The places in which writers lived and worked become inextricably linked with their art within the public consciousness. Would the works of Wordsworth have captured the imaginations of such a large audience, and be held as treasures of the nation’s culture, if it was not for his poetic rendering of the Lake District? Does it matter that Shakespeare’s true home was outside of the London society he was observing and satirising? How would Dickens’s work be different if he had chosen a rural life rather than his metropolitan existence? These are perhaps unanswerable questions, but the notion that place has an artistic power is a persistent one.
In his book, The Place of Writing (1989), Seamus Heaney writes that, ‘The usual assumption, when we speak of writers and place, is that the writer stands in some directly expressive or interpretative relationship to the milieu. He or she becomes a voice of the spirit of the region. The writing is infused with the atmosphere, physical and emotional, of a certain landscape or seascape’. Yet, Heaney also attempts complicate this established way of thinking about the artistic importance of place. He also writes that, ‘the poetic imagination in its strongest manifestation imposes its vision upon a place rather than accepts a vision from it’. The writer, in other words, has the power to create a specific idea of place that takes hold in the larger culture by writing about it through his own unique view.
This is an interesting consideration when thinking about the role of literary houses and museums, and the role of literary tourism in general. Some of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain have a literary connection, but to what degree are visitors trying to capture some of the influence place had on their favourite works of literature? It is perhaps possible that certain authors’ imagination is so powerful that they have forever marked these places. Take, for example, the small village of Haworth in Yorkshire, the home of the Brontë family and a site of literary pilgrimage. It is not only the location of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the house in which the family lived, but also other sites of pilgrimage, such as Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse on the moors. Top Withens is, in the popular imagination, the house that inspired Wuthering Heights and has become a site of literary pilgrimage. This is a case of the ‘poetic imagination impos[ing] its vision upon a place’ as it was reputedly nearby Ponden Hall that influenced Heathcliffe’s house. The case of Top Withens suggests that people take these literary pilgrimages to feel closer to the written word, to engage with the literary rather than the actual. Top Withens may not be the true inspiration for the house in Wuthering Heights, but it is a site that accurately represents the wild moorland of Emily Brontë’s artistic vision, and therefore has a powerful cultural value.
Perhaps the opposite of this romantic vision of place is the idea of the domestic space in which the work was written. Heaney calls the dwelling places of authors ‘machines for living in’, often very normal buildings that are not romanticised in an author’s work (though his example of W.B Yeats’s Thoor Ballylee somewhat contradicts this). The Dickens House Museum in London is a monument to the author’s domestic life, and has reconstructed the old Georgian townhouse on Doughty Street to a very close facsimile of what it would have been like in Dickens’s day. It is a monument to his every day, rather than artistic, life, yet it still operates as a site of literary pilgrimage. There is a magic in the rooms, similar to that of seeing an author’s handwriting on a manuscript. Here is where Dickens spent his most private moments, writing, sleeping and attended to his ablutions. Here is where he entertained a roster of notable guests. Here is where his clothes were washed and where he kept his wine. These literary houses become sites of biography, where visitors hope to find out more about the human being behind the words and have the opportunity to imagine the quotidian life of an author.
For most people, this engagement with place is not an academic or intellectual pursuit, but something that is more connected with the immediate and visceral response to a piece of literary art. Literary heritage sites are doing good work in encouraging this engagement, for example special tours and events that foster the romantic association of both domestic and geographical space (the Dickens House’s candlelit tour, being one). It is perhaps useful, especially for academics, to view these sites and how they are operated as important gateways to more sustained and in depth engagement with the literature associated with them, whether that is for students of literature, or an interested public. The romanticising of place, far from being trivial or superficial, helps our literary culture to thrive, and may inspire a deeper, more academic engagement with the important literature of our canon.