By Charles Pidgeon
Lives of Houses
Hermione Lee and Kate Kennedy (eds.), Princeton University Press, 2020
The Author’s Effects: On Writer’s House Museums
Nicola J Watson, Oxford University Press, 2020
Let us start with the expression 'the people make the place' and extend its reciprocal: the place makes the people. Such symbiosis is at the heart of Hermione Lee’s and Kate Kennedy’s Lives of Houses, a multi-authored collection of essays, memoirs, and poems rippling out from the question of how an inhabitant’s personality shapes, or becomes shaped by, the house in which they live. Examining personality via place merges burgeoning interests in life writing, celebrity studies, object studies, and emplaced readings, echoing a widespread contemporary interest in how stories of daily lives open up new ways of thinking about life and literature. But while such theoretical concerns lurk behind the collection, they refrain from ever clumsily intruding. As with any project that Lee is involved in, Lives of Houses centres human stories first and foremost. The framework of the collection is proof enough of this, the broad concern of how lives are shaped by homes being answered implicitly at a structural level. Rather than offering a uniting framework or overarching theory, the collection format asserts that there is no single way to form attachment with place. The eclectic combination of pieces on the houses of the likes of Edward Lear, the Disraelis, Benjamin Britten, W H Auden, and H G Wells suggests that the lives of houses are as varied and unique as the lives of those who live in them . Ranging from the deeply personal to the decidedly historical, many voices, styles, interests, and stories are offered up to reflect this fact.
There is a tendency towards a quaint National Trust Britishness in much of the collection. Rebecca Bullard, in an essay on Samuel Johnson’s houses and their afterlives as museums, muses on 'the “blue plaque” impulse' to hint at a deep association between literary heritage, institutionalised Britishness, and a sort of romanticised quaintness. Under lockdown, it is hard not to uncritically yearn after the charming sociability described in the essays, as in Lucy Walker’s piece on Benjamin Britten’s homes in Aldeburgh. Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, are described as hosting parties, playing music with groups of friends, and being valuable members of the Suffolk community. The longing and nostalgia inspired by such glimpses into social domesticity is compounded by the current difficulties of socialising: this collection has taken on a peculiar inflection given our current house-bound times. Indeed, though turning to the quotidian routines of famous writers, politicians, and composers found in Lives of Houses can feel like an escape, it is also bound up with a desire to learn how to work at home. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has written on how an 1884 article concerning Tennyson’s writing desk attempts ‘to offer some insight into the mysterious process of composition’ for Victorian readers: reading about daily life in famous and exceptional households forces you to measure up the reality of your routine existence against the yardstick of the celebrated past. It is hard not to feel like you come up short. Reading about W H Auden’s strict writing routine and productivity bites deeply during these days when it is hard to know what ‘productivity’ should even look like.
In The Author’s Effects, Nicola Watson explains that these houses are often studied as ‘symptoms and/or explanations of the fame of their former residents’. Studying a writer’s house for ‘explanation’ throws up a whole tangle of ideas about productivity, creativity, and culpability which speaks to our current moment. Seamus Perry located a line describing Auden’s coffee table, which presents some reassurance in the present state of chaos: ‘this Auden-scape reeked of stale coffee grounds, tarry nicotine, and toe jam mixed with metro pollution and catshit, Wystanified tenement tang’. Such untidiness acts as a leveller: home life for everyone, even the famous, is often banal and unglamorous. It can go some way to letting us off the hook. Indeed, solace is found as the sheer multiplicity of routines and home lives discussed in Lives of Houses shows that balancing home and work was hard for many: there is no secret trick. How these writers made their beds or held their pens is not the secret to their creativity or inspiration. The triangular contract between writer, room, and creativity is as messy and individual as the houses they occupied. If there really is no secret to be found, then, why do we keep on combing the domestic lives of the past?
Virginia Woolf, a writer who often engaged in literary tourism, wrote in ‘On Great Men’s Houses’ that
[…] it is no frivolous curiosity that sends us to Dickens’s house and Johnson’s house and Carlyle’s house and Keats’s house. We know them from their houses—it would seem to be a fact that writers stamp themselves upon their possessions more indelibly than other people.
Her assertion epitomises a long history of romanticising literary tourism to the point of religiosity. The writer’s house museum is designed to reflect this desire for feelings of intimacy, even if it means stepping outside the bounds of ‘truthful’ representation. Watson acutely identifies that many ‘house museums’ present their interior as if the occupant has just left the room. Pens are placed with careful nonchalance on desks and teacups are artfully abandoned on sideboards to conjure up an impression of continued occupation. This is necessarily contrived. The desire to create the feeling that the author has just gone out to stretch their legs and could be back at any minute leads to many disingenuous interventions, as Sandra Mayer’s essay on W H Auden in Austria explores. She traces her journey, ‘pursuing ghostly footprints’ through archives and the streets of Vienna to the village of Kirchstetten, where Auden lived for many of his later years. The Kirchstetten house curators have placed three wine glasses next to Auden’s typewriter as testament to the author’s reputation for drinking; however, his well-documented routine proves this impossible given his careful delineation between work in his study and his 5pm cocktail hour, which normally occurred out of doors. Mayer views this inaccuracy not as a failing, but as a way to balance the ‘documented and imaginary’ in a bid to create the most intimate experience between museum’s subject and visitor.
Yet the most disingenuous intervention to the historicised domestic space is not the empty teacup or stained wine glass; it is the false suggestion that these spaces are settled and never changing, held outside the passage of time. Alexander Harris’s essay pairs the untidy process of moving house alongside the ‘Flitting Days’ tradition of the 18th century, when ‘every tenant intending to move that season would do so at the same time’. Harris contrasts the unruliness of unsettled objects with how ‘house museums go to great lengths to make things look settled and accustomed’. It was surprising to find so many essays in a book about houses to be about leaving houses, abandoning houses, or about those without permanent homes. Yet, this reflects a general truth, that home life is not static, but always in flux.
The hope to immortalise a literary celebrity via their house and quotidian routine neglects a simple fact: the daily changes every day. The more we seek to enter a house as an unmediated experience, the more we find pamphlets, placards, audio guides, and attendants in our way. It is a paradox, but the fascination with closeness often builds a scum of myths and misinformation that drives subjects away, bringing the whole illusion of ‘historical accuracy’ tumbling down as we realise the impossibility of truly connecting with those who have gone before us. All intimacy with writers from the past is imagined, no matter how many details we know about when they drank their coffee or the number of cigarettes they smoked. Yet somehow, the emotional connection found in these houses survives these challenges. One feels closer, even if one is working against the flow of time. We cannot help our fascination with accruing little details and facts about their daily lives. We can be drawn forwards by the promise of a genuine connection, while simultaneously growing to understand that this connection is complex, messy, and necessarily mediated. Each morsel of information provides a jolt of recognition as we see that many of the common activities of life have not altered. Perhaps even more significant are the contrasts which open up as we place our lives against theirs and reckon with the differences. It is a gap which casts complex shadows on the present even as it curiously illuminates how we are to think about the way we live our lives today.
CHARLES PIDGEON studies an MSt in English at Lady Margaret Hall. He recently made halloumi from scratch one time and won't shut up about it.
Art by Katherine Franco