Demolition and Conservation: George Eliot, Literary Tourism, and the Start of a Digital Project – Part 2

This guest post comes from Sarah Barnette, a DPhil candidate at Oxford University, currently researching mid-to-late 19th century conceptions of sympathy in the fiction of women writers. She is expected to complete her degree in 2016.

As I’ve perused the Postcard Gallery, I’ve been astonished to see how each entry differs so vastly from the next – visiting literary sites is truly a complex and nuanced act. It can be a sign of respect or way of “entering into” an author’s experiences. It might be an attempt to conjure an author’s ghost or, surprisingly, it may entail a lesson in learning more about the people around us today. The writing of the author whose home we visit also colors our experiences, and in my view the work of George Eliot is particularly conducive to literary tourism.

George Eliot’s fiction acknowledges the intensity and value of our relationships with landscapes, buildings, and objects in a way that validates literary tourism as something more than a sentimental excursion into the past. Her work could even enhance our experiences of it. She writes in The Mill on the Floss:

            There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality.

Due to a rift with her brother Isaac, Eliot wasn’t welcome home as an adult. Perhaps in part because of this, we see today how she regularly integrated her memories of the Midlands into her fiction. In his biography of Eliot, Gordon Haight touches on the constant ache Eliot must have felt as a kind of exile, and he hints at its powerful effect on her work:

Throughout thirty years in London her yearning for blue sky, orchards full of old trees and rough grass, hedgerow paths among endless fields, haunted her always. Wherever she travelled she would notice the slope of the land, the quality of the soil, the harvest. ‘I am always made happier by seeing well-cultivated land,’ she wrote…Of the scene so lovingly described in Middlemarch with little details that give each field a particular physiognomy, she wrote: ‘These are the things that make the gamut of joy in landscape to midland-bred souls – the things they toddled among, or perhaps learned by heart, standing between their father’s knees, while he drove leisurely.’[1]

Eliot used to accompany her father Robert Evans like this when he drove around conducting business. Robert was the agent of the Arbury Estate, the home of the local landowning family in Nuneaton, and here we find the brighter side to this story. As it turns out, not every place associated with Eliot’s early days has been lost or altered beyond recognition. Arbury Hall exists very much as it once did when Eliot’s father arrived in 1806. The vaulted ceilings and Gothicized interiors that Eliot saw as a child and remembered in her adulthood (she describes them in “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story”) remain for today’s visitors to enjoy. South Farm, the place where the Evans family initially settled and where Eliot was born in 1819, still stands tranquilly along the side of a small lane that winds its way from the main gate of the Hall. South Farm is even occupied by the current estate agent and his family – an almost poetic detail linking Eliot’s “then” with our “now.” Nearby, the church where Eliot was baptized and the village school across the street that she once attended – Chilvers Coton Church and Chilvers Coton Centre – continue to serve the community. For those of us who may be disappointed with encroaching car parks and traffic whizzing past on busy streets, there’s another church nearby that Eliot also knew that still looks and feels very much like a country church. Astley Church lies outside Nuneaton’s urban sprawl. Instead of being bounded by asphalt, it sits adjacent some inviting fields and the recently renovated ruins of Astley Castle. A quiet churchyard rests in the shade of surrounding trees and the interior, which Eliot describes in “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” still looks as though the author might have just walked in to remind herself of some details for her story.

DSC_0671This past May my husband and I had a chance to explore these places with the George Eliot Fellowship, a literary society based in Nuneaton. Founded in 1930 to preserve and enhance Eliot’s memory, the Fellowship’s calendar of events includes an annual tour, and I was surprised (and delighted) by how enthralling the experience of roving around Eliot’s old stomping grounds actually was. The Fellowship’s Chair and Vice-Chair, John Burton and Vivienne Wood, have perfected the combination of reading from Eliot’s work while standing at the various sites she describes. As the day went on, the myriad ways in which Eliot revisited Nuneaton in her imagination and lovingly embedded it in her writing became clearer and clearer. I felt myself becoming more and more able to imagine and sympathize with Eliot’s struggles of not being able to return home.

The final stop of the tour was really its epicenter: Griff House, a red-brick Georgian-façade farmhouse that was Eliot’s home from 1820 to 1841, where she grew from a newborn infant into a young woman. The hospitality company Whitbread currently owns the property and they’ve made a few changes since Eliot’s time. Attached to the back of the house is a Premier Inn (a modern addition that thankfully isn’t visible if you approach Griff House from the front) and installed in the house’s ground floor is a Beefeater Restaurant. Perhaps not the ideal fate of George Eliot’s beloved childhood home, but since the farmhouse is now listed as a Grade II English Heritage site and Whitbread has ample funds for the building’s maintenance, the farmhouse is well looked after. The manager’s family even occupies its upper floors and so the place, fittingly, remains a home.

