Perhaps it is just an occupational hazard, but going into a house where a writer has lived
and worked has a certain significance to me.
Yes, I know that writing is a thing that can be done anywhere, and that some of the modern writers might have to have a city tour for a museum instead of a single house, incorporating various coffee shops where they once pecked at the keyboard of their laptop (I am thinking, in particular, about a certain café which, by repute, was the birthplace of some character called… oh… Harry Potter…) But all the same – and in particular for writers of a long time ago – there’s just… something… special in wandering down the hallways which they too might have walked, looking at things they might have owned or touched or that might have inspired some particularly beloved character or incident from a novel you know well.
Some places don’t care much for such stuff at all. I know for a fact that the house in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where J R R Tolkien was born, has long been torn down to make space for a shopping mall. And there has ALWAYS been a certain amount of cynical controversy about the whole idea – to wit, the money (literally) quote being: “…investing in writers' former homes is not a development tactic with a great track record. There are about 55 writers' houses open to the public in America. Most are owned by civic organizations, and many lose money.” And yes, perhaps it is all an outdated and irrelevant thing. Who cares where these people lived, worked, loved, laughed, died? Who cares any more where they got their ideas?
I follow in the footsteps of the writers who came before me when I can – going in to see their quill pens and their ancient typewriters and to wonder how on EARTH any novel at all was ever written before the advent of a word processor. True, I started in longhand myself, but once a computer came along I leapt in with both feet and have never looked back since, with only the occasional poem jotted down in longhand in the moment of inspiration or perhaps a couple of sentences which would serve to trigger an idea for a story which, itself, would be written up at the keyboard at a later date.
I go to look at the books on their shelves. To look out of the same window they looked out of (although it is very possible that we would not be seeing the same thing…). To breathe in, perhaps, a molecule of air which might have got stuck in a book or a chair or the hearth and which might have a lingering memory of THEIR breath. In homage, and for inspiration, I go.
I visited the home of Jane Austen (which is rather self-deprecating on its website, talking of a collection that’s “relatively small”, but citing letters and music books transcribed in Jane Austen’s own hand, Austen’s writing table, and an actual patchwork quilt made for Jane by her mother and which she might have slept under…).
I’ve been to the house of Ernest Hemingway in Key West, where one of the large numbers of the Hemingway Cats (well, their descendants) which still live there, a large orange tom, chose to follow my Hemingway-lookalike husband from room to room looking curious and expectant as though Papa might reincarnate any minute. One of those cats was, disconcertingly, the first thing we saw on our first approach, sitting confidently and in solitary splendour in the ticket booth. We weren’t sure whether the cats were in charge of collecting the money. Out by the pool, preserved by a small square of clear plastic set into the paving, is a single penny coin – the story goes that Mrs. Hemingway, during one of her husband’s absences, decided to amuse herself by making a swimming pool at the house. This proved to be a greater (and, naturally, far more expensive) challenge than initially believed because it turned out that the place where the pool was supposed to go required excavating it out of solid rock. Hemingway, upon his return and being presented with the substantial bill for the operation, reputedly reached into his pocket and took out a penny – this self-same penny we saw – and said something along the lines of, “Here, have my last cent!”
I’ve been to the Charles Dickens House – which has the distinction of being one of the few, if not the only, place of this ilk to be emphatic in underlining that it would be OPEN AT CHRISTMAS – and really, how could it not be, with the man who wrote classics like “David Copperfield” and “Oliver Twist” and “Little Nell”, with which schoolchildren have been tortured in English Lit classes for generations, being the most famous of all for a little something called… “The Christmas Carol”…? And God BLESS us, every one!
The homes of the creators. The dreamers. The tellers of tales.
I never managed to visit the house of Anne Frank, in Amsterdam, for the same reasons that I missed out on the Egyptian Queen in Berlin – we were in Amsterdam for a short time, and our window of opportunity failed to coincide with the museum’s opening hours. I have a photo of the house, from the street, though. I read the book, of course, when I was still a girl – and it had left an impression. I remember gazing up at the narrow Dutch house and trying to picture it, trying to imagine what a spirited teenager must have felt, suspended between life and death here, counting her heartbeats, waiting for it all to end… until it finally did, of course, and badly.The house has an aura for me, and that’s without my ever having gone inside – the ghost of a young girl who might have been all sorts of things had she been allowed to grow up and grow old but became, instead, an iconic face for one of the most appalling acts that humanity has ever committed. Anne is both writer and character, a protagonist in her own story, mixed up until the edges between the two blur – and in some ways perhaps it is easier to approach this place if you think of her story as Story, as Meta-narrative, as Pseudo-fiction, someone telling a tale – perhaps about their own life, to be sure, but still, a story. But the unnerving little aftertaste of bitterness remains, the taste of truth, the thing you cannot ever forget once you felt it burn on your tongue, sear its way down your throat, settle into your gut.
That’s what a museum is for. To make you think. To make you remember. To make you understand.
There are also the wholly fictional characters who rate a museum of their own, too – characters so iconic that it is easier to believe that they MIGHT have existed than that they were just the figments of their creators’ imaginations. One of the most famous addresses in London is, and will always remain, 221B Baker Street, the Sherlock Holmes museum. This place is like… a game of Cluedo. You go in with a mental checklist and you tick items off as you spot them. Sherlock’s violin – check. A pipe –check. A doctor’s bag – check. A deerstalker hat – check. Any number of tiny – insignificant for some – details from the stories, from the mysteries, spilling out of drawers, over the mantelpiece, on the bookshelves. You go hunting, for literary clues, for the little hooks which you can use to attach yourself to the tale where you first encountered these things, trying to recapture – oh, to quote Browning – that “fine, careless rapture”.
Stories. Museums are there to hold stories.
Some are real; some are marginal; some are frankly fake (but so beloved that you can overlook that small inconvenience). We are all part of a much larger story, interweaving with so many others – but every so often we’ll pick up some small thread of it and follow its shining lure into some other world, see that world through some other person’s eyes.
“What’s the best thing for being sad?” asks a young character named Wart in a great and glorious book called The Once and Future King.
The wizard whom all the world knows, called Merlin, replies to the future King Arthur, “The best thing for being sad… is to learn something.”
To all of you who have been reading these museum pieces (of which is this the penultimate one) – on practically the eve of the ending of another year and the beginning of a brand new one – I give you Merlin’s wisdom.
Don’t be sad. Learn something.
Get thee to a museum. Sooner or later, today, next week, next month. Go look at art made by a stranger’s hand, or an artefact once used by a human being who lived at the dawn of our civilization, or a presentation on how the first electric lightbulb was lit in a house thus bringing the gas age to a halt, or a wonderful old book, or something of deep cultural significance to a culture not your own thus learning more about your species, or a painstakingly recreated room from another age taking you back in time, or a painstakingly recreated bridge from a starship that never existed taking you into an imagined future.