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The house of fame

Jonathan Keates

Filed under: Non-fiction

ONLY A SHRINE/ BUT MINE’ – The distich was composed by the aesthete and homosexual love-object Stephen Tennant for emblazoning somewhere amid the mirrors and sea shells of his country retreat at Wilsford, Wiltshire. Here he spent most of his later life in bed, complete with maquillage and jewels, meditating what he called ‘a husky yarn’, set in Mediterranean seaports among well-endowed matelots with the appropriate tattooed forearms and flap-fronted bell-bottoms. The Lascar, as the novel was to be titled, never actually go written, but Tennant enjoyed designing a luridly decorative series of covers for the projected first edition.

He belonged to that interesting literary sub-species, the virtual writer, whose idea for a book never quite coalesces into the real thing, but who acquires his own authenticity for remaining true to the dream. To be the genuine article, as Tennant realised, a writer needs a shrine, the place to which admirers make pilgrimages during his lifetime and where, after his death, the more fanciful kind of visitor comes in search of inspirations communicated by the presiding genius.

In this connection a Danish friend of mine told me of a visit he once made to Rungstedlund, the house in which Karen Blixen (Isaak Dinesen) had spent her old age. He and his friends had moved through the various rooms thrilled by their displays of manuscripts and objects linked with the writer, but haunted, at the same time, by a certain barely explicable sense that they were being shadowed and watched by an unseen presence, more palpable than anything created by the simple potency of memories and associations.

When he mentioned this to the staff on leaving, they told him that one of Blixen’s maids still lived in the house and occasionally followed visitors around at a discreet distance, making sure they were properly respectful of her mistress’s things. ‘But of course it wasn’t the maid,’ said my friend, ‘it was Dinesen herself. She was there in the room with us all the time.’

Much of this numinous quality depends on the available reserves of what, for want of a more specific term, we call ‘atmosphere’. This is not to be supplied merely by the number of the writer’s belongings – a pen, a watch, slippers, gloves etc – which the shrine has managed to accumulate over the years, let alone by its collection of holograph letters, first drafts, cancelled stanzas, corrected proofs or inscribed copies. Imagination plays an essential role here. Very well, ghosts a la Dinesen may not be necessary, but in certain of these houses, depending on the weather, the time of day and the number of other visitors, it is possible to feel that the writer is still in possession of the place, ready to sit down at the desk again once we’re gone. (Provided, of course, that we haven’t destroyed the creative process irreparably, like Coleridge’s notorious ‘person on business from Porlock’.)

The increasing rarity of this imaginative frisson is a by-product of modern museum culture, obsessively eager to please, terrified of possible litigation and reluctant to trust us on our own. Visitor centres, complete with restaurants, gift shops and activity areas, sometimes threaten to overwhelm the integrity of the house itself. When at last we reach it, having negotiated the various stairs, ramps and walkways, the rooms on display have an oddly puny, shrunken look to them, as though reduced to footnotes or afterthoughts in the sanitised version of the author’s life presented for scrutiny.

Two houses stand out as memorable exceptions to this trend. One is the handsome three-storey Queen Anne brick box at Olney in Buckinghamshire, where in 1787 William Cowper went to live with his friend Mary Unwin. Assisted by the ex-slave trader John Newton, she sought to rescue him from suicidal depression with the aid of Evangelicalism and common sense, a mixture which seems to have worked effectively enough. I visited it on a damp October afternoon, when a trick of light in shadowy rooms or across a rain-swept garden made an apparition by the turbaned poet and his tame hares just that little bit more plausible.

The other is at Coxwold, in a particularly Elysian corner of Yorkshire, where the village curate Lawrence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy. The place’s museum aspect is skilfully muted throughout, allowing us to feel that the rambling part-medieval, part-Georgian building still belongs to the writer, rather than to some faceless board of trustees.

This year sees the launch of an appeal by one of the most famous of all literary shrines, the Keats-Shelley house in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. Established a century ago as a memorial to the two poets, it had since become a centre for international Romantic studies, as well as housing a major collection of manuscripts, paintings and relics of the two poets. The curators aim to turn the eighteenth-century cellar into a properly-equipped storage space, provide a tearoom and lavatories and open exhibition rooms on the first floor, granting access to a terrace with one of the finest views across the old city to the pine-clad hills beyond. The project deserves our support.

Given the affiliation in which the Keats-Shelley House is already held, it is unlikely, thank goodness, to endure the worst of all fates to have overtaken a writer’s residence. In Stratford-on-Avon, during the eighteenth century, a crotchety clergyman named Francis Gastrell bought New Place, build by no less a figure than William Shakespeare. After a while, maddened by  increasing swarms of visitors, Gastrell prepared to retire to Birmingham, but not before pulling the entire house to the ground, a proof that shrines, after all, need more – or perhaps in this case, less – than a copper-bottomed literary reputation to keep them standing.


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Jonathan Keates 1992