WRITERS’ HOUSES: WHERE GREAT BOOKS BEGAN
By Nick Channer
Robert Hale/Trafalgar Square, $26.95, 264 pages, illustrated
In the early 1970s, one of my English Literature professors liked to use “Describe the houses in the novels we have read this semester and their significance” as an exam question. There was plenty to write about the eponymous “Wuthering Heights” and “Bleak House,” “Pride and Prejudice’s” Netherfield Park and Pemberley, plus so many other dwellings that loomed large symbolically in the various texts. This delightful book by a British author and journalist is a bit different in its focus. As Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame remarks in his brief but telling introduction, “Nick Channer explores the influence of place on creative writers, searching out their homes and exploring the synthesis between their literary creations and the rooms in which they were imagined and written.”
In one of the most crucial parts of Jane Austen’s masterpiece, her heroine Elizabeth Bennett realizes that she has only been able to understand Darcy in his own home of Pemberley. Mr. Channer shows us how the places where writers actually lived help us understand their creations.
The contrast between these writers’ habitats is startling. The hustle and bustle surrounding Samuel Johnson’s house in Gough Square and Charles Dickens’ in Doughty Street must have been as great in its way during Victorian days as it is in the heart of today’s London. Yet even in the metropolis, Thomas Carlyle’s house on the Thames Embankment in Chelsea and John Keats’ high up in Hampstead retain a touch of the bucolic. Carlyle’s little garden where he liked to smoke his pipe lacks the open vistas of his day, but still has his privy in full working order. Keats’ greensward, where he could look over at the house of his great love Fanny Brawne, is still beautiful enough to seem the perfect place to compose his peerless “Ode to a Nightingale.”
The handsome Italianate dwelling of Elizabeth Gaskell in a suburb on the outskirts of Manchester perfectly suits her oeuvre which encompassed rural and urban alike, while the windswept parsonage of her great friend Charlotte Bronte and her sisters seems nothing less than essential to their wild flights of fictional magic.
In the lovely Lake District of Northwest England, Wordsworth’s three main dwelling places not only frame the places immortalized in his poetry but tell the story of his difficult progression through life. His handsome birthplace in Cockermouth, a fringe benefit of his father’s position as land agent to a local nobleman, was succeeded by the much humbler Dove Cottage, so important to him and his collaborator Coleridge, before the more substantial Rydal Mount, magnificently located. Mr. Channer quotes his servant at Rydal saying that the library was “where he keeps his books; his study is out of doors,” but tells us that “the view from his study — a majestic landscape of fells and lakes — was a reminder of the natural beauty of the great outdoors, where he found true inspiration.”
This book takes us to Madresfield Court in the Malvern foothills which was the true inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” rather than the far grander Castle Howard where the television adaptation was filmed. And we see Daphne Du Maurier’s beloved Cornish Menabilly, different in some respects from Manderley, which dominates “Rebecca” almost as much as the eponymous heroine, yet definitely its inspiration.
Not everything in “Writers’ Houses” is grand. The humble miner’s cottage where D.H. Lawrence was born will summon up the indelible locale of the family in “Sons and Lovers.” George Bernard Shaw’s early-20th century villa in rural Ayot St. Lawrence was so undistinguished, except for the writing hut which revolved to catch the sun, according to the National Trust’s James Lees-Milne, that it would not have considered acquiring such a property had it not belonged to so famous an author. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia)’s farm laborer’s cottage at Clouds Hill shared nothing with its romantic and evocative name, but expresses the oddity for which he was renowned. His singular personality is encapsulated in the quote Mr. Channer has found: “While I have it there shall be nothing exquisite or unique in it. Nothing to anchor me.”
The exquisite is certainly absent, but if Mr. Channer consistently shows one thing in his book it is that, here as in all these dwelling places, there is something unique that does indeed anchor the writer who lived there.
If you are unable to take a trip across the Atlantic, this book will serve as the best substitute. And even if you did go and visit all the sites in it, your enjoyment of them would be enriched by its insights into their character and significance.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.