A Reader's Guide to Writers' Britain
Sally Varlow. ISBN: 9780233000695. London 2004
"The great affair is to move.”
- Robert Louis Stevenson
Awakening your wanderlust, in hand is the ultimate travel guidebook to Britain's rich literary heritage. Here, innumerable destinations feature multiple authors, landscapes and legendary characters that transport both the studious and the curious into unforgettable literary trails. Preserving memorable impressions, we take in Britain's writing on the world's walls. The British country-side with its myriad offerings of brooks and bridges, creeks and cottages, ferns and fox-gloves, gardens and green-houses, hills and downs, lochs and lakes, meadows, mountains and moors, vales and valleys, willows and waves - provide a diverse topography in which secluded stretches of nature and solitude appear to be essential elements. Whatever your reading locale; armchair, bed, bench, beach, flight or train, you have in your hands a narrative to lose oneself in. Keep calm and carry on savouring British creative ingenuity!
Sally Varlow in a monumental effort, linking the past and the present, has brought to life literary shrines that capture enduring and endearing characters and their creators; all those who have so marked Britain's contribution to world literature. All have endured generations; many impacted societies. A Reader's Guide to Writers' Britain is in its third edition now. A supremely captivating read, "this guide covers places linked with all sorts of writers and books - ancient and modern, classic and popular, fact and fiction, serious and fun - throughout England, Scotland and Wales."
The literary travel bible is categorized by regions. Thus we have the West Country, Southern England, South-east England, London, Eastern England, Midlands and Cotswolds, Northern England, Wales and the Marches and Scotland. Methodically researched, lavishly illustrated with over 600 colour pictures; each chapter begins with a regional map marking the location presented in the text, immersing the reader both mentally and visually. Testimony to a methodical researcher, the author has a section 'Gazetteer' that lists places of interest that are open to the public, on a chapter by chapter basis. Author(s) associated with each place are listed. Charles Dickens keeps cropping up. Reading it at one stretch as I have done for the review, the comprehensive study including details on author, their books, their characters, the setting and the accompanying lavish graphics can overwhelm a reader. This book is to be dipped into and relished - as one would delve into a box of treasures. It sits comfortably as a bed-side companion and moves equally well as a travel accessory.
Selective anecdotes and incidents by this reviewer from Sally Varlow's exhaustive 267 page tome include the following. According to the seasoned story-teller, in the West Country - Cornwall - for the Poet Laureate John Betjeman "was a place where he could indulge all his great passions." While living at Chawton, Hampshire in Southern England, Varlow provides us with the happy news written by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra in a letter dated January 29, 1813, announcing the arrival of Pride and Prejudice in print. T.E. Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia retired to Cloud's End, his retreat where he lived till his death in a motor-cycle accident in 1935. Winston Churchill attended his funeral and wrote of Seven Pillars of Wisdom "as a narrative of war and adventure it is unsurpassable." Given his status as the “Grand Old Man” of English literature, Thomas Hardy's ashes were placed at Westminster Abbey. Only his heart and a memorial window remain in his beloved heartland Wessex in South-west England.
I have visited 'The Elms', Rudyard Kipling's home in Rottingdean, near Brighton, Sussex in South-east England. Residing in this sylvan retreat, he was producing his best. He had already published The Jungle Book and was working on Kim amongst other books. A reconstruction of his study at his residence at the Rottingdean Grange Museum brought into my life his letters, family photographs, pages from his manuscripts and his book collection. A compelling wax figure shows the man in his cherished ambience. The extent of his love for this region comes forth in his poetic tribute:
Each to his choice, and I
The lot has fallen to me In a fair ground - in a fair
Yea, Sussex by the sea!
Once you enter the chapter on London, those mentioned are many. 'No man is an island, entire of itself' remarked John Donne, Dean of St. Paul Cathedral from 1621 until his death in 1631. One of his meditations declares: “Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for Thee.” The city muse to the prolific author and traveler Charles Dickens was the inspiration for the awful and the beautiful. These included the most famous and still functioning 'Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese' pub in Fleet Street, (rebuilt in 1667) which has hosted slews of authors for ale and pub grub: Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Dickens, Tennyson, Mark Twain, Conan Doyle Thackeray et al. The old Reading Room at the British Museum had seated and slept scores; Lenin, Marx, Engels, George Eliot, Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde. Regulars were also H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, W.B. Yeats. The legendary Agatha Christie lives on and on. The Mousetrap which opened at the Ambassador Theatre in 1952 remains the longest-running play in history. In sum, to this day, one savours the prophetic words of Dr. Samuel Johnson: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” My London literary destination bucket list includes a visit to Dr. Johnson's House Museum at 17 Gough Square, on the top floor of which he produced most of A Dictionary of the English Language in the 1750s.
