Nicola Watson’s book is an exploration of literary tourism from its beginnings in the 18th century through to the early 20th century. She begins the book in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, looking at who is buried or memorialised there, the inclusions & omissions. Literary tourism really began with the 18th century fascination for graveyards & the desire to visit the last resting place of a poet. Shakespeare & Thomas Gray of Elegy fame were the fist writers to become the objects of this kind of literary pilgrimage. She also looks at the graves of Keats & Shelley in Rome.
Later in the 18th & early 19th century, the birthplace of the writer was the place to go. Shakespeare’s birthplace & Burns’s cottage at Alloway became the tourist’s choice. In the 19th century, the writer’s house, the place where the work was done, was paramount. Scott’s Abbotsford is a monument to the successful literary man, a symbol of hard work & honour as Scott strove to pay off his debts at the end of his life. Haworth Parsonage, the home of the Brontes, on the other hand, is a symbol of genteel poverty, a 19th century narrative of the woman writer. Other authors such as Rousseau, R D Blackmore & Thomas Hardy are celebrated because their works evoked a landscape for the tourist to explore. The map of Wessex which is still reproduced in editions of Hardy’s novels is a testament to the hold that this idea of England, based on reality but renamed by the author, still has on his readers.
This is a fascinating book. Written in an easy, accessible style, Watson tells the stories of all these literary sites of pilgrimage. Often it’s the fashion of the times that decides whether the literary pilgrim will visit the writer’s birthplace or their grave. Watson has visited all the places in the book & brings a very personal experience & humour to the text. This is the kind of literary criticism – if it can be called that – that I love. A book that explores a literary idea. The story of the afterlives of the writers who have captured the imagination & affection of readers & an exploration of our desire to visit the places associated with them.