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Nicola Watson: Do you ever go to a writer’s house in search of the secret life of a book you love? I do, and I’ve been thinking and writing about the history and the cultural work of the writer’s house museum for my latest book.
The first writer’s house that admirers visited after he died in 1374 was Petrarch’s in Arqua, Italy. But what did these admirers hope to find? One of the earliest comments on the oddness of this impulse to visit dead authors at home is the elaborate practical joke known as ‘Petrarch’s cat’.
This cat was embalmed and then framed in a marble shrine around 1635. It was shown by the owner of the house as the remains of Petrarch’s pet. But though it started its life (or rather its death) as a joke, by the time Byron went to see it in 1816, everyone firmly believed in its authenticity. It offered one way of getting closer to the author’s everyday domestic life. I think we go to writers’ houses to imagine the writer before he or she wrote the book which brought us there. We try to turn our reading into a personal, physical encounter with the author’s body.
So the writer’s house museum generally tries to make it possible for us to feel as though the writer is still ‘at home’. Some of the ways of doing this are very familiar and feel natural. The writer’s desk is key – here’s Dylan Thomas’s, complete with coffee cup and crumpled up paper as though he had just popped out and would be back any moment. (Somehow and implausibly the writer’s bedroom is always tidy though.)
Some ways of getting close to the author’s body work powerfully for modern tourists -- like the sofa on which Emily Bronte died, or the white dress Emily Dickinson habitually wore. But sometimes they are becoming increasingly creepy, like Keats’ deathmask. Sometimes they prove to be comically embarrassing and definitely beside the point, like Agatha Christie’s loo. In fact, all sorts of things that once gave readers an immediate feeling of the author now don’t. This is the celebrated bench on which the Victorians thought Shakespeare courted Anne Hathaway. They wanted to feel that Shakespeare’s marriage was romantic and respectable. Now that modern tourists don’t want to believe that anymore, the bench isn’t important and has been found not to be authentic. That’s also what has happened to Petrarch’s poor little cat, now firmly demoted to the kitchen.
What these two stories tell us is that writer’s house museums may tell us about the writer’s life, but they tell us as much or more about ourselves as readers. They tell us about the secret life of books, but we choose which secrets we wish to be told.
Why do people want to visit writers' homes and the museums that have often sprung up around them? What does our interest in writers' belongings, manuscripts or other artefacts say about us? In this short film, Nicola Watson, Professor of English Literature at The Open University, gives a brief summary of some of the popular artefacts that people have visited at writers' houses since the phenomenon began...
The Secret Life of Books - Find out more about the series.