“Sometimes a book invites a journey, sometimes we invite ourselves.” With that premise, we are taken on a journey that includes the pub where Leopold Bloom has lunch” and the bridge off which “Quentin Compson jumped.”
At first, we explore “the best literary experiences at home and abroad.” What I loved about this section was its inclusion of many places I have known, visited, and loved (Ashland, Oregon; Anne Hathaway’s Cottage; Steventon’s St. Nicholas Church; Winchester Cathedral; Chawton Cottage (listed as Jane Austen’s House Museum); the National Portrait Gallery; 48 Doughty Street—the Dickens Museum) and its revelation of places I now I have on my radar (Monte Cristo Cottage, named for the show in which Eugene O’Neill’s father was a touring stage actor; Dora’s bedroom in Rydal Mount; Kenwood Vineyards, which “owns the grapevines that were once part of Beauty Ranch” and now produces the Jack London series of wines; the “Stella Calling Contest” in Clarksdale, Mississippi; West Hills, NY, where you can hear “Whitman’s voice on tape reading four lines of his poem ‘America'”; and the house in London where Dr. Samuel Johnson lived while he was writing the dictionary, which “was employed by such scribes as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth, and Ocsar Wilde”). It also reminded me of places I have long wanted to see but not yet actually visited (Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford; Scott’s View; Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage; the Brontes’ Haworth—in fact, reading about their lives, bursts of success after years of tragedy and shortly followed by dramatic successions of tragedy, better justified in my view the drama that sometimes draws me in and more often turns me aside; Burns Cottage, the Burns Cottage Museum, and Auld Kirk Alloway, which is central to the hilarious and terrifying “Tam o’Shanter;” John Milton’s cottage (in Chalfont St. Giles) where he completed Paradise Lost, “composed entirely in his head and dictated to his secretary” over a period of about ten years).
There are also several places I don’t feel the need to visit but am happy to read exist. These include Jack London’s Pig Palace in which “each porcine family [had] their own apartment.”
Bath gets a lot of page time, especially in the section entitled Bath, England Unpersuaded: Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Annually in September, Bath has a Jane Austen festival, and the text warns us not to miss the “In the Footsteps of Jane Austen” one-day outing (to places that may include Chawton House and Stoneleigh Abbey). For ten days, “visitors can promenade in a period costume along the Royal Crescent . . . partake in a Grand Ball . . . compete in a Jane Austen treasure hunt, and sample the delights of an 18th century breakfast.” There are plays and walks and talks, and obviously the richest of temptations: “the unique camaraderie.” Beginning with a description of Austen’s feelings about Bath, the text launches into a little history of the town, including during Roman times and during the Middle Ages. It also teaches us about “three pivotal figures” (“entrepreneur” Beau Nash, architect John Wood, and businessman Ralph Allen) who revived Bath. Then we return to why Austen disliked Bath and what “larger misfortune[s]” Bath brought to her (notably the reverend George Austen’s death and “the acute social embarrassment of reneging” on Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal). In this discussion, we are reminded of Austen’s praise of (especially Fanny Burney’s Cecilia and Camilla and Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda) novels “for conveying ‘the most thorough knowledge of human nature,’ the selfsame characteristic for which Austen’s own novels were later to become renowned.” The text includes the addresses associated with Austen in Bath and the suggestion not to miss Jane Austen’s Bath Walking Tour. We’re advised later to enjoy the Literature Festival, which takes place each year “in late February/early March” and where 15,000 visitors gather to enjoy the town “immortalized in the pages of onetime resident Jane Austen’s novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.”
There’s a good amount of text on the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library, which I finally visited on my third visit to England and really enjoyed. The description here—“it’s the humble word that stars in documents like the 800-year-old Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, and Shakespeare’s Folio—is so apt; it is “a bibliophile’s Louvre”! The “final two manuscript chapters of Jane Austen’s Persuasion” are here, but I thought it interesting that the writers only parenthetically mention the item that was, for me, the highlight of the experience: Jane Austen’s writing desk. I suppose not all visitors have a brother who physically constructed a wooden desk to match Jane’s for his sister’s most recent big birthday, but still. They do mention the pretty cool online gallery in which visitors can, among other things, “virtually turn the pages of library treasures” such as Austen’s draft of The History of England “by a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian.”
Jane Austen appears again in the section dealing with “From Page to Screen,” whose premise is that “the next best thing to following in the footsteps of beloved authors is to visit the locales where their books were brought to life on film.” I may quibble with the notion that the books lacked life until they became films, but I also love seeing places I have seen in Austen film adaptations. This book neatly reminds us what scenes were filmed at Chatsworth House and which at Sudbury Hall and Lyme Park (wet shirt scene!).
Other interesting things I learned: The Alexander House Booklovers’ Bed and Breakfast in Princess Anne, MD offers three rooms “devoted to different time periods,” including one to “the Regency-era England of Jane Austen.” Also on your stay there, you might play Pride & Prejudice: the Game (as well as Trivial pursuit Book Lovers’ Edition: why don’t I own that?). Marshalsea Debtors Prison (Little Dorrit is born there, and Dickens’ father was imprisoned there) exists only in a “fragment of its arched brick entrance wall,” noted by a plaque. I hadn’t realized that Dickens is describing his own Gad’s Hill place in A Christmas Carol as “a mansion of dull red brick.” I hadn’t realized how “tireless [a] champion of humanitarian causes” Dickens was. Strange, though, that in America, he would take “aim at the young nation’s rampant capitalism” and “conformity of thinking.” Doesn’t capitalism require new ideas? Did he think England was doing so much better? (besides slavery, obviously)
In touring the world, I learned more about writers I didn’t know well and got reacquainted with writers I do. I was struck by how many of them died so young—Rabbie Burns and Thomas Wolfe at 37, John Keats at 26, Shelley at 29. There are little known facts (or, at least, I hadn’t known them) that I enjoyed, too, especially about our writers’ engagement with each other. Oscar Wilde visited Walt Whitman in 1882. That makes me happy. Mark Twain was unimpressed by Dickens’ performances. I can picture a mustachioed Twain scoffing at Dickens’ bombastic shows. Did YOU know that Harper Lee’s favorite writers were Austen and Stevenson? I didn’t either, but it makes sense when you learn that, without money, Lee and Truman Capote “lived in [their] imagination most of the time.” Apparently after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, “Lee expressed a desire to emulate Jane Austen” by “continuing to chronicle the ‘rich social pattern’ of small-town” life, though she didn’t end up publishing more.
Though this book is tough to read all the way through—so many places, so many writers, so much info to absorb—it is a wonderful resource for more exploration of writers you love or places you might love to visit.