Do you love watching “Masterpiece Theater” and never miss a Jane Austen film or anything with Maggie Smith in it? Chances are you’re an Anglophile. If you’re also a lover of English literature, a visit to England can take you off the page or screen to actually experience the places you love to imagine.
Come to England, and you’ll find houses, museums, trails, landscapes, cities, towns and even whole regions dedicated to your favorite writers and their works. You can walk into the study at 221b Baker Street, stand by the great writer’s desk in Charles Dickens’ house, sample the waters in Jane Austen’s Bath, or embark on an exploration of Hardy’s Wessex. There’s the thrill of visiting houses where great works came to life.
Enjoy this list from English Road Scholar instructor Kevin Flude that includes some of his favorite literary locations around England for all you bibliophiles and Anglophiles alike!
In Jane Austen’s home, you can see the tiny table on which she wrote and edited her novels. Even better to follow this up with a walk around Bath, before climbing the steps to the Cobb in Lyme Regis in the company of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth from "Persuasion" (and the enigmatic "French Lieutenant’s Woman," who is staring out to sea in the distance). It’s intriguing to guess which of the three sets of steps is the one Louise Musgrove fell down — even if the answer is probably none of them, as the Cob has been extensively repaired since the early 1820s.
We walk through a portal into Jane Austen’s world, and our synapses spark, lighting up a whole network of connections. This is not only a pleasurable event, it also brings into our consciousness innumerable thoughts, reflections, feelings and emotions. Things we had forgotten come back to life in vivid detail.
We also gain insight. To stand in the small cottage that was the home of Thomas Hardy, the place where he wrote his first book, is to discover a deeper understanding of the man, to see “where he was coming from.” It brings to life scenes based on his life in this little, remote cottage, such as the broaching of the cider keg in "Under the Greenwood Tree." As we drive through the landscape of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, we understand the distances Tess walks as she descends towards her inevitable doom. To continue on to Stonehenge and read the passage where Tess is arrested for murder creates a profound impression; it heightens enjoyment not only of the book but also of Stonehenge. And something miraculous happens — we begin to forgive Hardy his gloomy plots, as we appreciate his insight into people and how they’re affected by landscape.
I’ve loved exploring Britain in the company of great writers and Road Scholars over the past 30 years. Although, just occasionally, I pause to consider how odd the experience can be. There you are on a frenetically busy railway terminus, when you spot a long line of people from all over the world, queuing up to take photos of themselves holding half a luggage trolley as it disappears into a brick wall beneath a sign saying Platform 9¾. This is Kings Cross Station and you are in an entirely fictional location (and as a muggle you shouldn’t be able to see it anyway) — the gateway to Hogwart’s Express. It is a scene alive with people sharing the peculiar joy of travelling the globe in search of a closer connection with fictional worlds that inspire them.
A personal favorite moment is reading aloud the opening chapter of "Brideshead Revisited," by Evelyn Waugh, as my Road Scholar group visits Oxford. Not just a great piece of writing but one that does more to explain the atmosphere and customs of this ancient university town than any tour guide (even a Road Scholar instructor) ever could. The place increases your enjoyment of the book; the book your enjoyment of the place. In the words of Sebastian Flyte: “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I’m old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.” In reading a great book, you bury a little bit of treasure — when you visit the place, you return to enjoy your treasure all over again.
Let’s go to Baker Street, in search of 221b. We count up the house numbers, and up ahead, that must surely be it? There, with crowds of tourists clutching pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch. Standing guard outside the door is an old-fashioned policeman; above his head a plaque asserts that this is, indeed, the home of Sherlock Holmes, the famous 221b Baker Street. Climb the stairs and there is Sherlock Holmes’ study, complete with photographs of well-known criminals, bullet holes in the wall spelling VR (the initials of Queen Victoria) and Watson’s medical bag. Upstairs is Dr. Watson’s room and bathroom. Poor Mrs. Hudson’s suite is now the entrance and shop, but everyone leaves happy after examining so much authentic memorabilia.
Of course, it isn’t the actual house — how could it be? It is not even the right one numerically, as the houses on either side are clearly numbered 230 and 234. And if you’ve read "The Adventure of the Empty House," that story makes it clear that 221b stood at the other end of Baker Street (around number 20), opposite the empty house where Moriarty’s paid assassin lay in wait with a gun to end the life of the illustrious detective. And even this one isn’t “real.” It is all a work of fiction.
I had always assumed that what we literary students crave is authenticity. But nothing about 221b is authentic. The same could be said of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. Jane Austen lived briefly a little farther up Gay Street, but has no known connection with the building that houses the Centre. Nor does it show much in the way of authentic material. And yet thousands of visitors have a great experience. Is it because they derive pleasure from a visitor attraction’s educational, entertaining and conversational value; gain insight into an author’s life and times, are reminded of stories and characters, and see things they can tell everyone about back home? Surely, there is something more?
Quintessential English Poet John Betjaman was passionate about preserving our heritage, and he talked about topophilia — the love of place. Museum theorists borrow a word from Latin, numen, which means “the spirit presiding over a thing or place.” We are numen-seekers, and what we experience goes beyond the educational enjoyment of our pilgrimages.
Being there, in the moment, is always better than looking at a reproduction or watching a documentary. It’s an authentic experience. We want to stand on the site where whatever it is actually happened. Even if the place is now transformed by the effects of time, X still marks the spot, even if it’s a fictional spot. The experience is a way of becoming part of the stories that live inside your head. You can only do it by being there.
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