DSC_0694The farmhouse’s outbuildings are a different matter, however. The farmyard of Griff House was once extensive, but is now divided into two sides. Neither side has had much use over the years (bizarrely, one of the buildings straddles the dividing line between the two properties, with a brick wall cutting right across its middle). These outbuildings – once the life and breath of the farm – are rickety, ramshackle structures now, and the English Heritage listing doesn’t include them. So, in 2012 Whitbread requested their demolition.

Fortunately, the George Eliot Fellowship not only acted in time to save the outbuildings, but also secured permission from the local council to transform the dovecote into the George Eliot Heritage Centre. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing John and Vivienne eagerly share this success story – we walked all around the dovecote as they explained their plans to have a Heritage Centre that offers exhibition space, a reading room and library, and storage for the Fellowship’s archives. It was easy to see their warm enthusiasm about being able to welcome school students, scholars, historians, artists, and, of course, literary tourists to the Centre once it opens.

And they’re not the only ones excited to get started on this work and see the George Eliot Heritage Centre become a reality. As the conservation work drifts closer, Rebecca Mead and Kathryn Hughes have written articles nudging their readers in Nuneaton’s direction, siphoning attention away from the hubbub surrounding Michael Bloomberg’s recent purchase of Eliot’s London home in Chelsea and redirecting it northward.

My husband and I also wish to direct attention towards Nuneaton. We’re currently in the beginning stages of a digitization project related to this transformation. Once on-site work begins, we’ll be digitally documenting the development of the Centre, and as a part of this we plan to interview members of the George Eliot Fellowship, capture the tour experience, and talk with people in the local community who want to be a part of conserving cultural heritage sites. We hope to give some immediacy to the voices of today that are trying to preserve the legacy of George Eliot in concrete ways outside of her texts and beyond academia. Like the dark rooms hidden away at the back of No. 142 Strand, these places have a lot to offer in terms of telling parts of Eliot’s story, and there’s a chance that this visual project will encapsulate some of these lessons, while also encouraging literary tourists to come and experience these places for themselves.

For more information, keep an eye on this site and follow the George Eliot Fellowship’s Twitter account, @GeorgeEliotLove.

[1] G.S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography, Oxford: OUP, 1968, pp. 3-4. Quotation from Chapter 12 of Middlemarch.

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Demolition and Conservation: George Eliot, Literary Tourism, and the Start of a Digital Project – Part 1

This post comes from Sarah Barnette, a DPhil candidate at Oxford University, currently researching mid-to-late 19th century conceptions of sympathy in the fiction of women writers. She is expected to complete her degree in 2016.

            I can see her now, with her hair over her shoulders, the easy chair half sideways to the fire, her feet over the arms, and a proof in her hands, in that dark room at the back of No. 142.[1]

In the early 1850s, George Eliot was living at 142 Strand, the London headquarters of the radical Westminster Review, working anonymously as its editor and flexing her muscles as a journalist. She was still known as Marian Evans at the time, and she hadn’t started to write fiction yet. William Hale White was a fledgling writer who also lived and worked out of No. 142 in the early 1850s, and we have him to thank for this evocative image of Marian sitting and reading by the low light of the fire in her room.

She occupied two dark, but very quiet rooms at the end of a long passage   which runs back from the front and at right angles to the street.[2]

White’s depictions of Marian are short, but enticing. And it’s interesting how he always carefully describes her within the walls of No. 142 – an address that had quite an avant-garde reputation. For White, who published these memories a few years after Eliot’s death in 1880, it was important that the public knew her not only as the illustrious respectable novelist, but also as a fierce intellectual who led an “entirely unconventional” life. “She was really one of the most sceptical, unusual creatures I ever knew,” White claims. He knew how essential placing Marian in the rooms of No. 142 was to his portrayal of her precocious and provocative side.

