The Literary Tourist by Nicola J Watson

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The Literary Tourist by Nicola J Watson

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Category: Travel
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A literary and overly-academic review of the development of tourism related to authors and their work. Covering birth-places and grave-sites as well as the places where books were written, with a second half dedicated to the settings of the books themselves, Watson looks at why we feel the need to have ‘more' than just the books – and how that need has been answered by the authors themselves as much as anyone else.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 256 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 978-0230210929

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As our resident travel writer this might interest you… came my introduction to this book. Misguidedly as it turned out, for the emphasis in Watson's work is much more heavily on the literary than on the tourist.

I use the word heavily advisedly. It is a scholarly work – and I'm afraid I use the word scholarly in its most pejorative sense. In The Literary Tourist, Watson (an academic veteran of Oxford and Harvard and currently Senior Lecturer in Literature at the Open University) has clearly sought to produce a thesis for use and debate in those illustrious circles, which is a shame… because it limits what could otherwise have been a truly enthralling book.

The purpose of the work is to chart the development of literary tourism, primarily through the 18th & 19th centuries although she strays well into the 20th century – stopping just short of the final exposition of the phenomenon in which we long to visit the places which have stood in for fictional landscapes in the film of the book. I'm thinking particularly of New Zealand's understudy role for Tolkien's Middle Earth.

Watson splits the concept of the literary tourist into two separate types of pilgrim. Although the first clearly predated the latter, the two have continued to exist in tandem for the last hundred years or more and are now rarely camps into which individuals divide.

The first is the seeker after the author. Ironically this began by a search for graves and monuments, only then moving on to birth-places, before finally coming to rest where it finally belongs with the work-place. Watson commences in the only place a writer on the subject in England could: Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. Descriptions of how this came to be our national monument to the arts and was subsequently disdained by many of those who might have found rest there, are only part of a story, which includes a sideways look at the arrangement of the monuments themselves and what the literary-minded might choose to read into placement and type.

The numbers of visitors to this surprisingly unprepossessing corner of the Abbey are unremarkable, for many are there in the course of a more general visit. The true literary tourist will seek further afield. They will go to the site of the Elegy in search of the unmarked grave of Thomas Gray – not so unmarked now the alternative monument all-but points the finger he'd asked not to mark his rest. They will travel to the moors in search of the windswept grave that none of the Brontë sisters was ever condemned to rot beneath - being buried in the Church itself or much further afield.

Or to Italy in search of Shelley & Keats.

Birth-place pilgrimages were a later innovation. Their popularity was apparently sparked when (some 65 years late) David Garrick decided to stage a pageant celebrating the bicentennial of Shakespeare's birth. So it was a little late, so it didn't actually include very much (if any) of the great bard's own words, so the weather played English and rained off half of the proceedings…it still put Stratford-upon-Avon on the literary map in a way that has still to be matched some 240 years later.

Not being slow on the update when there's money to be made (so I'm led to believe) the Scots were quick to join in with their own national poet's humble childhood abode. Within three years of Burns' death the cottage in which he spent only a few of his early years was receiving the first visitors that saw it as more than the alehouse it had since become.

The movement from houses of accidental interest in the life of the author to those which can be definitively assigned to them as either progenitor of their work or the product of their labour commences in the early 19th century with Walter Scott's purposeful acquisition and development of Abbotsford. Actually, he acquired Clartyhole, but that hardly has the requisite Scots baronial ring about it. Over ten years he took this old farmhouse and transformed it into the fantasy monastic-fortress that the Waverley novels demanded. It was by his own admission a romance of a house. It was a place deliberately designed to intrigue the visitors and bring the fiction out of the books and into the landscape.

The trend continued in varying degrees of legitimacy through Haworth parsonage and up on to Hill Top Farm. In doing so, it gives birth to Watson's second strand of pilgrimage. Not just the places where authors lived and worked – but the landscapes themselves which reach out from the pages.

The second half of the book focuses on readers' searches not for the authors who penned the tales, but for the real on-the-ground places where these stories were played out; the places where the characters really did live and breathe.

