BIBLIO CURIO

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Category: writer’s home

Visits to English Writers’ Homes: Jane Austen’s House Museum

Which way should we go?

Which way should we go?

Our last visit to a writer’s home in England was a delightful end to brilliant series of visits. What could be better than an afternoon visit to Jane Austen’s house?

It turns out, Jane Austen’s House Museum is an easy day trip from London, where we were staying for the second half of our vacation (thanks to my friend Anne Moore for the tip!). We took a train to Alton station, then a short bus ride and walk to the center of Chawton village took us to Jane’s house.

(Side note: Alton also has a steam train! But we didn’t know until we were already there, and it was too late to do both the house tour and the train ride without getting stranded. Foiled again in my steam train ride attempts!)

Alton station

Charming Alton train station

By the time we arrived, it was about lunchtime, and we were peckish. Luckily, although the village is extremely tiny, the aptly-named Cassandra’s Cup cafe (named after Jane’s beloved sister, for anyone who doesn’t know) was ready for us with a surprisingly tasty meal.

Cassandra's Cup

Cassandra’s Cup

View of Jane's house from where we had lunch

View of Jane’s house from where we had lunch

Jane’s house is much like what I would have expected. It’s situated in a tiny village surrounded by charming natural scenery. Even today, the area is not heavily populated, the streets are narrow, and most of the square, sturdy brick homes–some with thatched roofs–look to date from the seventeenth century. It’s easy to imagine women in long dresses walking down the street to post a letter or visit a neighbor.

Jane Austen's house

Jane Austen’s house

We spent some time in the very pretty garden, which was planted to approximate what would have been popular at the time (although I think the Austens’ gardens would have been more useful than ornamental):

Can't you just imagine sitting on this bench beside Jane, both of you reading a good book?

Can’t you just imagine sitting on this bench beside Jane, both of you reading a good book?

Jane Austen moved into her Chawton home with her mother and sisters in 1809. Her brother owned the house as part of his much larger estate (Chawton House, which is now the home of an archive of early women’s writing in English). Although people usually associate Austen with Bath, where she began writing and drafted early versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, Chawton was just as important (if more so), because she wrote and published her three last novels there (Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion) and extensively revised the other three before publishing them. Therefore, this is where she really came into her own as an author.

The two-story house was comfortable and pretty inside. As with all the house museums we visited in England, we were not allowed to take pictures. However, I couldn’t resist taking a quick picture of Austen’s writing desk:

Jane Austen's writing desk!

Jane Austen’s writing desk! It’s so tiny and rickety! Love that they felt the need to surround it with plexiglass!

If you’re ever in London and have time for a day trip, I definitely recommend visiting Jane Austen’s home in Chawton. Perhaps you can even find time to ride the steam train!

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Visits to English Writers’ Homes: Haworth/Bronte Parsonage

I can’t believe how long it’s taking me to finish this series of posts from my trip to England!

I think I’ve put this one off because I wanted to do it justice. Of all the author’s houses I’ve ever visited, I’ve probably never anticipated one more than this, or had a stronger desire to see it. This is because Charlotte Bronte is my favorite author, and I’ve read and loved all the novels of all three Bronte sisters and have a strong attachment to them and to my idea of them and where they lived. So, naturally, with so much pressure, things were bound to be complicated. The trip was very memorable, for some expected reasons, and for some unexpected ones as well.

The first problem was posed by geography. We were staying in the Lake District. On the map, Haworth didn’t look that far away, definitely a day trip. Before visiting, though, I admit that I pretty much conflated all northern England sites (until I looked at a map, I had assumed Haworth was further north than the Lakes, which it is not). Originally, we were planning to take public transportation and spend the night. But then it seemed like a hassle to drag our luggage around, and I couldn’t figure out a decent way to get there on public transport: it seemed like it would take all day, with no time to visit the house.

The one bright spot was that I found out you could take a romantic steam train ride to Haworth from nearby Keighley. I was swooning. Until I found out the train wouldn’t be running that weekend. (Side note: this was the first in a surprisingly long series of failed attempts to ride a stream train, both in England and in America. Now, after being thwarted on so many occasions, I am a little obsessed with the idea of riding a steam train and determined to do it one day.)

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This could have been me…

After consulting some English locals on various travel sites, and talking to some people about driving in England, we decided to rent a car and drive there. Everyone assured me it didn’t take long to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road, and it should only take about two hours to get to Haworth. Only our innkeeper expressed doubts, and tried to convince us to stay in the Lakes instead. (Everyone in the Lake District has the attitude, “why would you go somewhere else?” Which is, in case you’re wondering, a completely justified attitude.)