DSC_0700Unfortunately for the literary tourists among us, these dark rooms at the back of No. 142 no longer exist. They’ve gone the way of half a dozen other sites closely entwined with George Eliot’s identity – either razed completely or altered beyond recognition. Eliot was born as Mary Anne Evans in 1819 in Nuneaton, a small village near Coventry in the Midlands. And while we might assume Eliot’s hometown has preserved her legacy in a way comparable with Haworth for the Brontës or Stratford-upon-Avon for Shakespeare, this hasn’t quite been the case…

The Elms, where Eliot was schooled as a little girl from 1828 to 1832, was demolished in 1960 to make way for road widening, while the boarding school Eliot attended in Coventry from 1832 to 1835 is now a real-estate agency. Bird Grove, where Eliot lived with her father from 1841 to 1849, was recently serving the Bangladeshi community in Coventry as a cultural and job training centre – but now it sits unused and untended. Rosehill – the home of Eliot’s close friends the Brays and the place where she used to spend hours socializing, playing music and meeting influential figures of the day like Ralph Waldo Emerson – once sat within easy distance of Bird Grove. But this building was also knocked down.

It’s strange to think of how many places affiliated with Eliot’s personal history have been treated as if they’d had no Victorian celebrity affiliation at all. George Eliot has been a seminal figure in the annals of Victorian literature for decades. Today, nearly every English literature curriculum – worldwide – features something from her oeuvre. But, unlike the fans and students of Austen, Dickens, Gaskell, or the Brontës, Eliot-acolytes seem less interested in the spaces she once occupied, and the Midland landscape she loved. Why is this?

George Eliot was once told that she had “a very large brain,” and I wonder if somewhere along the line we decided to define her by this standard. She’s turned into an author to be enjoyed cerebrally – in the classroom under a studious and scrutinizing gaze – rather than an author associated with the pleasures of literary tourism. Eliot is well known for the lessons she gives her readers about how to sympathize with people. But I think there’s much more to her work than this interpersonal sympathy – she also explores sympathy as a link, forged in childhood, between person and place. Her fiction highlights the importance of meditating upon the creative influence and power of spaces, especially those associated with childhood memories. Such connections demand greater scrutiny, as the second installment of my blog post will explore next week.

For more information, keep an eye on this site and follow the George Eliot Fellowship’s Twitter account, @GeorgeEliotLove.

[1] W.H. White, “Literary Gossip,” Athenaeum, 28 November 1885, pp. 702.

[2] W.H. White, “Dr. John Chapman,” Athenaeum, 8 December 1894, pp. 790.

The Hardy Way: A Nineteenth-Century Pilgrimage

By Margaret Marande

Wessex has become synonymous with the works of Thomas Hardy.  He, more than any other writer, uses real locations as the background to his novels and poems. If you live in Dorset, as I do, it’s all around you. When I retired from a working life in mainstream and prison education I decided to indulge my twin passions, Hardy and walking. It didn’t take long for the idea of a long-distance literary footpath to evolve.

2004-01-02 03.16.50How to start? I needed to read everything that he had written or I might miss something. This took quite a while because en route I listed the names of all the fictional places that had been identified as based on actual locations. This ranged from the very well-known such as Casterbridge/Dorchester to the more obscure – Little Hintock/Melbury Bubb (The Woodlanders). Even then there was always a question mark over exactitude. The word ‘probably’ was key.

Next I had to plan a route that linked the places most economically distance-wise on public rights of way.  This amounted to about  220 miles! Of course it is possible to break this up into sections but I describe my walk as The Hardy Way – A 19th-Century Pilgrimage.  Pilgrimages are usually long and quite arduous so in its purest form the Hardy Way is a long distance path.  Also pilgrimages  usually end in a holy place, which is why I wanted my route to start at Hardy’s birthplace and to end in the quiet country churchyard nearby where his heart is buried.

Margaret Marande on the coast path above Kimmeridge

Margaret Marande on the coast path above Kimmeridge

The best bit came next. The field work. Actually getting out there with Ordnance Survey maps   walking the route and discovering  the places that I had read about.  In spite of ‘progress’ there are many locations that remain almost unchanged.  The persistent hum of traffic recedes to be replaced by a silence that evokes, for example, the  bleak uplands of West Dorset where Tess  worked in bitter weather grubbing turnips at Flintcomb Ash farm – Church Hill above Plush. Of course quite often the route hits the twenty first century. On the two magnificent ‘Jurassic’ coastal stretches from Lulworth Cove, which Hardy visited by paddle steamer in 1868, to Kimmeridge Bay and from West Bay to Weymouth via the Isle of Portland – Trumpet-Major country – things are very different with little pretence of solitude but because the coast is so beautiful it doesn’t seem to matter.   Hardy describes the gaiety of Weymouth when George III visited every summer and drilled his troops on the Ridgeway above the town as a Napoleonic deterrent;  the figure of the King on his horse is still clearly engraved in the chalk to prove the point.

