Placing the Author: Reflections Part I

By Emily Bowles, University of York
Elizabeth Gaskell’s House Exterior Credit: Jill Jennings

Elizabeth Gaskell’s House Exterior Copyright: Jill Jennings

Placing the Author: Literary Tourism in the Long Nineteenth Century took place on 20 June 2015 in the wonderfully appropriate venue of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester, a site that has been beautifully restored and was newly opened to the public at the end of 2014. The conference welcomed attendees from around the world, from undergraduates and postgraduates to senior academics and those working in the heritage sector. Throughout the day, the house itself formed the basis of discussions about what is important when it comes to literary tourism and how houses should be preserved and presented, providing a unique backdrop to the event.

The conference opened with Professor Helen Rees Leahy (University of Manchester) exploring authenticity and imagination at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, giving attendees the opportunity to consider the conference setting against the themes that recurred throughout the day: questions of gender and authenticity; how the interior life of the writer and the nature of the ‘tourist’ site are key to our interpretation of literary places; and the process by which certain houses become sites of literary pilgrimage. These themes were explored further during the morning’s parallel panels, the first exploring tourism networks in Italy and the second the ways in which authors and, later, their families, shaped their own legacies.

Following lunch in the Elizabeth Gaskell House tearoom and the chance to discover the exhibitions and objects of the house, ‘The Brontës at home’ panel saw four papers examining different aspects of the Brontës’ legacy, from relics in Kimberley Braxton’s (Keele University) paper on the cultural, economical and spiritual power of the Brontë relics to Dr Amber Regis’s (University of Sheffield) exploration of the ‘fantasied’ parsonage in Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. The facilitating of discussions and networking between senior academics, postgraduates and even the undergraduate conference assistants was one of this event’s key strengths, as postgraduate presenters were able to share their ideas and research with a diverse and engaged group of scholars and practitioners to gain a new perspective. The setting also encouraged new researchers to think about how their work connects to the heritage and museum sector, and opened up the possibility for future collaborations.

The tearoom at Elizabeth Gaskell's House

The tearoom at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

The final set of parallel panels widened the thematic debates to include not only tourism relating to Victorian authors, but also nineteenth-century visits to Shakespeare’s house and visits to Victorian sites today in a panel on ‘(Re-)visiting the past’.  In ‘The Business of Literary Tourism’ the discussion centred on the creation, classification and maintenance of sites, from Dr Gillian Hughes’s (Visiting Scholar, University of Edinburgh) paper on the problem of locating James Hogg as a working-class author to Associate Professor Sue Carson’s (Queensland University of Technology) examination of the problems facing Coleridge’s Lime Street cottage. The day ended with an inspiring keynote from Professor Nicola J. Watson (Open University) on ways of animating the author, focused in part on objects and displays in Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. Once again, the venue formed a key part of discussions about the nature of literary tourism and attendees were encouraged to apply their research in a practical way.

Just as the process of literary tourism starts before the reader visits the literary site, the Placing the Author project had been growing and developing before the conference opened on 20 June. The organisers, Dr Amber Pouliot (Bishop Grosseteste University), Dr Claire Wood (University of York), and Joanna Taylor (Keele University) had set up ‘The Postcard Project’ to find out more about literary tourism practices today. During each conference break, attendees were encouraged to discuss different topics and interact with the postcard map, adding questions about approaches to literary pilgrimage based on the responses to the project. This formed the starting point for a closing discussion over wine about the kinds of things that still draw us to tourist sites and the future of the industry. The Postcard Project is ongoing, and will continue to show the fascinating trends emerging in the way literary tourism is thought about today.

The Placing the Author conference is hopefully the start of an exciting conversation about literary tourism that includes figures like Gaskell, the Brontës and Dickens, but also lesser-known figures and sites. I would like to thank the organisers for putting together such an inspiring day, and moulding the traditional conference format in a way that brought together undergraduates, postgraduates, senior academic staff, the museum and heritage sector and others, for engaging and open discussions about the future of literary tourism.

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‘Testament to a fundamentally important body of work’: Alexander’s postcard from Down House

Alexander visits Down House, Kent in April 2015

Alexander visits Down House, Kent in April 2015

Why I went…

The most obvious reasons for visiting were my recent relocation to the London area, my membership of the National Trust, and concomitant quest to visit local properties in their care. However, former resident Charles Darwin is clearly the main selling point – and the draw of the man was undoubtedly greater than that of the property’s own architectural merit and history in taking me there. I did minimal reading on the latter, or on how things would be balanced in their presentation to the visitor.

What I got out of the experience…

I certainly got more than I bargained for from the trip. The house offers far more of an insight into the life and work of Darwin than it does into art and architecture, perhaps the more usual insights one gains on this type of visit. Upstairs rooms had been turned into a museum to his achievements; interactive, interesting and illuminating by turns. Downstairs rooms (including Darwin’s study), whilst preserved or recreated in more habitual National Trust fashion, were deliberately presented as if he had just slipped out to the garden. And, of course, the gardens and greenhouses themselves are able to demonstrate some of the results of his botanical endeavours. All in all, Down House stands as testament to a fundamentally important body of work, and to its illustrious erstwhile inhabitant.

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The conference countdown begins!

