In The Houses Of Great Writers

MOST writers spend the better part of their days sitting alone in chairs, slouched over desks, occasionally staring out of windows. In his lifetime, even a beloved crowd-pleaser like Charles Dickens would probably have bored his fans to fits of Victorian weeping if they had to watch him work for more than five minutes. But after a great author dies, his or her property begins to take on a kind of mystic fascination. Over decades, or centuries, their chairs become artefacts, their rooms become museums, and their houses become holy to those readers and travellers who consider themselves “literary pilgrims”.

I am just such a tourist, and I will gladly bypass a hundred more popular sights to see the birthplace of a Russian novelist, or the deathbed of a Japanese poet. Certain writers’ houses are themselves major attractions. The Charles Dickens house in Camden Town, London, and Dickens’s childhood home in Portsmouth, are open to the public and often packed out. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam draws over one million visitors every year. William Shakespeare’s entire hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon now seems to resemble an Elizabethan theme park in his honour. Other great writers may not have quite the same posthumous appeal, and their former homes may not be so well preserved or restored. In many cases there is only a plaque to say that they lived there, and in some cases no sign at all. But in my experience, the best of these houses feel pleasantly haunted – by ghosts whose work is done, and who no longer mind being disturbed. Here are four of my personal favourites:

The author: Leo Tolstoy (War And Peace, Anna Karenina) The address: Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula, Russia The great Russian novelist – to many, the greatest of all time – once described his country estate as an “inaccessible literary stronghold”. A century after his death, it remains surprisingly awkward to get to. On a gloomy, windy Sunday in September, I take a slow train out of Moscow, followed by a trolleybus, then a public minibus to the limits of Tula City. “Do you like Tolstoy?” I ask the driver, who speaks a little English. “No,” he says, as if the author still owes him money.

It’s a long, muddy walk from the main road, and on through the sodden parkland of Yasnaya Polyana, to the mansion house itself.Inside, I tag along with a couple of hung-over Scottish newlyweds – hardcore Tolstoy readers who pre-arranged a tour in English for the first day of their honeymoon. Scholar-in-residence Galina Alekseeva talks us through the interiors and contents: the aristocratic family portraits, the library that was later partly burned by occupying Nazis, the so-called “vaulted room” where Tolstoy wrote in the mornings, permitting only his wife Sofia to enter with his cups of tea. Beside this, the small cramped room where 5000 mourners came to kiss the hand of his corpse in 1910.

An odd custom has developed around Tolstoy’s grave, a simple grass mound in the woods nearby – young couples go to lay flowers and ask the master’s blessing for good luck and lasting love. The newlyweds forgot to bring a bouquet, so we just stand there in the cold rain, with the autumn wind stripping leaves off the surrounding oaks. The scene is so melancholy that we have to laugh, which strikes us as a suitably Russian response. We tell ourselves that Tolstoy would approve.

The author: JG Ballard (Crash, High-Rise, Empire Of The Sun)

The address: 508 Panyu Road (formerly 31a Amherst Av), Shanghai, China

There is no memorial to JG Ballard at the house he grew up in, nor anywhere else in Shanghai, where the past is being bulldozed and rebuilt to look ever more futuristic – all laser lights, transparent skyscrapers, and pulsing walls of digital adverts. From certain angles, the modern city might be one of Ballard’s own imaginary dystopias. The author himself was acutely unsentimental, and said he hoped his childhood home would eventually be turned into a McDonald’s or KFC. Though sadly gutted in 2009, the building remains too elegant for that – a mock-Tudor reminder of the old Shanghai, which was modelled on the tastes of wealthy pre-war settlers from England and France.

It is now an exclusive restaurant called the Xinyue Club, a little fancy and pricy for my budget. I find it open but empty on a sweltering summer afternoon, in the lull between lunch and dinner. The waiting staff outnumber me 15 to one, and politely block me from conducting my own tour of the private dining rooms upstairs, where the adolescent James Graham Ballard hid from Japanese forces in the weeks after Pearl Harbour. (Those forces eventually occupied this house, consigning Ballard and his parents to the Lunghua detention centre for much of the second world war – an experience lightly fictionalised in his best-known novel, Empire Of The Sun.)