It turns out that everyone except our innkeeper was a dirty, dirty liar.

My poor mom. I pretty much made her drive there, and it turns out that it is not at all easy to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road. I think our multiple near-death experiences drew us closer together. I can’t tell you how many times we almost ran off the road, or almost drove into a parked car, or just plain panicked because the country roads were so narrow. There was a lot of honking on the part of English drivers that day. Luckily we were both in the mood to work together and make this happen, because I can definitely see how it could have gone in a totally different direction, in which we hated each other for the rest of our lives. She was an extremely good sport.

It took us about three hours to get there. We couldn’t believe we survived, and of course we were starving. We parked in the first spot we found, which meant we had to climb all the way to the top of the town. It’s a massive hike, let me tell you. I was so anxious to get to the top. And then we got to the old part of town, Haworth Village, where the parsonage was, and it was even decked out for the jubilee.

Haworth decked out for the jubilee

Haworth decked out for the jubilee

The sense of disappointment is difficult to describe. Maybe it’s because of the anticipation, but it didn’t take long for my heart to sink. This little town was ugly. I know I shouldn’t say that, but it was. I can’t even quite explain why I found it so ugly. It probably looks kinda cute in this picture, right? I’ve seen plenty of charming photographs of Haworth, and people who write about visiting seem to enjoy it. It’s hard to tell from what I can provide here, because I didn’t take many pictures — being disappointed and all — but part of the reason I found it so ugly is that, instead of the quaint little town full of cute tea shops and antique bookstores, untouched by time, that I expected to see, it felt instead like… Disneyland. Except, of course, it was Bronteland. Every single shop was named after them: the Villette Coffeehouse, Ye Olde Bronte Tea Rooms, etc. There were souvenir mugs. Which I guess I could have found amusing, except… I could feel how Charlotte would have hated it all. As we sat in the crappy, cafeteria-like Villette Coffeehouse eating frozen Yorkshire pastries heated in a microwave, there was something about the atmosphere all around us that felt so stifling, so unimaginative and conventional. And also so… gauche and embarrassing, to have the whole economy revolve around these writers in such a blatant and uninspired way. Then suddenly, I thought, how awful to have been creative and shy like the Brontes and be stuck in this oppressively bland, soulless town, even surrounded, as it was, by breathtaking landscapes. I could feel where Charlotte’s longing to escape would come from. This sounds bizarre, but it was almost a transcendent moment, as if I could feel what Charlotte would have felt, the bitterness and frustration and even a little anger. (But then, I tend to identify with her a lot…)

After getting over my initial impression and getting some much-needed food, which almost always helps even when it’s pathetic, the visit vastly improved. We poked around and located the parsonage high at the top of the village.

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On the steps of the Bronte Parsonage Museum

The parsonage lifted my spirits. The Georgian-style home itself was actually quite neat and charming, just what would be expected. I couldn’t take pictures inside the museum (a running theme with British house museums!), so I can’t show you all the delightful treasures that lay inside: Charlotte’s portable secretary, handwritten notes on mourning stationary, Charlotte’s wedding bonnet, and the impossibly tiny magazines all the Brontes created as children. There was even an exhibit of Branwell’s paintings, which were pretty bad. Poor Branwell.

What really got me, though, was the dining room, which caught me off guard, being right off the entrance. I’m really letting my nerd-flag fly when I tell you that tears immediately sprung to my eyes when I realized what I was looking at. This was the room described in letters and biographies, the room where the sisters talked out their ideas as they walked around the table. This is where they wrote at night, and read aloud to each other. The room even contained the couch where Emily allegedly died. I could imagine them taking turns pacing and thinking aloud.

Bronte's dining room (I didn't take this picture) where the sisters wrote and discussed their work

Bronte’s dining room (I didn’t take this picture) where the sisters wrote and discussed their work

Behind the house, the fields and moors open out into a beautiful view:

the landscape behind the house

the landscape behind the house

And on the other side of the house was the church, with several memorials to the Bronte family.

the church

the church

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IMG_2688Feeling more connected to Haworth, we re-entered the village and discovered several additional memorials specifically to Branwell:

Sign about Branwell

Sign about Branwell

Poor Branwell. His infamy lives on.

