The Bronte Parsonage, Haworth
A guilty secret.
I love going round writers' houses. I love feeling the hushed awe and reverence (Philip Larkin doesn't have a famous house yet as far as I know) of anticipation and entrance of this modern version of churchgoing. At Bateman's, Rudyard Kipling's Sussex home, I was told to please not to put my wet umbrella in the porch's container as this was for the author's non-existent wet things.
Some years back I visited the Bronte's Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire. I was full of high, exalted hopes especially as I had just heard how a friend's sister had fainted after hearing Kate Bush singing WutheringHeights on Top of the Pops. I knew how she felt.
The abode of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell didn't disappoint. Far from it. It exceeded all expectations. It was distressingly small as if us visitors had taken Alice in Wonderland's magic potion but it hadn't quite worked. The lichen covered graves at strange angles were being nibbled by sheep and loomed up large outside every room. A glass box proudly displayed some of Charlotte Bronte's hair. The black millstone grit of the landscape, the building, probably even the people was attractive in a bleak coalmine sort of way. The footpath signs were helpfully also in Japanese.
It was everything I had imagined and more. I was ecstatic in my Bronte vision. I attempted to return to the Parsonage recently but was defeated by a fierce blizzard. It was lovely and probably symbolic and could have been written by Emily or Charlotte. I didn't mind. It didn't matter now. I already had it safely in my imagination.
It was the same with Stratford upon Avon. At first I have to admit I wasn't quite sure. Everyone knows about the Shakespeare industry, the terrible souvenirs, the tea rooms named after characters from The Tempest. But, once again, like Prospero's staff, any prejudices were soon cast aside.
I found Anne Hathaway's cottage so genuinely moving I nearly cried (the iron fire tongs had been handled by a woman who had been married to William Shakespeare). I made the same creaking sound across the room of Shakespeare's daughter and her doctor husband that WS might have creaked. I stood on a piece of turf where Shakespeare's original home once was. I realised that the imagination given a very minor stimulus can work wonders and may not even require a tour guide.
Did all this make me return to the original works? Not really with the Brontes 'though I seem to recall repeated obsessive listenings to Kate Bush (no, I didn't faint, if you want to know). I see Shakespeare plays quite regularly but my visit did illuminate something. It made Shakespeare more real, a flesh and blood person who signed boring legal documents and whose wife owned fire tongs. But also less real as I pondered how this provincial man could write such mighty works. It just made a convert even more of a believer in the way, I suppose, that a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mecca or a bathe in the Ganges does for those of more conventional faiths.
An excellent website, Writers' Houses, aptly subtitled 'where stories live', provides a comprehensive guide to the literary dwellings (and sometimes museums) of our best known writers. Although its focus is American writers (the site is US run) it does spread itself globally. I was excited to spot places I'd visited with my wife while compiling our city-pick travel guide series, from Amsterdam (Anne Frank's House) and London (too many to mention) to St Petersburg (Dostoevsky and Pushkin) and Paris (Hugo, Balzac, Comte and others). Stockholm struck a chord too as we too visited Strindberg's House. I remember it for two reasons. We were asked to wear plastic bags over our shoes to conserve the furniture and were introduced to the author's fascinating scientific experiments with photography. He was also, guilty admission, the only Swedish writer I had read. I would get my literary fix no matter what.
Of course, like most other people I imagine, I can see how a writer's house or museum is not the real thing. The work is. But most of us are aware of this as we purchase our Macbeth tea towel, just as Chaucer's pilgrims were as they bought another piece of the real cross outside Canterbury Cathedral. Both, like the houses and museums, are surely just a simulacrum of something more ineffable.
Anne Trubek, author of A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses, offers a witty deconstruction in Literary Traveler on the irrational allure of writers' houses. She sees the phenomenon as part of the ever-encroaching 'celebrity lust', a secular form of paying homage and asks why we preserve the houses at all when a visit is destined to be disappointing:
'Writers' homes and museums expose the heartbreaking gap between writers and readers. Part of the pull of a writer's house is the desire to get as close as possible to the precise, generative 'Aha!'. But we can never get there.'
Few of us would disagree. But perhaps the truth lies somewhere between grotesque, unreflective hagiography and total dismissal. If nothing else our insatiable need to investigate writers' commodes raises the game for the tourist industry and gives us something pleasant and cultural to do on our third rainy day in Stockholm. After all, it's what we have instead of God - or Kate Bush.