become known as ‘the boat house’, for the last four turbulent years of his life. He had earlier rented a cottage in a different section of the town. The boat house is a fairly small dwelling consisting of three bedrooms and a small living area, with a balcony or verandah running around its side. It is elevated elegantly from the ground, nestled into the side of a sea wall. There is a steep incline running from the top of the cliff, into the Thomas’ garden and their front door below. Thomas and his wife apparently grew to loathe the house and its lack of space. Hence Thomas found salvation in a simple writing shed less than a hundred yards along the cliff path. Here he could work on such things as Under Milkwood without constant interruptions from things around him. The boat house is well worth visiting for the glimpse it offers into the life of a well known poet who would become a lot more famous.

Travelling eastwards again, back into England and towards the centre of the country, the motorway takes you into the Midlands, and the birthplace of a writer who is associated with the place of his birth perhaps even more so than Thomas Hardy. A great admirer of Hardy’s, D H Lawrence spent all of his formative years in Nottingham, before becoming a school teacher in Croydon, near London. The Lawrence family grew up together in Eastwood, nine miles north-west of the centre of Nottingham, changing houses on a number of occasions, each said to be in a slightly superior position. The only one of the four houses Lawrence lived in until the age of 23 that is open to the public is now known as the Birthplace Museum. Inextricably linked with the beginning of Sons and Lovers, the house in Victoria Street contains some examples of original furniture that belonged to the Lawrence family, and anything different that has been added has been done so tastefully and with pleasing consideration to historical accuracy. Inside the modest brick dwelling one finds the original kitchen range, a spacious living-room, bedrooms and a large attic. The front window is oblong in shape and larger than those of similar houses nearby. Lawrence’s mother made the most of this economic advantage by displaying her linen and children’s clothes to passers by. Inside, one thinks of the verbal battles that took place between middle-class mother and miner father, although it should be noted that the family left for a semi-detached house around the corner when Lawrence was only two. Eastwood seems proud these days of its world famous son. The birth place museum has a wide array of Lawrence memorabilia for sale, as well as an audio visual display well worth a look. The attendants are more knowledgeable than in most places of its type. In the main street of Eastwood stands the local library, which houses a vast display of Lawrence-related literature, including a cabinet of first editions. There is also a thin blue painted line circumnavigating the town that visitors can wander along, which encompasses Lawrence’s primary school, the other three houses he lived in, and even the pub that features in Sons and Lovers, where Lawrence was sent by his mother to retrieve his often times drunken father.

There are more reasons to visit Yorkshire other than to visit Haworth, but the Bronte Parsonage is one of the best. It should be remembered when visiting this unique house that the Bronte sisters- and Emily in particular- didn’t have a lot of experience of the world outside of Haworth. The famous moors surrounding Haworth, the surviving character of the town itself, the life of the girls inside the parsonage- these are the elements that shaped the imagination of three unique individuals. Haworth itself, a grim darkly polluted village town of many years ago, has become more prosperous and commercial today as one might expect. The aspects of character that remain are the quaint little shops with original signs, the blackened stone walls of many buildings, the cobbled lanes and main street that descends into the middle of town past the cemetery, and the Black Bull Inn that has passed into folklore as the pub where the girls’ brother, Bramwell, spent many a session drinking. A short drive out of town, and well sign posted, is the crumbling stone foundation known as ‘Top Withens’ which is said to be the inspiration for the Earnshaw home in ‘Wuthering Heights’. Now getting to the Parsonage itself. Unfortunately it has been renovated and made visitor friendly with new wallpaper and heating and furnishings to make the connection with the Bronte family when visiting more difficult. However, besides a couple of extensions, the exterior of the house remains very similar to what it was in the days of busy composing. The setting is eerie and imposing, sombrely overlooking the graveyard (one must remember to what extent death touched this family’s lives). A servant the children were very fond of was buried in this graveyard, but the Bronte children themselves, with the exception of Anne, are buried anonymously in the church overlooking the graveyard. Inside, the children’s study is still a special place, very small but full of associations with the little children composing stories in their tiny booklets and playing with toys fed to them by their father to fire their imagination. Patrick Bronte’s bedroom is in original condition and the living room has been faithfully recreated. One of the show pieces of the house is the green chaise- longue that Emily is said to have died upon in 1848 at the age of thirty. One of the most rewarding aspects of the house is contained within the added on sections, and that is the Bronte memorabilia that has been spectacularly created. In glass cabinets you will find examples of the little books, locks of hair, original letters and manuscripts and drawings, and clothing worn by the family, much of it belonging to Charlotte, who lived the longest. Allow yourself a couple of hours of searching throught the biographical displays, before you venture out again into the crisp Haworth air.

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