In 2007 a travel journalist, Laura Knight, reviewed the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh for The Times:
The windows of room 652 give me a whiff of Hogwarts school for wizards. Two tiny apertures high up in the wall look out onto the cornices and cupolas of the century-old roof, while a pair of round windows frame a stunning view of the Edinburgh skyline. Squint and you could almost imagine Hermione curled up with a spell book on the windowsill.
It was in this room that J.K.Rowling finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in January. I sit at the modern desk where, presumably, she put an end to either Harry or He Who Must Not Be Named. Then I plump down on the beige sofa, the dark leather chairs, and the soft bed with its leather headboard, just in case she doesn’t write at a desk.
In fact, according to Rowling herself, the room she finished the novel in was room 552. Here she left a memorial inscription, fittingly on a plaster bust of Hermes, messenger to the gods: ‘J.K. Rowling/finished writing/Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows/in this room (552)/on 11th Jan 2007’. Following her confession to this in a tweet of 11 Jan 2016, the room was transformed into the J.K. Rowling suite, complete with owl knocker. The desk ‘the very same one used by J.K. Rowling to write those crucial last chapters’ was within the year staged and represented as such, the bust of Hermes was protected by a glass cabinet, a framed replica of Rowling’s inscription is now displayed on the wall behind it, and there are photographs of the whole on the internet.
Finished Hallows 9 yrs ago today. Celebrated by graffiti-ing a bust in my hotel room. Never do this. It's wrong. pic.twitter.com/HsqQKydY68
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) January 11, 2016
There are two interesting things about Laura Knight’s write-up. The first is the way that the author is represented as existing at the same level of reality as the author’s fictional characters, not as finishing the last manuscript pages of a book, but as ‘putting an end’ to her characters. Secondly, although the journalist may have been in the wrong room, trying out the wrong chairs, desk and bed as possible sites of writing, she knew that such a site must have existed, she knew that it offered privileged access to ‘magic’, and she knew what to do to access it – that is to say, to sit in the author’s chair and preferably at their desk. In this she rehearsed a well-worn cliché, one that first emerges around the 1780s when tourists first developed the widespread habit of visiting locations associated with writers and their work in pursuit of supplementing the experience of reading with something more immediate, sensory, and experimental.
What exactly then does the writer’s desk and chair ‘mean’? What is its value? Commercially, it has lent lustre to the hotel for sure, and doubtless the suite commands a premium price. Culturally, the writer’s desk typically stages the place and end of the work of writing and the beginning of the existence of it as a book. It also stages the author as existing before, after, and beyond the book. Rowling’s handwritten scrawl entrusted to Hermes as divine messenger insists that there is something left over even after the end of the epilogue to the Deathly Hallows; that something is surely what the literary tourist is looking for.
References and further information
 Jane Knight ‘Mystery Guest We Send a Writer Under the Covers…This Week the Balmoral Hotel, Princes Street, Edinburgh The Times cutting, n.d. c. 2007 p. 26
Professor Watson is working on a book called The Author’s Effects: A Poetics of the Writer’s House Museum.
Why do people want to visit writers' homes?
Transcript – expand to see more
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.
Explore writing and reading with a FREE course
This article is part of our Harry Potter collection - a series of academic insights exploring some of the themes, interests and general wizardry in the novels written by J.K. Rowling.
You can view our Happy Birthday Harry Potter! hub here to read all the articles. Mischief managed!