In doing so Watson focuses on Rousseau's Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloise, Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake, Thomas Hardy's Wessex and in particular Tess of the d'Urbevilles – but of course she cannot avoid Lorna Doone or Wuthering Heights, and if she fails to take us to Jamaica Inn, we are rewarded with a short trip into Lyra's Oxford.

We've all done it haven't we? Looked upon Stonehenge and wondered which was Tess's altar…or stayed in a blasted inn on the moors (not even the right moor necessarily) and wondered if that waterway barely glistening in the moonlit distance might just be Frenchman's creek?

Those of us who have may not necessarily recognise ourselves in Watson's analysis. She displays something of a disdain for those who seek the fictional in the real. The unspoken whisper between her lines is that so many readers cannot tell the difference; that these simple folk wander the landscape map in hand, trying to fix what was only ever made up, as if missing the whole point of the books and seeking the reality.

For many of us that is not the point at all, and I do feel in this section of the book in particular Watson is the one who misses it. We go, not necessarily to seek a connection with a long-dead writer, although there is something tangible about a house or a grave that is missing from the name on a book-jacket. We go not to make the fantasy more real by locating its environs in a real place. We go to see how much of the fantasy might once have been real. It doesn't matter that the house was this cottage transposed to that field, but with a view some fifty miles away. It doesn't matter that I'll never walk the precise path along which Magwitch lurked. What is important is the impression. The impression of the landscape that inspired the impressions experienced second-hand through the book.

It has little to do with fixing the fiction; more to do with breathing the inspiration. Sometimes it is simply using the author to as a means to place a still-extant landscape in its own history. This is how the place looked in Hardy's day. A way of measuring time passed.

It is I feel more complicated than the ultimately simple explanations buried in Watson's prose.

Watson's prose: therein is the signal failure.

For all I'd happily to debate the many truths and some limitations of her theories with her, I have to 'pass' on the book itself because of her prose. She states that it was a lot of fun to research and to write and I believe her. Sadly, it was a lot less fun to read. To take a few quotes from a few early pages:

· …desire to situate canonical literary texts in equally canonical landscapes..

· …to declare the place inadequately meaningful without the literary signification provided by the book, and to declare the book inadequate without this specific anxiously located referent or paratext.

· The portability and the multiplicity of the published books seems to have induced since the late eighteenth century a desire to authenticate the reading experience in a more 'personal' way, to reinforce an incompletely intimate and unsatisfactorily vicarious reading experience.

If you say so. And to be honest by the third or fourth reading of thanatocentric, I stopped caring enough to even go look up what it actually means.

The problem I have with all of this unnecessary linguistic obfuscation is that underneath it Watson (for all I don't agree with it all) has a lot of interesting stuff to share with us. Just how we all became so interested in where our favourite writers were born, lived, worked and died is a story of blatant hype and manipulation worthy of any modern tourist board facing a grant cut. It shows some of our fabled heroes to be quite savvy businessmen (at least for a while). It sheds some pencil-thin light-beams into the corners of author's lives where we may not have looked before. Certainly it illuminates a national desire to fix our treasured authors in their native land as if to make them more wholly ours.

My personal credentials for passing an opinion on the work stretch no further than A-level literature in three languages nearly 30 years ago, an eclectic reading list ever since, and travels here and abroad which do at times take in the literary associations of place. I'm not an academic. I'm not by Watson's definition a 'literary tourist'. Though I will take interest, joy or some other emotion in sought-after or stumbled-upon location, I'm as likely to seek out the literature after the visit as I am to travel in search of a fiction. My copy of Irving's Tales of… was bought at The Alhambra and subsequently read in a suburban English garden with ne'er a swift in sight for example.

This matters only insofar as I am most certainly not Watson's target audience. I wish I had been, because I do lament the book she hasn't written: the one for the reading tourist rather than the literary one. Perhaps when she retires she will come back to this theme and produce a more populist work. Put me down for an early copy.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For further reading have a look at How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland.

Buy The Literary Tourist by Nicola J Watson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Literary Tourist by Nicola J Watson at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Literary Tourist by Nicola J Watson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Literary Tourist by Nicola J Watson at Amazon.com.

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