My final objective was to ‘write it up’ linking the route to historical fact and to fictional description and extracts.  I decided upon an unusual  pagination device:  the left-hand literary pages to read consecutively:  similarly the right-hand route directions and factual information. The whole to tally as closely as possible. This was very difficult to achieve but I think worthwhile. It’s user friendly.

Julias Ho walk 2After the publication of my book I was delighted when Dorset County Council decided that they would like to adopt the path and to waymark it.  Local accommodations have hugely supported it and a great many of them have copies of my book for their guests to enjoy.  The Thomas Hardy Society,  Tourist Information Centres and Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre – a new venture- have also been very supportive in promoting the book.  I hope that it is contributing to the local economy as well as creating more interest in all things Hardy. Most important of all I have had excellent feedback from walkers some of whom have stated that walking the route has made them want to revisit Hardy. My next objective is to try and extend this interest to young people and I’m working on that one!

Anne Brontë’s pebbles

By Kim Braxton (PhD Candidate, Keele University)

When Patrick Brontë died in 1861 Charlotte’s husband Arthur Bell Nicholls took a collection of their belongings – predominantly personal items such as their manuscripts, letters, juvenilia, and writing desks – to Ireland and the rest of the household belongings were put up for auction. People from across the country and indeed the world came or sent people to Haworth to obtain something Brontë, but a lot of the real treasures were hidden away in Ireland. Arthur Bell Nicholls hoped to live a quiet, reclusive life with his new wife, but Brontë hunters were soon upon him. It took four auctions for all of the Brontë relics to be obtained by the public: one after Arthur’s death, two during his wife’s lifetime and then one last auction after her death. Amongst these possessions were a small collection of pebbles, nondescript and seemingly irrelevant, pebbles any child could pick up on the beach. And yet Charlotte, then her husband and his second wife, kept them. They were then purchased by a Mrs Chadwick in 1916 at the death of Mrs Nicholls and were finally returned to the Brontë Society in 1947. So what was the significance of these little pebbles? They were found in Anne Brontë’s work basket.[i]

Anne's pebbles

Anne’s pebbles

In 2011, I attended one of the early private tours now run by the Parsonage, which allows visitors special access to certain relics as well as a private tour of the house. One of the benefits of the tour was you were allowed to touch the relics and so I picked up Anne’s pebbles and instantly became upset. Anne collected these pebbles in Scarborough, where she first visited with her charges when she was working as a Governess, and it remained a site of happiness for her. She also went there with her sister Charlotte and her friend Ellen Nussey when she was dying of consumption, and we know from letters that they took Anne to the beach shortly before she died. Whilst the Parsonage cannot confirm which visit the pebbles are from, in my mind these were the pebbles she picked before she died. These were the symbol of a young woman trying to hold onto a world she did not want to leave, to me that was heart-breaking.

Relics and the dead are intertwined; ultimately an item does not become a relic until the being it belonged to is deceased. Pre-Reformation relics were predominantly religious, usually portrayed as the physical remains or belongings of Saints and even Christ. Post-Reformation is when relics became a ‘celebrity’ memento; now people wanted relics of monarchs, heroes, artists and writers. As Deborah Lutz explains, ‘artefacts of beloved bodies still held some of the sublime, fetishistic magic of those outmoded holy relics of bygone days…The sacred moved from the flesh of the saint to that of the beloved individual.’[ii] Furthermore, relics allow us to become part of an historical event through our interaction with them. Anne’s pebbles allow us to be part of her death, to hold in our hands what she held as she faced her demise. But why should these items move us? We never knew Anne and countless people died of consumption during the Victorian period. But we do know her; we have numerous biographies which have detailed her death. Would I have been so moved by Anne’s pebbles if I hadn’t read Ellen Nussey’s description of her death contained in Winifred Gerin’s biography? Nussey writes: ‘The hostess knew that death was near, yet, so little was the house disturbed by the presence of the dying, and the sorrow of those so nearly bereaved, that dinner was announced as ready through the half-open door, as the living sister was closing the eyes of the dead.’[iii]

As a literary scholar, I try to remain focused on the Brontës as writers rather than as people. However, I cannot deny the impact Anne’s pebbles had on me, nor that reading their letters and diary papers, about the lives I know they never had, moves me. As Andrew McCarthy, Director of the Brontë Parsonage, explains, the Brontë relics bear witness ‘in a powerfully moving way, to the Brontës as ordinary human beings. It is for this reason, just as much as the Brontës’ literary achievements, that people continue to make the pilgrimage to Haworth, why these relics have such a powerful effect upon us, and why their history is so compelling.’[iv]

[i] Many thanks to Sarah Laycock at the Brontë Parsonage for providing me with these details.