Drawing Room, Elizabeth Gaskell's House. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

Drawing Room, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

We’re looking forward to welcoming speakers and delegates to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, Manchester for the Placing the Author conference in a week and a half’s time! The programme and abstracts are now online, covering a diverse range of topics related to nineteenth-century literary tourism.

Registration closes on 14 June and there are just a few places left! Student/unwaged tickets cost £35; waged tickets £45. You can book here.

Get in touch with the conference team (placingtheauthor@gmail.com) if you have any questions.

 

Branwell’s legacy: David’s postcard from the Black Bull, Haworth

David at the Black Bull pub, Haworth, 2015

David visits the Black Bull pub, Haworth, 2015

Why I went and what I got out of the experience…

I suppose the odd thing about the Black Bull in Haworth being a site of literary tourism is that it is the place where Branwell Bronte was when he should have been elsewhere actually doing some writing. Yet, ironically, no other place, not even the Bronte Parsonage, has come to represent what legacy he has as much as this pub. This idea of wasted potential has often been rather romanticised, although one suspects the reality of Branwell drinking himself to death was rather less glamorous. Having read Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte it became clear that a visit to the Parsonage had to be supplemented by a visit to the Black Bull. While I was there I think I had a pint of Black Sheep, which is probably quite apt considering Branwell’s siblings.

Exterior of the Black Bull

Exterior of the Black Bull

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A strange and bewitching quality: Allison’s postcard from Poets’ Walk, Hudson River Valley

Allison walks a path frequented by Washington Irving, Poets’ Walk, Hudson River Valley, New York April 2015

Allison walks a path reputedly frequented by Washington Irving – Poets’ Walk, Hudson River Valley, New York
April 2015

Why I went…

Washington Irving reputedly frequented these paths and found in their view of the Hudson and the Catskills inspiration for ‘Rip Van Winkle.’ I do not study Irving (or American literature), but have always found his stories and particularly ‘Rip’ to have a strange and bewitching quality. When I was given the opportunity to travel in the Hudson River Valley recently, the first thing I thought of was Irving’s description of the Dutch villages in the shadow of the Catskills, and this unashamedly romantic perspective motivated me to visit and colored my entire time in the region, and on this walk.

What I got out of the experience…

This walk made me think about sleep and wonder what inspired Irving, gazing at the Catskills, to imagine them a good place to sleep for twenty years. Or maybe Irving was reflecting that these mountains would be the right place not for sleep so much as loss: Rip becomes a part of the landscape as he lies there, unmoving, for so long, and the life he knew disappears. Is it significant that Irving did not make the site of the story the place where he was walking, but the place that he saw from afar off? Because in the villages surrounding this walk, there are everywhere graveyards dating to the early Dutch settlements, countless sleepers underground who have become such permanent dwellers in the land that they have lost their bodies to it, and their names are not a distant memory, like Rip’s, but entirely wiped away.
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Nick’s postcard: Machado De Assis and Rio de Janeiro

Rio

View of south Rio from the Tijuca Massif, September 2014

 

Why I went…

When I moved to Brazil, I acculturated by reading Brazilian literature. I read a lot of Machado de Assis. He lived from 1839 to 1908, and is generally thought to be the best writer Brazil’s ever produced. They don’t do blue plaques or birthplace museums here, but Machado never left Rio, and you can get maps and apps showing the locations that figured in his works and his life. Exploring Rio was a natural counterpart to exploring his fiction. It was also a very nice holiday.

What I got out of the experience…

Machado’s work is a pleasure and a puzzle. Is he a realist, a modernist, an absurdist? Is he describing Brazilian life, or making his own worlds? Is his work apolitical? How could it be? Wandering round Rio, you begin to grasp how Machado could be and do all of these things and none of them at once. Rio is a ridiculous, fantastical city, strung out between mountains and beaches and seas. But it’s also a serious, seething place; the grim realities of urban life intrude on and interact with the tropicalia. Literature made and set here couldn’t reflect or describe the contradictions of the place without being, itself, contradictory. Machado’s work loses its mystery, and gains dimensions, as you become familiar with his city.
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A deep connection: Caitlin’s postcard from Chawton

Caitlin visits the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, England in November 2014

Caitlin visits the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, England in November 2014

Why I went…

This past fall, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Oxford, England. Before I even arrived in England, I knew that I wanted to visit the Jane Austen museum. I was lucky enough to meet kindred spirits at Oxford who, like me, were American ‘Janeites’ eager to make the pilgrimage to Chawton. Austen’s novels have had a huge impact for me: reading her books sparked my interest in British literature and history, which drove me to apply for study abroad in England. I am even completing an Honors thesis research project comparing American and British reactions to Pride and Prejudice and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

What I got out of the experience…

It is difficult to describe the emotions I experienced stepping through the doorway of Austen’s home. As an American, I have always felt a deep connection with Austen, her novels, and the English culture. Being able to see Austen’s writing desk and the room where she slept made me feel that much closer to my favorite author, and she came alive in a way that she never had for me before visiting her home. After visiting the house, my two friends and I walked down the lane to the parsonage where Austen’s sister and mother are buried. As we walked, we could see a thin layer of mist that had settled over a field filled with sheep, and in that moment I felt so blessed to be in the beautiful country that used to be only a dream for me. It was most definitely the experience of a lifetime.
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