I must confess that I was initially attracted to this book by its striking cover, but when I dipped into the preface by Hermione Lee, I thought that I would enjoy it.
The writing of lives often involves writing about houses. Bringing a house to life through observation, familiarity, memory or excavation can be a vital part of narrating the life of an individual, a family, or a group: life-work as house work. A house can embody a person’s childhood, the story of a marriage, an inherited way of life, or a national history. The constructing of a house can be the fulcrum of dreams, ambitions, illusions and pretensions. How a house is lived in can tell you everything you need to know about people, whether it’s the choice of a wall paper, the mess in the kitchen, the silence or shouting over meals, doors left open or closed, a fire burning in the hearth. the loss of a house can be a turning point that shapes the rest of a life.p.xiii
If I had read a little further into the preface, I would have seen that the collection of essays in this book emerged from a 2017 conference titled ‘The Lives of Houses’ held at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford. My ambivalence about the book probably springs from the conference-paper genre from which it emerges. This conference brought together scholars from different disciplines and professions, with an emphasis on British, Irish, American and European houses. As with all conferences, the speakers (particularly the ‘big names’) would have been known to each other, their areas of interest already known, and their contributions would have been rather standardized in length. And ‘big names’ there are: Hermione Lee, Margaret Macmillan, David Cannadine, Jenny Uglow, Julian Barnes. Although there were papers that broke the mould, the overwhelming impression that I took away from the book was of 19th century British writers and a peculiarly British form of being ‘the writer’ in a mixture of eccentricity and domesticity.
The first two essays suggested a less biographically-oriented approach. Alexandra Harris’ chapter ‘Moving House’ pointed out that ‘moving day’ was a common annual or biannual spectacle across Europe and America from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. Leases ran from one quarter-day to the next, and so expired in tandem, so Whitsun (25 May) in Scotland or Lady Day (6 April) in England was ‘moving day’, with another round at Michaelmas and Martinmas (11 November). Susan Walker’s chapter ‘Built on Memory’ examined the House of Venus in Morocco, a Roman house constructed in the late 1st century CE in what was at that time the edge of empire, extended and changed over the centuries, and finally abandoned in the early 5th Century CE until its excavation in the last years and aftermath of WWII. But with the exception of Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan’s reminiscences of her childhood home in Ontario, the majority of essays are about British writers, composers and politicians: Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Coleridge, Tennyson, Lear, Benjamin Britten, W. H. Auden, Samuel Johnson, H. G. Wells and politicians Churchill and Disraeli.
This wasn’t quite what I expected, and so I enjoyed shaking off all this writerly clutter with the chapters that were not about houses. Alexander Masters’ chapter ‘The Fear of Houses’ was an examination of homelessness, and interviews with homeless people about houses (as distinct from homes) and house-less-ness. Elleke Boehmer’s chapter ‘When There is No House to Visit: a Migrant Writers’ sites’ traced the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera as he moved around Oxford in 1976, moving later to London where he slept rough on park benches and squats, hanging out with other African writers at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. ‘A Place One Can Go Mad In’, by Kate Kennedy, followed the WWI survivor Igor Gurney as he was committed to Barnwood House in Gloucester, and later the City of London Mental Hospital near Dartford, where he died in 1937.
In her chapter Hermione Lee writes about the ‘pilgrimage’ that devotees, descendants, friends or biographers, make to a writer’s house .
Why do millions of people visit Shakespeare’s “birthplace”? To see if something will rub off on them? To try to get the key to the vanished genius? It is a strong but muddled impulse, a mixture of awe, longing, desire for inwardness, and intrusive curiosity. Expectations are always high for such pilgrimages, and disappointment can be correspondingly sharp. The famous writer’s house you long to see may have vanished, but the urge to go to the site still remains.p.33
When I thought about it, most of my ‘pilgrimages’ have been to houses overseas, rather than in Australia. We visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath (a rather tenuous connection with Austen); we stood outside a house in Stratford on Avon; and William Morris’ house in Bexleyheath, London. I visited Pablo Neruda’s house in Santiago, I went into a bar where Hemingway wrote in Havana, and Lorca’s house in Granada. We visited Karen Blixen’s house in Nairobi. I had to think harder about Australian/NZ houses: Henry Handel Richardson in Chiltern, Adam Lindsay Gordon’s cottage in Ballarat and Janet Frame in Oamaru. Are there more? I can’t think of any.
For me, visiting a writer’s house is an act of homage, I suppose, and perhaps a bit of pretension that I know who these authors were. Highlighting the connection between biography, writing and ‘the house’, and its afterlife as a tourist attraction, and extrapolating it beyond the rather cosy coterie of 19th/early 20th century writers and their biographers in this book, has prompted me to think about my own response to The Writers House and what draws me to visit- something I hadn’t thought about before.
My rating: 7/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.