[ii] Deborah Lutz, “The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture 2011; 39, pp. 127-142, (p. 128).

[iii] Winifred Gérin, Anne Brontë (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1959), p. 320.

[iv] Andrew McCarthy, ‘Introduction’ in Ann Dinsdale, Sarah Laycock and Julie Akhurst, Brontë Relics – A Collection History (Yorkshire: The Brontë Society, 2012), pp. 4-5, (p.5).

Some reflections on the Student Engagement Project

The Placing the Author team (sans Holly!) on the steps of Elizabeth Gaskell's House

The Placing the Author team (sans Holly!) on the steps of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

From the earliest stages of the planning process, we wanted to create a space within our project for undergraduates to develop their abilities as writers and researchers and to take part in academic exchange. We developed the Student Engagement Project as a way to facilitate their inclusion by offering one-to-one mentoring to three talented and motivated undergrads. Our three conference assistants, Laura Lutton (Bishop Grosseteste University), Holly Williams (Keele University), and Beatrice Lord (University of York), gained hands-on experience of planning an academic event, from drafting a conference programme to liaising with speakers and delegates. In return, they brought a tremendous enthusiasm to the project, a fresh perspective on the reasons for our enduring fascination with the homes and haunts of nineteenth-century authors, and a social media savvy that ensured our project reached people around the world. Here are their reflections on being part of the Placing the Author team. We hope you enjoy them.

Laura Lutton, Bishop Grosseteste UniversityLaura crop

I had the great pleasure of earning a place as a conference assistant for the Placing the Author conference. This event took place on Saturday 20th June 2015 in Manchester at the wonderful and inspirational Elizabeth Gaskell’s House.

The weather was beautiful, and from the moment of arriving at the house from the outside, I could see this venue was the perfect choice for such an insightful event. I was not only a conference assistant that day but I was also very aptly a literary tourist, there to assist but also to listen, learn and absorb the history.

Once inside the venue, I continued to feel in awe of such a grand lady as Elizabeth Gaskell having lived in this house. I felt a sense of calm and tranquility as I explored the house, retracing the footsteps of literary greats who were friends of Mrs Gaskell’s.

I chose panel A: ‘Il turista: tourism and literary networks in Italy’ as my first panel. Each of the three speakers was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about her chosen subject, and I went to lunch feeling inspired and lifted to learn more about these subjects.

After a delicious and refreshing lunch, during which I had the chance to meet some lovely people, there happened to be a very engaging panel: ‘The Brontёs at home’. This panel was charming and poised, much like each of the four speakers. Each speaker had something new and exciting to present and I felt especially drawn to this panel due to my already existing love of the Brontё sisters and their works.

After a short refreshment break, I once again chose panel A: ‘(Re-)visiting the past’. Three papers were presented by two speakers and each one was educational. I already have a great love for Shakespeare and his works, but hearing how Shakespeare was adapted for children by fellow author E. Nesbit was quite remarkable.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity and experience I was given. I aspire to gain more knowledge based upon some of the speakers’ papers and I will endeavour to become a more frequent literary tourist. The conference was a trip I will never forget, beautifully organised, smooth transitions from one panel to another, a delicious lunch and lovely refreshments all set within such a delightful and easily accessible venue. The venue staff and volunteers were all very polite and friendly and I enjoyed having the opportunity to speak to so many lovely people who share my love of literature. I do hope there will be another conference soon. I will definitely attend.

Holly Williams, Keele UniversityHolly crop 

The papers presented at the conference covered a range of topics including arguments surrounding relics, myth and nostalgia. Charlotte May and Dr Christopher Donaldson tackled the idea of literary figures engaging in tourism themselves, opening discussions of how writers such as Samuel Rogers and Harriet Martineau may have taken on qualities associated with their respective surroundings. Lively discussion also surrounded all four of the papers which made up ‘The Brontёs at home’ panel. The use of letters, discussed by Kimberly Braxton as another form of physicality, a link to the body which no longer exists, was particularly fascinating to me, paving the way for some re-evaluating of my own desire to see Keats’s letters.

