A Literary Tour of England

When I was eleven, I inhaled “Jane Eyre." I walked the moors with the good but poor, wretched, and homely hero who--be still my heart—eventually won the heart of the dashing, wealthy, good but married, Rochester. After reading the Bronte women, I branched into other English writers—Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and later turned to Henry James, E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and others. My life long love affair with books and writing began with these authors, who, if anyone of them, unknown, were to take a manuscript to a contemporary editor would likely be told to, “cut the description, jump right into the action.”

So strong was my identification with these novels and the country described in them, I felt, even before my first trip to England, that I was “going back.” With a friend, I went again, this time to see literary places, mostly in the countryside. The “Blue Guide to Literary Britain and Ireland” was our primary source of information.

Picking up a car at Heathrow Airport, we drove South to Brighton and checked in at the Old Ship Hotel, where Dickens stayed in 1837 and 1841. The next day, a short drive took us to the small village of Rodmell and Monk’s House--a second home to Leonard and Virginia Woolf beginning in 1919, ending for Virginia when, in 1941, she walked to the nearby Ouse River and drowned herself. Leonard lived there until 1969. Both house and garden are preserved now and the Woolf’s ashes are buried near a garden pond.

Near Alton, the next day, we stopped at Chawton House, home of Jane Austen. (Though our visit was literary, it could have equally been a garden visit. We drove through green countryside, past a profusion of flowers, both cultivated and wild.) Austen’s writing desk and chair sets near a window. The door to the room purposely creaked so she could hide her writing if anyone came into the room. Even the servants didn’t know—throughout her life—that she wrote.

Driving west and south, we arrived in the Dorset area, of which Thomas Hardy wrote so vividly. He renamed each village. Dorchester became Casterbridge. On a rainy day, we took the ten-minute walk through a forest heavily laced with wild rhododendron and bluebells to Hardy’s cottage.

We continued north towards the Cotswolds to Tewkesbury, persuaded to stop there by a passage in “The Literary Guide and Companion to Middle England” that says, “Two words suffice for Tewkesbury: See it! Or maybe four words: See it in May! Viewed through great iron gates and framed by cherry blossoms, Tewkesbury Abbey is as beautiful and moving a sight as any England can provide.”

Well, maybe. The competition is tough. We reached the Abbey during Even Song, so enjoyed the music, but could not go into certain areas. The famous Milton Organ--built in 1610 and supposedly played by John Milton, whose most famous work is “Paradise Lost”—was being repaired, hence not to be seen.

Our lodging in Tewkesbury was mentioned by Dickens, in “Pickwick Papers” this way: “At the Royal Hop Pole at Tewkesbury they stopped to dine; upon which occasion there was more ale, with some port besides; and here the case bottle was replenished for the fourth time. Under the influence to these combined stimulants Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Ben Allen fell asleep for thirty miles, while Bob and Mr. Weller sang duets in the Dickey.”

Then we visited Eastwood, the town where D.H. Lawrence was born and raised. He described it as, “a mining village of some three thousand souls. It is hilly country. To me it seemed, and still seems, an extremely beautiful countryside, just between the red sandstone and the oak-trees of Nottingham, and the cold limestone, the ash-trees, the stone fences of Derbyshire. To me, as a child and a young man, it was still the old England of the forest and the agricultural past.”

This was my second trip to Haworth, the village where the Bronte sisters lived, walked the Moors, wrote—without a room of their own—and died. The atmosphere is rugged, wild and foreboding. The parsonage where they lived faced a graveyard, the contamination from it may have tainted the water supply and caused the ill health with which the entire family lived. We were there on a mild day, but even then, the wind on the moors was chilly.

Traveling north and west, we reached Windemere in the Lake Country. On a long walk, we saw flowers everywhere—more rhododendrons in purple, white, pink, yellow and coral. We grabbed a tour—fortunate since I wouldn’t have been comfortable driving the narrow, windy roads—to see and learn how much Beatrix Potter did for the country besides writing “Peter Rabbit.” She was instrumental in founding the National Trust. She donated, in all, sixteen farms to the Trust, with certain stipulations: no loud music, no “gramophones,” no swearing.

We saw the homes and heard about poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, to whom the Bronte sisters wrote for advice. Then it was north to Edinburgh, a walk through the castle and downtown area, and a visit to the Writer’s Museum, in Lady Stair’s House, built in 1622.

Featured in the museum are three writers: Sir Walter Scott, who had a debt of 117,000 pounds at one time and tried, unsuccessfully, to pay it back on his own; Robert Burns, who seems to have become involved with a number of women; Robert Louis Stevenson, who apparently wrote “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde” based on the life of an owner of a nearby pub.

Having dropped the car when we arrived in Edinburgh, we took a four-hour train ride to our last stop—London. There, we attended the preview of the premier season at the Old Globe Theatre, where we saw “Henry V.” (I liked the King of France’s performance better than Henry’s, so I almost rooted for France. Not out loud.) For one pound you can be a “groundling” and stand right in front of the stage through the three-and-one-half hour performance.

Finally, we toured Bloomsbury on a “Literary Pub Walk.” The guide knew some good stories and told us which beers to buy in each of the three pubs visited. Virginia Woolf’s connections drew us here—the Hogarth Press, E.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot, Leonard Strachey. Strachey wrote a biography about Woolf and our guide credited him with being “the first one to write a biography that was true,” that is to say, one that exposed the warts as well as the wisdom of the subject.

As an aspiring novelist, I pondered all of the literary figures that I had visited. For me, writing has always been about telling the truth and taking chances. In, “The Life of Charlotte Bronte,” written by a close friend of hers, Elizabeth Gaskell, says that Charlotte argued with her sisters, who thought the female love interest in a story had to be beautiful. Charlotte determined to challenge that norm and created the character of Jane Eyre, thus creating one of the great fictional romances of all times.