Simon Goldhill introduces his new book by recalling a lunch with his editor, who suggested he make a pilgrimage and write about it. Pilgrimages, he reflected, tend to be made alone, but he is gregarious, so decided that he needed to make up, with his wife and another couple, ‘a party of four Jews’, to keep him company and supply comic material. He is a classics don at Cambridge, where he also directs something called the Victorian Studies Group, so his editor suggested he do ‘something Victorian’, and the result is Freud’s Couch, Scott’s Buttocks, Brontë’s Grave. The title does no one any favours, but the book offers a brief and generally amiable exploration of the British literary pilgrimage.
To Victorian Protestants, pilgrimage had about it an unseemly whiff of Popery, so rather than walk to Canterbury or Walsingham they travelled by railway and bicycle to the houses of great writers; ‘Literature,’ as Carlyle wrote, ‘is but a branch of Religion.’
Goldhill is sceptical — ‘I cannot see why I should go and look at John Updike’s typewriter, or Saul Bellow’s apartment, or Salman Rushdie’s trousers’ — but dutifully follows the Victorian tourists, by railway and bicycle when possible, to Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s baronial pile in the Scottish borders; to Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, Wordsworth’s houses in the Lake District; to the Brontë parsonage at Haworth; to Shakespeare’s house at Stratford; and to Freud’s in Hampstead, where in 1938 he created a replica of his study in Vienna.
Shakespeare’s house is of course the odd one out, though its gables and so forth are 19th-century reconstructions, and for all its video displays it remains an essentially Victorian monument. It also happens to be the only one I have visited, so I can concur with Goldhill’s account of its bad faith and ‘grotesque vulgarity’. I am sure he is equally right about Abbotsford (‘a masterpiece of bricolage’) and Haworth (‘like joining a cult’).
He began his pilgrimage, he writes, ‘not understanding why anyone would care about a writer’s house’, and though he takes a polite interest in the places he visits, and is prompted by them to make some apt observations about history, celebrity and the heritage industry, ultimately he seems to find them about as fascinating as Salman Rushdie’s trousers: ‘I can’t imagine that I will want to go back to Dove Cottage or Rydal Mount.’
His pilgrimage is hardly inspirational, then, and his companions did not supply the expected comic material, but his last chapter does offer a sort of climax. Freud was not really a literary figure, but Goldhill grew up in Hampstead, and ‘went through analysis as a child with an elderly German-accented woman in a red-brick villa’, and in Freud’s study he at last finds himself amazed and moved ‘by the absent presence of a powerful artist in and through the physical space he had inhabited’.
Mildly diverting as it may be to British readers, I fear this book will disappoint the literary American tourists for whom it is evidently intended.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 14, 2012Tags: Cambridge, Shakespeare, Victorian