All in all, despite our death-defying drive and initial letdowns, the pilgrimage was more than worthwhile, being first terrifying, then disappointing, then ultimately very satisfying. Leaving the town, I asked some locals about the heather, which I had hoped I would see blooming. Naturally, it was out of season: we were there in May, and heather blooms in August. But we headed out to the moors to see some real Yorkshire heather anyway. It was very windy, and the heather was stiff and thick and prickly. So my mother and I pretended we were Emily Bronte or her creation Catherine Earnshaw, wandering in the difficult heather on the high, wild, windy moors.

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Visits to English Writers’ Homes: Brantwood

Continuing my posts about the visits my mother and I made to writers’s homes in England in May, we’re on to the last such home we visited in the Lake District: Brantwood, owned by the Victorian writer and art critic¬†John Ruskin. As it happens, we visited Brantwood on my birthday.

Side view of Brantwood

Side view of Brantwood

Having studied Victorian literature for my doctorate, I was familiar with Ruskin’s work (my favorite essay, if you’re interested in an introduction, is “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century“), but before arriving in the Lake District, I wasn’t even aware that he had owned a house in the area. In fact he lived in it for nearly 30 years and died there. Like Beatrix Potter, Ruskin also visited the Lake District as a child on holiday with his family, and the early association obviously left an impression. Also like Potter, Ruskin bought a house in need of repair and made many alterations and improvements both to the house itself and the property.

Brantwood is situated on Coniston Water, which required the longest journey we took in the Lake District: we took quite a long and precarious bus ride (the roads certainly did not seem big enough for the large coach!) from Ambleside to Coniston Launch, followed by a ferry that toured the water and deposited us at Brantwood.

our ferry to Brantwood

our ferry to Brantwood

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An odd sight: cows drinking the water of the lake!

 

 

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view of Brantwood from the ferry

 

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view of Brantwood from the peer!

It took us so long to get there that we needed to stop for tea before we could tour the house! (At least, that was our excuse.)

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A splendid location for a scone and a spot of tea!

Upon entering the house, we were accosted by a nice lady who insisted that we watch what turned out to be an amazingly dramatic, almost hallucinogenic video about Ruskin’s life that completely ignored what was arguably the greatest scandals of his life, his marriage to Effie Gray and infatuation with Rose La Touche. I feel a little bad about wanting to hear the gossip on one of the most influential men of the nineteenth century, but it seemed strange to leave it out completely. Oh, well. To my great surprise, I found the video on Youtube! I do not necessarily recommend watching it, but at the same time, it is unlike any other introductory video I’ve ever watched at a house museum. At one point, the narrator intones, “It was more than Ruskin’s fragile mind could stand!”

After the video, we wandered through the house (there was no tour). Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the inside, since photographs were forbidden. Suffice it to say the views, particularly from the dining room and Ruskin’s room, were spectacular.

The grounds at Brantwood are arguably more beautiful and impressive than the house itself. The estate sits on 250 acres of woodland, part of which is cultivated into mountainside gardens. Ruskin enjoyed experimenting with landscaping and designed the gardens himself.

Some of the highlights include Ruskin’s favorite, the Professor’s Garden:

The professor's garden

The professor's flowers

Ruskin’s seat:

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and the magical Poets’ Glade:

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And of course, the views from around the house were stunning:

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I like to think of our visits to the Lake District houses as increasing in beauty and majesty as we continued. Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage (the only one I was familiar with before our visit) was the most modest, Potter’s Hill Top the most charming, and Ruskin’s Brantwood the most impressive. But with all of them, it couldn’t be more obvious why these writers were inspired by the tranquil beauty of the nature that surrounded them.

Visits to English Writers’ Homes: Hill Top

As I mentioned in my previous post, my mother and I visited England’s Lake District in late May. I went there knowing Wordsworth had lived there, but I was not aware of the other writers who called it home. At first when I found out Beatrix Potter lived in the area, I wasn’t that interested, frankly, because I was never terribly interested in her work. But we decided to visit, and I’m so glad we did, as her little farmhouse was utterly charming and the surrounding area breathtakingly pretty.

To get to Hill Top from where we were staying in Grasmere, we took a bus to Ambleside (a slightly bigger town, which has many ferries to other towns), a ferry to a port near Sawton, and a small bus to Hill Top, which is between Sawton and Hawkshead. Here’s a wretched picture of me, but a decent picture of the ferry, which was a pretty little (vintage?) boat:

The ferry to Hill Top

When we arrived at the stop outside of Hill Top, we were treated to a delightful view of the beautiful countryside and charming little collection of houses. If I understood the information we received at Hill Top, the white house pictured here was also owned by Beatrix Potter, after she married later in life and after she purchased Hill Top.

