by Rebecca Reynolds
In her book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm talks about reading a biography of Plath by Anne Stevenson. Malcolm found that the quotations from Plath’s poetry in the book spoke more strongly than the biographical part: ‘the voices began to take over the book and to speak to the reader over the biographer’s head. They whispered “Listen to me, not to her. I am authentic.”’
I find something similar when walking round writers’ houses; the writer’s voice is much more vivid in their work than in the house – speaking to the visitor over the head of the curator, perhaps. For instance, I found John Milton’s cottage in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, mildly depressing, until opening a copy of Paradise Lost there to read Satan’s speech in which he vows ‘Evil, be thou my good’. Milton’s rhythmic, dynamic lines brought the author’s concerns to life as the house did not, and momentarily made a mini-theatre of the room, so that I could imagine the poet (blind by this time) dictating to his wife and daughter there.
Visiting Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, recently, I again compared the house and the work. Did it really matter if scholars had identified the dinner service the family had used, or where the tea had been kept? I thought the most interesting space in the house was the gift shop, its film adaptations of Austen’s work and even make-your-own Mr Darcy dolls testifying to the ongoing fascination of her stories. So I was intrigued to speak with Cindy Jones and read about the strong effect which Austen’s writing table had on her here. This was because of the intimacy that Cindy felt with ‘her private Austen’ and which gave the table such powerful associations for her. I would be interested to hear of other responses to writers’ houses.
An interview with Cindy will appear in Curiosities from the Cabinet, a book I’m working on which looks at museum objects from around the UK, including Paradise Lost and Jane Austen’s writing table.
Rebecca Reynolds @rebrey
Rebecca Reynolds is a museum education consultant in the UK, having previously worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading.
What is it about writers’ houses? Have you experienced that moment when the writer spoke over the tour guide? If so, please share details in the comment section.