Few years back, we visited in Cambridge, Eastern England the Fitzwilliam Museum, a grand classical monumental edifice. Little did I know then that among the rare books and manuscripts in stock are a first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost, a Second Folio of Shakespeare and Keat's 'Ode to a Nightingale.' In 'Passion and Poetry in the Shires', Varlow provides us with all that is feted in immortal lyrical Romantic poetry as well as the premature mortality of 'three of England's greatest sons.' John Keats died in Rome of tuberculosis at the age of 25. Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned off the coast of Italy at 29. Lord Byron died in 1824 amongst Greek freedom fighters at the age of 36. A landmark in the publishing history was established when George Bernard Shaw's Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialist (1928) became so influential that it was re-issued as the first 'Pelican' in order to launch Penguin Books' mould-breaking, non-fiction paperback series in 1937, for "nothing less would suit such an eccentric, flamboyant genius."
We are now in the midst of the Midlands and Cotswolds. In a fitting tribute, the author remarks: "Stratford-upon-Avon started being sacred almost the day William Shakespeare died in 1616. To fellow dramatists he was, in Ben Jonson's words:
Soul of the Age!
The applause! delight!
the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare , arise; ...
For every bibliophile, “it has the largest bookstore in Europe, Blackwell's...." Browsing through its labyrinthine aisles brings back reminisces of a literary haven and heaven. That city being Oxford.
Moving to Northern England, we meet John Ruskin who lived at Brantwood cottage, now Ruskin Centre. His readers included "Mahatma Gandhi, who translated Ruskin's 'Unto This Last' into Gujurati." Planning a visit to the Lake District, I zeroed in on Windermere. For the simple reason, that in the distant Darjeeling Himalayan hills, we had visited the landmark Windamere Hotel. The founding hotelier was prudent enough to replace an 'a' for an 'e', thereby not exposing himself to any litigation. Somehow, within our tour of the picturesque postcard panorama, "the loveliest spot that man hath ever found" remarked the local wordsmith Wordsworth; we missed out on visiting Dove Cottage in Grasmere where he and his family resided for fourteen years. Bouts of regret now emerge at the spring-time sighting of “dancing” daffodils.
Should one need any prompting, heed the words of Shelley, Letter, 1812: "Steal if possible, my revered friend, one summer from the cold hurry of business and come to Wales." Wordsworth succumbed to the land's beauty and wrote 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey' in 1798. Further up the river Wye in Wales, is the scene of one of the world's best literary festivals Hay-on-Wye, held annually in May.
How ofte, in spirit,
have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! ...
Travelling to the north, in Scotland; how can one disagree with the American author Washington Irving who remarked while visiting Walter Scott in 1817: "I don't wonder that anyone residing in Edinburgh should write poetically." How I wish I had this book as my companion when visiting the writer's Museum one autumn years back and saw the belongings and books of 'three of Scotland's greatest sons' - Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns. His immortal memory comes alive every time 'Auld Lang Syne' is sung. Edinburgh is a capital city and a literary capital. Edinburgh University was the alma mater to legions of legendary writers: Samuel Boswell, Walter Scott, R.L. Stevenson, Thomas Carlyle, Oliver Goldsmith, J.M. Barrie and Arthur Conan Doyle who "used the brilliant deductive methods of his tutor for his detective Sherlock Holmes." J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame, at one time had five plays running in London; including Quality Street, "so popular that the chocolates were named after it, with graphics based on his costumed characters."
Its purchase makes it holier. For the paltry price of Pound 1.90, I picked up A Reader's Guide to Writers' Britain at a quirky second-hand book store by the sea in Rottingdean, Sussex, South-east England. Myself and one other browser. Both with books in hand. No one in attendance. Then I spy a hand-written card: 'Please pay next door.' We trot off next door. And my fellow bargain buyer murmurs: 'Must say we are honest!'
Raana Haider is a bibliophile and an anglophile.