The previous occupant of my home was Fay Weldon, and I am writing this in the room where she probably wrote The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. I bought the house for the full asking price in 2001, the year Weldon published her product-placement novel The Bulgari Connection, in which she mentioned the name of the Italian jewellery company thirty-four times. It was Christmas when I moved in, a single mother with a toddler, and she took with her all the fixtures and fittings, including the oven and the light bulbs. She did, however, leave me a signed copy of Darcy’s Utopia.
It’s serendipitous that I live in a writer’s house because I consider myself a house tourist. This past year alone I have poked around Walt Whitman’s house in New Jersey, T S Eliot’s flat in Kensington, Keats’s house in Hampstead, Emily Dickinson’s house in Massachusetts and D H Lawrence’s various homes in Nottinghamshire, Sicily, New Mexico and Mexico. Why do the same writers who go to such lengths to prevent the publication of their biographies do nothing to insure against their studies and bedrooms being inspected by future coachloads of tourists? Houses always reveal something of their occupants, but none so much as writers’ houses; this, according to Virginia Woolf, is because writers are particularly good at ‘housing themselves’, by which she means imprinting their own image onto the curtains, sofas and carpets.
This talent for ‘housing themselves’ can pose a problem for the later inhabitants of the writer’s home. Thomas De Quincey, for example, who took over the lease of Dove Cottage in Grasmere in 1809 when his hero Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved out, soon realised that he was not expected to live in the house as he liked but to act as custodian of the Wordsworths’ memories. Accordingly, Dorothy would drop round to check that he was keeping their garden just as they had left it. In retaliation, De Quincey cut down Dorothy’s apple tree, impregnated the maid, demolished the moss hut in which Wordsworth wrote the 1805 Prelude and turned the Wordsworth shrine into an opium den. He then filled the rooms with so many books that they became, as he put it, ‘snowed up’ and for the next twenty-six years he used Dove Cottage as a storage unit. It was the perfect revenge on Wordsworth’s self-importance, but Wordsworth got the last laugh. Even though De Quincey held the lease for twenty years longer than Wordsworth, Dove Cottage is associated almost exclusively with Wordsworth these days. For my part, I’ve visited it a thousand times and would far rather be given a tour of De Quincey’s snowed-up rooms than be shown a few sticks of country furniture and a version of the Wordsworths’ wallpaper. Why can’t we have, instead of a tape-recorded reading of ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, a reconstruction of one of De Quincey’s opium dreams showing him buried ‘for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes’, ‘stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys’, ‘kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles’ and ‘laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud’?
Given that we visit writers’ houses to get close to the state of their souls at the moment of creation, why not keep the clutter? Why are writers’ houses always so unnaturally clean and tidy? The Dove Cottage we see today is the stale Wordsworth memorial that the poet wanted De Quincey to preside over as gatekeeper. All we learn about De Quincey when we visit the house is that he was irrelevant to the Wordsworths, which tells us a good deal about the Wordsworths themselves. Similarly, only by schlepping around the globe after D H Lawrence can we grasp the essential fact of his life: Lawrence built his nests on hills, slopes or ledges, and each of his homes was positioned at a higher altitude than the last. ‘I rose up in the world, Ooray!’ he wrote, and he meant it literally. And the most striking feature of 280 Main Street, Amherst, where Emily Dickinson housed herself from birth to death, is not the corner bedroom in which she detonated her 1,775 small poetic bombs but its position directly above the drawing room where her brother, Austin, brought his mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, for love in the afternoons. As fixated on Dickinson as De Quincey was on Wordsworth, Todd bludgeoned her way into becoming the poet’s first editor, but only after leaving her own imprint on the family’s horsehair sofa.
Virginia Woolf said that she finally understood the marriage between Jane and Thomas Carlyle when she visited 5 Cheyne Row, which, like Dickinson’s house in Amherst and Dove Cottage, is preserved in aspic. ‘Go down into the kitchen,’ Woolf instructed. ‘There, in two seconds, one is made acquainted with a fact that escaped the attention of Froude, and yet was of incalculable importance.’ The Carlyles had no running water. Since they were ‘Scots, fanatical in their cleanliness’, while Mr Carlyle groaned over his history of the French Revolution on the top floor, the maid-of-all-work, supervised by Mrs Carlyle, pumped water from a well in the basement and boiled it for cooking, drinking, scrubbing, shaving, washing and bathing. All day long she pumped and boiled and all day long great cans of water were sloshed up and down four flights of stairs. The house was not a home but a battlefield, in which mistress and maid fought valiantly against dirt. Woolf had a troubled relationship with her own servants. She understood that for women a house is a combat zone, but not so the garden hut in which she groaned over her own books. It was described by Lytton Strachey as filled with the ‘filth … of pen nibs, cigarette ends and scraps of writing’. Monk’s House in Rodmell, Sussex, where Woolf lived from 1919 until her death, is now owned by the National Trust and the filth of her study has of course been cleared away.
A N Wilson wondered how anyone could write the life of Iris Murdoch – a writer not fanatical in her cleanliness – without having known first-hand the particular smell of her Oxford home. My aunt, also friends with Murdoch, remembered John Bayley, having dined at high table, bringing back in his pocket a hot buttered potato to give Murdoch for supper, forgetting that he already had in there a chocolate digestive from tea. The chocolate-covered potato was duly placed in the kitchen. Should the Murdoch–Bayley establishment on Charlbury Road be opened to the public, it is their fabulously naked squalor that would be most worth seeing.