Five Questions: Nicola J. Watson on The Author’s Effects: On Writer’s House Museums

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Nicola J. Watson is Professor of English Literature at the Open University, a former president of BARS (2011-2015) and the co-ordinator of the European Romanticisms in Association (ERA) initiative. She has published on a formidable array of subjects, including the revolutionary contexts of the Romantic novel; the limits of Romanticism; Walter Scott; Shakespeare; the afterlives of Elizabethan England; exhibiting literature; and literary tourism. Her most recent monograph, The Author’s Effects: On Writer’s House Museums, which we discuss below, was published by Oxford University Press in January 2020.

1) How did you first become interested in writer’s house museums?

I first got interested in writer’s house museums when I was writing about the emergence of literary tourism in late eighteenth-century Britain for The Literary Tourist. The writer’s house museum proper, in the sense of a house previously occupied by an author that is now shown to the ticketed public, first comes officially into being with the purchase of Shakespeare’s Birthplace for the nation in 1847. But when I was writing an essay commissioned for the Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Popular Culture on Shakespeare and tourism, it became obvious that the idea of visiting a dead writer’s house had emerged much earlier.

2) Do you think that people’s reasons for visiting writer’s houses have changed substantially since the eighteenth century and, if so, in what manner?

There are strong continuities between the tourist of the eighteenth century and the present day. There is still the desire to ‘get closer’ to an admired author or book, sometimes both, that you find in early tourists to Burns’ Alloway or Cowper’s Olney. ‘Getting closer’ was and is still achieved through imagined physical proximity, and often entails an immersive experiment in subjectivity; hence the three bonneted women I met in a Peak District town last summer, where a plaque in the pub claims (on no obvious evidential basis!) that Jane Austen had stayed there while writing Pride and Prejudice. They had just visited Chatsworth, embodying in their imaginations at once Jane Austen and Elizabeth Bennet on their trip to Pemberley. I have met similar enthusiasts at Chawton Cottage, where much the same pleasures are activated around Jane Austen’s writing table.

That said, personal pilgrimage is not the whole story of why people have gone and still go to writer’s house museums – there is also the enduring desire to access the springs of national identity. Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769 set up a defining structure of public homage to a national poet centred on a house in Stratford, and the celebrity of Walter Scott’s Abbotsford has owed much to his waxing and waning status as national writer.

Nowadays, though, both Stratford and Abbotsford are also visited by those enduring education, whether as children or foreign tourists. And increasingly, faced with visitors who have not read the writings, there is a tendency to market and consume writer’s houses as spaces that are not just witnesses to significant inspiration in the past but which can enable inspiration in the modern visitor. These visitors are making a different sort of pilgrimage, then, but with something of the same promise of transformational encounter.

3) You write in your introduction that writer’s house museums ‘are dedicated to displaying what is not there, although it once was there—the author.  They all construct ‘a writer’ by evoking a writer’s life and writings through objects located in pseudo-domestic spaces.  Such objects and spaces speak of the absence, or (more accurately) of the once-but-no-longer presence of the author’s body ‘at home’.’  What were the most eloquent displays of this kind you encountered while researching the book, and why do you feel they worked particularly well?

My sense is that the key to eloquent display is the performance of the spectrality of the writer and writing – which is to say also, the ghostliness of the reader and reading. This is a matter of evoking the impossible, invisible, or unfinished. Memorable examples of this might be the display of Burns’ desk at Alloway, which appears to be silently flying away in a high wind; or Hans Christian Andersen’s inkpot at Odense, apparently on fire; or, equally Romantic, the bronze hawthorn tree bending to its own private remembered gale in Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford; or the roped-off staircase winding out of Scott’s study to the bedroom where, as the guide points out, he did his real work; or the trapdoor through which Rousseau escaped unwanted visitors to botanise in the woods of the Ile St Pierre; or the last page of Gaskell’s unfinished novel Wives and Daughters, left on her desk in Manchester. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement in estranging the material reality of such houses was Mark Wallinger’s installation ‘Self-reflection’, which mirrored the ceiling of Freud’s consulting room in London so that the whole room became imaginary, a dream. All of which said, the eloquence of house museums is really, in the end, secured by what the visitor brings and invests. For this reason, while The Author’s Effects is about the persistence and realisation of essentially Romantic ideas of authorship, it is also in some sort a history of reading and readerly affect.

4) Does the effectiveness of a writer’s house as a museum correlate fairly straightforwardly with that writer’s fame, or are there kinds of writers who are more likely to speak powerfully when their absent presences are evoked in particular spaces?

The fame alone of a writer does not guarantee the setting up or survival of a house museum, but it does help to guarantee the effectiveness of that museum, at least in a financial sense. There are exceptions to that rule – a museum only ‘works’, however famous the writer, if it is in the right place. Rudyard Kipling provides a case in point: his birthplace in India is derelict because it is not politically fashionable to celebrate him as a writer of India; his home in Vermont – where he wrote the Jungle Books – memorialises him minimally, because neither he nor his works are adequately American; the house-museum in Sussex, which inspired the national fantasy of Puck of Pook’s Hill is, unsurprisingly, run very successfully by the National Trust. But there are certainly kinds of writers – or rather, of writing – that are more suited to being evoked successfully in particular spaces, such as the autobiographical or quasi-autobiographical forms of memoir, essay, diary, and lyric. Fiction works if the setting is verifiable, or if a fictive protagonist melds with the biography of the writer to produce some sort of composite first-person narrative (as in Haworth Parsonage). That said, there is a category of writer that seems to speak more powerfully from particularised space. When a writer consciously sets out to map a landscape in their own language and experience, and succeeds, a poet such as William Wordsworth, their writings will speak especially strongly in situ. The landscape acts as a vast, and immersive, paratext.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Most of my research time is currently spent building RÊVE (Romantic Europe: The Virtual Exhibition), funded by the AHRC as part of the project DREAMing Romantic Europe which I am leading on. This collaboration between museums and scholars across Europe aims initially to develop microbiographies of c. 100 virtual exhibits and is designed to investigate and illuminate the transmission of Romantic habits of mind via material culture right across Europe. In practice, this means that I have been commissioning and editing about 120,000 words authored by about 100 scholars and a sprinkling of creative artists.  Recently, we have begun narrating exhibits into a number of pilot ‘collections’,  accelerating the release of exhibits in the hopes of providing colleagues with a useful resource given the necessity of online teaching/research in current circumstances, and indeed designing some ways in which the exhibition can be used pedagogically. I am just beginning work on an essay reflecting on the project’s practical outcomes and its scholarly findings, which will be published on the project website later this year. But just immediately I am organising the project’s third workshop, themed to ‘Romantic Media’, due to have been held in June at Grasmere as part of Wordsworth250; in light of lockdown, we have now expanded this into a large online conference by Zoom for all 100 participants in the project. I am looking forward to hosting this, with just a touch of trepidation…