They are, however, happy enough to let me sit on the terrace, in the well-tended garden, though one waitress worries that it might be “too hot out there”. “I’m fine,” I tell her, already sweating and burning. She brings me a parasol, a beer, and a bucket of ice, and I spend the rest of the afternoon contentedly reading Ballard’s memoir Miracles Of Life, the last book he published before his death in 2009. In it he describes this house and this garden as a kind of lost world, and that loss as the source of his apocalyptic fiction: “the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment … ”

The author: George Orwell (Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four)

The address: Barnhill, Isle Of Jura, Scotland

In poor health and urgent need of fresh air, George Orwell rented a remote farmhouse on the Isle of Jura in 1946. This is where he wrote his masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and lived his last few years in what he called “an extremely un-getatable place” before tuberculosis finally caught up with him. Even now, Orwell’s followers still have to come the long way round from the Scottish mainland – two ferries over the Kintyre peninsula, first to Islay, then onto Jura, a bumpy drive up the island, and a final hike to Barnhill (the farmhouse itself remains private property, though it is available for rent – see below). For my own pilgrimage I take a shortcut, chartering a small boat from the port village of Croabh Haven to cross the Gulf of Corryvreckan.

The captain, Duncan Phillips, navigates around the notorious natural whirlpool between Jura and Scarba, which almost drowned Orwell with his niece, nephew, and son on an abortive fishing trip. “There’s not much going on at Barnhill,” warns Phillips as he drops me at a dilapidated jetty on the north side of the island, “but there’s definitely an atmosphere.” I walk around the perimeter of the house – which seems to be empty – and into the adjoining meadow, facing out across the Sound of Jura. There is no noise except for birdsong and the sea breeze. It makes me think of the diary that Orwell kept while living at Barnhill, in which he wrote nothing about the state of the world or his own condition, but only recorded the growth of plants, the movements of wildlife, changes in the weather.

Orwell also wrote that “by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more likely”. I have decided that his ghost would prefer the word “Orwellian” to describe that kind of future, and this kind of landscape.

The author(s): Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall)

The address: Howarth Parsonage, West Yorkshire, England

Three for the price of one: the Bronte family home, now the Bronte Parsonage Museum and Library, has been lovingly refashioned into a rich repository of information on each of the prodigious, ill-fated sisters (as well as their Reverend father Patrick and equally doomed older brother Branwell, both of whom were also published authors).

Personally, I’ve always been a Charlotte fan, and pleased to find that most of the personal items on display belonged to her, the only sister who survived long enough to achieve a measure of fame in her lifetime. The museum does provide plenty of scholarly context on the miasma of illness, ambition, frustration, and sexual and spiritual tension that floated through this house in the mid-19th century, and fuelled the desperate creative urgency of Emily in particular.

But the staff, all dedicated members of the Bronte Society, are also on hand to clarify and demystify the sisters’ reputation as the original bodice-rippers. In-house librarian Anne Dinsdale tells me that the “passion” in their fiction is often played up at the expense of the social and political aspects. Our conversation devolves into good-natured debate on the best movie adaptation of Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre.

Dinsdale thinks the 1983 TV mini-series, with Zela Clarke and Timothy Dalton, comes closest to presenting “the lack of choices available to women of the period”. I prefer the old one with Orson Welles as Mr Rochester. A group of visiting schoolgirls join in, to tell us they like the most recent version, with Michael Fassbender. “He’s sexy,” says one.

The author: Pablo Neruda

The address: Casa de Isla Negra, near Algorrobo, Chile

Neruda was the rarest kind of poet – world-famous and wealthy. A senior member and defender of Chile’s Communist Party, he also amassed enough of a personal fortune to buy three large houses and divide his time between them. These houses now form a kind of tourist triangle between Santiago, Valparaiso, and the black volcanic coast at Isla Negra. Each one has its charms, but the latter was Neruda’s own favourite, and offers visitors the strongest sense of his joie de vivre.

The main house resembles a ship, and his lounge is filled with mermaids and female figureheads that the poet collected from decommissioned sailing vessels. The adjoining annex looks like the inside of a train car, decorated with butterflies, coloured bottles, seashells, and whatever other objects caught his magpie-like attention. It’s a place that you could happily live and die in, and Neruda had the same idea.

“Friends,” he wrote, “bury me in Isla Negra, in front of the sea I know, and every rough area of rocks and waves that my lost eyes no longer see.” At the time of my visit, there is talk of exhuming Neruda’s body, to confirm or disprove the old rumour that the poet was actually poisoned by his enemies in the military government, who had seized power just days before his death in 1973.

Standing over the grave, my guide Lorena tells me that she shares these suspicions, but shudders at the prospect of such a belated postmortem. “Even if it was murder,” she says, against the sound of crashing waves, “I think we should just let him sleep.”


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