Amber Regis, University of Sheffield
Souvenirs often depend on life narratives for their resonance and meaning. In turn, their collection and arrangement can produce life narratives of their own (a form of self-curation on the part of the collector). The rather embarrassing Brontë tea-towel I am clutching in this photo, complete with Haworth parsonage in the background (with modern extension out of shot), will serve as example.
Why did I buy this tea-towel? Setting aside any claim to irony—to a self-conscious desire for kitsch—my selection of the tea-towel was first and foremost the result of my interest in the life and works of the Brontë sisters. But you’ll not be surprised to hear that little can be gleaned on either count from the tea-towel itself. I was already aware of the sisters’ names and the places they inhabited, and the tea-towel told me nothing at all of their works. But I purchased it anyway, and it seems to me the only reason I did so was to take a piece of Haworth away with me: a physical reminder; proof (if proof were ever needed) of my visit and of my own presence in the spaces previously inhabited by the Brontës.
It is particularly apt that the tea-towel is concerned with place (and one can safely assume its manufacturer targets an audience visiting these places on some form of Brontë pilgrimage). As souvenir, it promises to preserve our interaction with place—the material manifestation and remnant of our hoped-for (yet illusory) connection with writer and text.
But surely the tea-towel also says something about me? (And I would ask you to be kind.) Again, you’ll not be surprised to hear that I own several other items of a literary-touristical nature. I have a mug from Sissinghurst Castle, home of Vita Sackville-West; I have pencils and pens from several writers’ homes now in the possession of the National Trust; I even have a Virginia Woolf fridge magnet.
It is quite a collection, and one that continues to grow. In their accumulation and combination these objects cease to tell stories about writers and writers’ homes, and they begin to tell stories about me. In her work on collecting, Susan Pearce views souvenirs as part of ‘our attempt to make sense of our personal histories’: their collection is representative of our efforts ‘to create an essential personal and social self.’ Souvenirs, therefore, are aids to self-fashioning. Tea-towel, mug, pencil, pens and fridge magnet all serve to narrate my interest in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature; they help to construct my sense of self as book lover and literary critic.
But, to end with a question, is the self of my souvenir collection any more or less authentic, any more or less illusory, than the engagement with writer and text promised by literary tourism, by walking the streets of modern-day Haworth in the footsteps of the Brontës?
Amber Regis is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Sheffield. An earlier version of this post appeared on amberregis.com in December 2011.