Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Lake District – former home of William Wordsworth

A Room of Their Own

6th May 2016

A view looking into the writing shed at George Bernard Shaw’s House at Shaw’s Corner in Ayot St Lawrence, Herts

From great houses, to humble cottages and spartan garden sheds, Deborah Mulhearn takes us on a tour of the places that many of Britain’s most celebrated writers found inspirational...

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote in a revolving shed that followed the sun’s course across his garden in the tiny Hertfordshire village of Ayot St Lawrence. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas composed his poems in a ‘word-splashed hut’ overlooking the estuary of the River Taf in the Carmarthenshire town of Laugharne. And children’s writer Roald Dahl, whose birth centenary is celebrated this year, folded his 6’5” frame into a spartan shed at the bottom of his garden in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.

There is something magical and compelling about each of these famous sheds, and peeking into them is one way of making a more personal or emotional connection with our literary idols. The writers themselves are long gone, and you don’t have to have read all (or any) of the works to enjoy these places and the landscapes around them. The homes attached to these writers’ sheds are some of the most visited museums in the UK.

This year is exceptionally busy for literary museums. As well as Roald Dahl’s centenary, and the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, 2016 also marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë; in fact, there’s a Brontë centenary in three out of the next four years too. While some visitors will, of course, be literary pilgrims who know the writer’s work well and are excited by the handwritten manuscripts, pens, quills, typewriters and other writers’ paraphernalia on display, others are content to immerse themselves in the architecture, the garden or the social history.

But what exactly are we hoping to find when we visit a writer’s home? And how well do literary museums express the spirit of the writer? A writer’s home presents particular challenges because it has to appeal on several levels, says Dr Patricia Simpson, Reader in Social History of Art in the School of Creative Arts at the University of Hertfordshire. George Bernard Shaw donated his house and collections to the National Trust, and Simpson has been working on a collaborative project to improve the visitor experience at Shaw’s Corner, as the house is now known.

“While a proportion of the visitors are just National Trust members seeking new cultural experiences, quite a lot of the visitors know something about Shaw as a ‘character’ at least,” she says. “There is also an increasing number of deliberate literary pilgrims to the Shavian shrine from all over the world, but particularly the USA. So the interpretation of the artefacts needs to be directly linked to aspects of Shaw’s modus operandi and literary works.”

Dr Simpson explains that the main challenges in bringing Shaw’s complex ideas to a broader audience have been in further identifying the artefacts displayed at the museum. “The volunteer guides have been able to use their deeper understanding brought about by the project to present a much more informed story about Shaw, by making links between the artefacts and elements of his life and writings.”

Shaw’s Corner also annually stages outdoor performances of Shaw’s plays, which clearly helps to familiarise people with his literary output, so they may visit the site out of curiosity and then be drawn to come to the performances. They can also buy copies of Shaw’s plays at the newly instituted gift shop in the car park. “It is also a very pleasant spot to have a picnic, out in the Hertfordshire countryside up a bunch of twisty lanes,” points out Simpson.

Manchester Historic Buildings Trust owns 84 Plymouth Grove, the house in Manchester where Cranford author Elizabeth Gaskell lived with her husband from 1850 until her death in 1865. Gaskell wrote all but one of her books in the house, which was meticulously restored and opened to the public in 2014. The manuscripts remain at the John Rylands Library in Manchester city centre, but the restoration has provided the opportunity to bring together original material from many sources.

It’s a beautiful house that appeals on many levels, not just the literary. The Gaskells were Unitarians and fully involved with the religious, educational and social issues of their day – issues that still resonate in the inner city area of Manchester where the Gaskells lived. So the interpretation in the house includes information on these important aspects of their lives, which has become an attraction in its own right.

Seeing a manuscript in the place where it was worked on is a meaningful experience for many visitors. Often, though, they are too fragile to display, and are locked away in archives and libraries remote from the house. Light can damage fragile paper, or spines of books can be too delicate to leave open.

But belongings not directly related to the literature can also bring the person behind the words to life in a powerful and poignant way: the humble boxbed in the Ayrshire cottage where the poet Robert Burns was born; William Wordsworth’s glasses sitting on a shelf, as if waiting to be picked up, at Dove Cottage in Grasmere in the Lake District; or the patchwork quilt stitched by Jane Austen and her sister and mother at Chawton, the house in Hampshire where she spent the final years of her life.

At the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire, in South West Scotland, the cottage where the poet was born still stands, though little else survives from the time of the Burns family. “In a way this freed us up,” says Nat Edwards, a founding director of the museum and now assistant director, south, of the National Trust for Scotland, which looks after the museum.

Today the cottage is part of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, which offers visitors an extensive experience that encompasses the cottage, a new purpose-built museum and a literary trail around the village highlighting different places associated with Burns’ poetry. The cottage itself has been left fairly bare, but this proves to be eerily effective, with voices and snatches of songs and Burns’ handwriting appearing on the whitewashed walls. “Instead of using objects, we have tried to recreate the atmosphere of the place with the things that inspired his childhood imagination, such as fragments of his mother’s songs and the ghost stories that inspired his famous poem Tam o’Shanter.”

Burns was one of the first writers to kickstart the literary tourism industry, albeit posthumously. Visitors, including the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Keats, were making pilgrimages to his cottage within five years of his untimely death in 1796.

“But we wanted to move away from the idea of the birthplace as a place of pilgrimage or a shrine,” says Edwards, “and make it so that the spell of the place is created by the landscape, the weather and the culture as well as the cottage itself.”

Traditional writers’ museums, with displays of manuscripts, work well for the people who have read the books. “But for children, and people going in cold,” he adds. “you have to be more imaginative. They get very little from seeing manuscripts displayed in glass cases. We make the poetry the starting point of everything, but we tried to really drill down to Burns’ creative process.”

At the heart of it all is the language. “You have to find new ways of bringing the text alive and we try to do it by breaking it all down into fairly light elements. We use interactives that play with Burns’ language, rhythms, metaphors and narrative. We don’t just want people to pay their respects, we want them to go away thinking about Burns’ poetry and language and music, and feeling inspired.”

Part of the appeal, of course, is in the feeling that you are getting a glimpse into the lives of these writers, and the more tragic or dramatic, the better. But the best writers’ museums provoke us to imagine the stories behind the stories, as it were, and then turn again to the literature. Sales of Shakespeare’s plays and the Brontës’ fiction are set to soar this year.

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