The sign points the way to Hill Top, but Beatrix Potter also owned the white house pictured here.

The beautiful countryside

After a little confusion, we found the entrance to Hill Top, which you enter after going through a gate and down a little garden path. Upon seeing Hill Top and learning the story behind it, I gained enormous respect for Beatrix Potter. The cottage is part of a small farm and was built in the seventeenth century. Potter, who vacationed in the Lake District as a child, fell in love with the area and was frustrated to learn that farms were being sold to developers. She wanted to preserve the land and the way of life in the area. And guess what — she earned enough money from her children’s books to do something about it! She bought Hill Top in 1906, kept it as a working farm, and continued to purchase more land in the area as time went by.

Charming Hill Top cottage, which Beatrix Potter bought with the royalties from Peter Rabbit and her other tales.

I loved the Arts and Crafts style plaque installed to mark Potter’s purchase of the cottage

Potter continued to write and paint while living at Hill Top, and if you study her later paintings, you can see that she set several stories in the house. Unfortunately, as with all of the house tours we went on in England, photos were not permitted indoors. Hill Top is decorated exactly the same way Potter had it, with many of her possessions, including some of her artwork and sewing. She donated the house and farm to the National Trust of England on condition that it would be preserved exactly as she left it. The house is two floors, with (if memory serves) four rooms on the second floor, one of which was her bedroom, one a study, and one a room filled with curios and collectables, including an impressive dollhouse.

Potter is deeply loved in the area because of her contributions to land preservation, in addition to her children’s books. After a visit to her home, I was very impressed with her myself. When she bought Hill Top, she was an unmarried woman who had become very rich due to her artistic endeavors. Although she grew up privileged, her parents disapproved of her life as a writer and artist, and all of her preservation and conservation efforts were accomplished solely with the money she earned herself from the sale of her books, which were enormously popular.

peek through the garden gate

The gardens were particularly beautiful.

The gardens were filled with rabbits in honor of Peter and his family. How many bunnies can you spot in this picture?

Even if you’re not a fan of Beatrix Potter, if you’re in the Lake District, you should not miss Hill Top. This trip was an absolute pleasure. I enjoyed imagining myself as Potter, living out my dream as a writer and being inspired by natural beauty. I can’t wait to return to the area and visit Tarn Hows, the other piece of land she left to the National Trust.

For small glimpses of the inside of the house as well as an interesting look at how the National Trust preserves the furniture and other objects that belonged to Potter, check out this short video:

Visits to English Writers’ Homes: Dove Cottage

View of Lake Grasmere that inspired Wordsworth

This past May, my mother and I took a vacation in England, starting in the Lake District. While enjoying the natural beauty, we also visited several writers’ homes in the area.

The most famous writer’s home in the Lake District, and one of the most famous in the world, is Dove Cottage, where William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived from 1799-1808, producing Dorothy’s Grasmere Journals and William’s most popular and enduring poetry.

On a personal note: I have always had a love-hate relationship with William Wordsworth. His poetry is undeniably beautiful, and he revolutionized poetry at the time, yet he’s so patriarchal, ya know? In any case, for some reason, I have always wanted to see Dove Cottage in person. It just has such an impressive literary history for a little place. Wordsworth wrote much of his best poetry there, Coleridge and De Quincey hung out with him there, and after he left De Quincey took over the lease, and in typical De Quincey fashion, pissed Wordsworth off by being more unconventional than he was, causing them to stop speaking.

I could only take pictures outside of the cottage, which was just as lovely and quaint as I thought it would be.

Dove Cottage from the front

Entrance to Dorothy’s little side garden

View from the top of the garden behind the cottage: you can see for miles!

It’s easy to see how the area inspired these writers; it’s incredibly beautiful, being simultaneously, and paradoxically, dramatic and quaint. The house itself is small, which I expected, but I hadn’t realized until visiting it how many people had lived there at once: at first only William and Dorothy lived there, but in 1802, William married, and his wife had 3 ¬†children within the following 4 years. That’s not counting the many overnight stays from poet guests. The house is two floors. The bottom floor is extremely dark, with black floors and very little outside light. The top floor, especially Wordsworth’s study (of course) is relatively light, but the rooms are small and I can’t imagine it didn’t feel cramped. Especially for Dorothy, if you ask me.

My last picture is the closest I came to taking one inside the house. I tried to sneak a picture of what they claimed was De Quincey’s opium scales (!) but I got caught before I could manage it. They’re serious in England about no pictures inside the museums!

looking out to the street from the study