The setting of such talks and discussions was perfect, as we heard from Dr Irene Wiltshire about how houses such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s make the transition to literary shrine whilst being able to appreciate the very place around us. The varying arguments posed as to why we feel motivated to make such pilgrimages became even more poignant as the guests, myself included, had all undertaken journeys of varying lengths to be there on the day, in the house of Mrs Gaskell herself.

The overwhelmingly positive response to the postcard project, both during its running pre-conference and in the open discussion, was a standout feature of the day, and for me, of the experience as a whole. People’s eager attitude and willingness to share made me question some of my pre-existing assumptions which labelled literary tourism as a rather solitary act. Contrary to this, although the motivations for engaging with relics and literary tourism may be intensely personal, the desire to share and communicate is also present for many. Whilst visiting a literary home may create a link between ourselves and an author, sharing the experience offered the opportunity to create links with others who share similar sensibilities, affording these trips a new lease of life and a way to continue. Spending the day interacting with people who are eager to explore and discuss such activities only strengthened my interest in the subject. Each speaker prompted a response in me, be that either agreement or disagreement that was welcome and has excited me about the future and the direction of my own ideas and work as I enter my final university year.

Beatrice Lord, University of York

Beatrice cropPlacing the Author enabled me to explore three different worlds. It seems only appropriate given the conference’s focus on spaces, both physical and imagined.

The world I first explored is that of academia. As an undergraduate, I naturally spend a lot of time within a university environment, listening and learning at seminars and lectures. But in becoming a volunteer conference assistant, I was provided with a different and valuable opportunity to collaborate with a team of academics. Through my mentor Claire, I experienced a wealth of hands-on activities. I gained insight into organising an academic event, from the logistics of expenses to the art of timetabling.

Throughout this learning curve I was encouraged to take an active part in the process, an experience which has really helped me in deciding to pursue a postgraduate course.

Literary tourism is the second world I was able to delve deeper into. It was thrilling to be swept up in the great wave of enthusiasm for the subject. Helping to manage the blog and Postcard Project opened my eyes to just how diverse and far-reaching this world is, as did the conference itself. Everyone wanted to be there, to soak everything up. And everyone brought something new to the conversation. The realm of relics and souvenirs is much darker than I realised. Human hair and teeth will forever stick in my mind as possibly the most disturbing connection to dead authors.

Finally, I was able to access Elizabeth Gaskell’s domestic world (although Placing the Author has made me hyper-aware that this ‘access’ reveals more about my own than the author’s world!). It might seem strange but I found it difficult to take in. Her house was beautiful. They had so perfectly captured the splendour of Gaskell’s beloved garden and the date of the conference meant we saw it in full bloom. Inside was an array of elegant rooms with high ceilings. Could this really have belonged to the woman who wrote so knowingly about devastating poverty?

To some extent though, my weeks of working on the Placing the Author team had prepared me for this. The dozens of accounts I had read told me that we can develop such strong preconceptions about places and experiences, only to find them remarkably different to or even better than what we imagined.

Curiosity and the Veneration of the Dead at Père Lachaise

By Kathrine Jackson

In late July this year, I found myself two metro stops from Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.  A Paris visit had been tagged on to a trip to Disneyland Paris organised by my partner’s parents to celebrate their retirement. No specific plans were made until we arrived at our apartment. I noticed that we were within walking distance of Père Lachaise cemetery where I remembered that Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was buried. I also recalled that his grave had become a site of veneration or pilgrimage for those that connected with both the man and his work. My PhD focused partly upon the Pre-Raphaelites so I had read The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and a selection of his poetry: I was also aware of the aestheticism movement. However, I did not have a personal link to Wilde, even if I could appreciate his work. Curiosity and opportunity got the better of me and I decided to go and have a look.

kathy blog 1

Pére Lachaise map of the graves

Père Lachaise was opened in 1804. However, it was considered to be too far away from the city and was not immediately popular. The bringing of the remains of Jean de La Fontaine and Molière proved to be a marketing success and the cemetery began to grow in popularity.  Now it houses over one million human remains. Other Victorians of note buried there (according to its official website) are: Georges Bizet (1838-1875), Frédéric Chopin (1810 -1849), Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) and Gustave Doré (1832-1883) – to name a few. As anyone who has visited the cemetery or similar grand cemeteries like Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Highgate in London or Forest Lawn in Glendale, California will appreciate, it has a strange kind of beauty. You can wander down corridors filled with Neo-Classical, Gothic and Post-Modern architecture. To the discerning eye it is a feast of artistic traditions and history and yet it is a city for the dead – and now, more often than not, the rich. I responded with a mixture of childish wonder at the strange environment (this is the first cemetery that I have visited as a tourist) and disgust. I was unsettled by the prospect of a million rotting bodies and the opulence of their memorials.

It’s potentially a nice thought to be buried alongside Oscar Wilde and other French cultural dignitaries. The only problem is that the standard lease of a plot is just 30 years and there is a waiting list – you also have to either have lived or died in Paris. Wilde did fit this bill. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, but spent periods of his life in Paris and died penniless in the city in 1900. Three years before Wilde’s death, broken from his imprisonment in Reading Gaol and with British Aestheticism drawing to a close, he returned to Paris to live as an exile on the continent. He was initially buried in Bagneaux Cemetery but was transferred to Père Lachaise in 1909, though his tomb was not erected until 1914.

kathy blog 2

Wilde’s grave

Unlike other grave sites within the cemetery, Wilde’s has been protected by a glass casing since 2011 because of the tradition, started in 1900, of kissing the monument with red lipstick and writing messages directly onto it instead of leaving billets doux. The tourists neither realised nor cared that the constant cleaning brought on by this was disintegrating the stone work. Although I completely understand and respect the decision of Wilde’s family to put up the encasement, it has the effect of making the viewer feel removed from the object. There is more of a feeling of museum than monument, which perhaps prefigures its eventual fate (if it is deemed important enough) to be saved for posterity. Ironically, the original sketches for the tomb are thought to have been derived from the Winged Assyrian Bulls, currently held in the British Museum in London. However, its final version sculpted by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) features a crucified angel-like figure that is wearing an elaborate headdress.

The back of the sculpture has lines inscribed from The Ballad of Reading Goal, written by Wilde in 1898 during his period of exile in France.

Wilde's grave

Wilde’s grave

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

It’s easy to see why these words still resonate to the visitors of Wilde’s monument. Yet, I’m not sure that they meant much to me and neither did the gravesite – beyond satisfying my own curiosity. Which leads to the final question, what did I get from the experience of going to Père Lachaise? Mostly, I was interested in people watching; noting how they reacted to the tombstones of people that they were likely to have never met. Some people were solemn and pious, there were those mainly interested in taking photos whilst others seemed bemused as they were route marched round by an organised tour. Like Baudelaire’s Flâneur, Walt Whitman or Dickens, transposed from the streets, I hungrily observed the physical and emotional responses of others to this unusual environment on the periphery of the metropolis. kathy blog 4 Yet, I also wanted to take in the experience myself– to just see how I would react – and isn’t this partly why we read in the first place? There is an almost symbiotic relationship between reading and literary tourism in which the physical and intellectual experience of tourism informs and influences reading, and vice versa.  However, I am yet to find out how my experience of visiting Wilde’s grave site will influence my future reading of his work. Perhaps I will start to envisage his voice as the uncanny angel-creature.

References

Alberge, Dalya, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Lipstick Covered Tomb to be Protected’, The Observer, 27 November 2011.  http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2011/nov/27/oscar-wilde-grave-paris-cemetery [Accessed on 14th August 2015].

Gagnier, Regenia, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

‘Oscar Wilde’, Poet’s Graves http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/wilde.htm [Accessed on 14 August 2015].

Raby, Peter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Wilde, Oscar, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, London: Smithers, 1898.

No Country for Dead Authors

Dave McLaughlin, an AHRC-funded PhD Candidate at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, explores how fans can (dis)place an author.  

Arguably the most hallowed of grounds for fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories is not in London, nor in any of the southern English towns in which the author lived. It is in the small, Swiss village of Meiringen. More accurately, it is a spot near the ledge of a viewing platform over the Reichenbach Falls. It was in this place, so we learn in The Final Problem, that the Great Detective Holmes apparently met his end at the hands of Professor Moriarty, the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, as both fell from the ledge into the watery abyss below.[1]

While reports of Holmes’s death were greatly exaggerated (he was, of course, resurrected almost a decade later in The Adventure of the Empty House[2]), the importance of Meiringen and the Reichenbach Falls in Sherlockian lore has not been. Fascinatingly, the place’s popularity came about not because but in spite of its connection with the author Doyle.

Figure 1: Members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Courtesy of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London

Figure 1: Members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Courtesy of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London

The first recorded ‘pilgrimage’ to the Reichenbach Falls, in 1968, was made by members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.[3] (Fig. 1) They trod a path already laid by one rather obsessed fan: Philip S. Hench (he claimed the ‘S’ stood for ‘Sherlock Holmes’). He and his wife visited the area around Meiringen each year throughout the 1950s, where Hench examined the area by the Falls, taking meticulous measurements and cross-referencing with Doyle’s stories. From this, he produced an enormous, pencil-sketch map of the Falls and surrounding area, annotated to mark the precise locations of events recounted in The Final Problem. (Fig, 2) Later, Hench agitated for a plaque to be placed at the spot he identified as that where Holmes and Moriarty struggled; the spot which became a later site of pilgrimage for fans.[4] (Fig. 3)

Figure 2: Philip S. Hench's map of the Falls. Case 8, Philip S. Hench Papers, University of Minnesota Special Collections and Rare Books, Minneapolis

Figure 2: Philip S. Hench’s map of the Falls. Case 8, Philip S. Hench Papers, University of Minnesota Special Collections and Rare Books, Minneapolis

Figure 3: Hench's plaque. Case 8, Philip S. Hench Papers, University of Minnesota Special Collections and Rare Books, Minneapolis

Figure 3: Hench’s plaque. Case 8, Philip S. Hench Papers, University of Minnesota Special Collections and Rare Books, Minneapolis

If Hench relied so heavily on the text of The Final Problem to interpret the geography of the Reichenbach Falls, why have I said that he and his fellow fans displaced Doyle? The answer lies in the long-standing fan tradition, led by the Baker Street Irregulars, the world’s oldest Sherlockian society, of ‘playing the game’. This involves approaching the Sherlock Holmes stories in the belief that Holmes was a real, Victorian man. Central to this game is the displacement of Doyle from his role as author and creator of Holmes and Watson. For how could Holmes have really lived if he was the literary creation of another man?

Yet, for Sherlockians, Doyle is never cast aside completely. Rather, he has been written into the world of Sherlock Holmes, as the character of ‘the literary agent’. In this telling, Doyle did not write the stories but rather helped to popularize Watson’s records of his and Holmes’s adventures. By allowing fact and fiction to support and deny each other at the same time, fans like Hench have been able to indulge in the idea that Holmes really lived whilst recognising that he exists between the pages of books – books which have Doyle’s name stamped all over them.

This double-displacement of Doyle, from his role as author and from his real-world identity, is most clearly seen in Sherlockian writings about Switzerland. Following in Hench’s footsteps, for instance, was Sherlockian fan and travel writer David Hammer. Exploring sites of Sherlockian significance in Europe for his travel book A Dangerous Game[5], Hammer, like Hench, drew on the events of The Final Problem and The Adventure of the Empty House, to shape his route. (A good, Sherlockian-produced illustration of this route can be seen in Julian Wolff’s map Operation Reichenbach, from 1948.[6]) (Fig. 4)

Figure 4: Julian Wolff's map of Operation Reichenbach, The Sherlockian Atlas, (New York: Private printing, 1952), from the Library of Congress general collection

Figure 4: Julian Wolff’s map of Operation Reichenbach, The Sherlockian Atlas, (New York: Private printing, 1952), from the Library of Congress general collection

Fascinatingly, Hammer’s text bears only one mention of Doyle – in his displaced form as ‘the literary agent’, when he says on the first page, “there are those who claim they [the book’s locations] were visited not by Holmes but by his biographer or, God save the mark, by his literary agent”.[7]

Hammer displaces Doyle because he is playing the Sherlockian game. Yet, Hammer takes this game further than his predecessors. In his pilgrimage to Meiringen, stopping at various locations on the edges of Doyle’s text, like hotels at which Holmes and Watson might have stayed, Hammer helps to co-produce Holmes the character and his world; adding to the creative efforts of Doyle. With each step towards Switzerland, Hammer widens and deepens the reach of Sherlock Holmes in Europe, well beyond that imagined by Doyle, making Holmes walk in his footsteps. By the time Hammer reaches Meiringen there is little room for Doyle in his version of Sherlockian Europe – as there is no place for Doyle on Holmes’s hallowed ground.

Notes:

[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes, (London: Penguin, 1981, 2009) pp.469-480

[2] ibid. pp.483-496

[3] Michael Saler, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp.121-124

[4] Various Papers, Philip S. Hench Collection 1877-1995, Cases 8-11, University of Minnesota Special Collections and Rare Books, Minneapolis

[5] David Hammer, A Dangerous Game: Being a Travel Guide to the Europe of Sherlock Holmes, (Indianapolis: Gasogene Press, 1997)

[6] Julian Wolff, The Sherlockian Atlas, (New York: private printing, 1952), n.p.

[7] Hammer, Dangerous Game, p.1