Standing in the street outside a dead person's house isn't a particularly good feeling, even when the person's been dead since 1941. Even when your connection to the person is academic. Even when you've imagined some kind of rapture descending on you at seeing the place in the flesh, or you've pictured yourself resolutely neutral, looking with cool architectural interest.
Sniffing around after writers is part of the literary game, and maybe always has been. We devour their books and letters and diaries. We get a sense that we've earned a look into the closets, all of them. Especially when it's damp out. On a woolly grey day around the turn of the millennium, I skulked on the pavement outside Virginia Woolf's childhood home in London. Number 22 is a tall white house in Hyde Park Gate, a cul-de-sac off the buzz of Kensington High Street. It boasts three blue plaques beside its front door, announcing it as the home of Leslie Stephen, Victorian man of letters and the birthplace of Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell. I remember thinking there could be more plaques: this is the house where Woolf's mother died, making a "shipwreck" of her daughter's life; this is the site of possible molestation by her half-brothers; this is where the Stephen kids wrote the family newspaper I was basing my Ph.D. thesis on.
That last part was the problem. I was the problem. Standing in Sussex on another day in the garden where her ashes lie, I'd felt neutral about my presence, accepted by the place. Now in London a bizarre envy swam up in me, as it sometimes did when I was hovering over her spiky handwriting in libraries. I felt no right to be at her house, to look through the railings, but at the same time, I felt I had every right. All the rights.
The house is private, now apartments, not a museum. We expect museums. I thought about checking to see if the main door was unlocked, asking to look around. You picture yourself, as I said above, and as I realized then. I was photobombing Woolf's place (though this was before I had a phone capable of taking pictures). Maybe photobombing her life. I caught my reflection in the front-room window.
Woolf herself went literary-touristing. She joined the crowds who went to see the Brontë parsonage in Yorkshire, and was intrigued by Charlotte Brontë's "little personal relics"--the dress and shoes that outlived her, and brought her back to life. You can feel Woolf's fingers and eyes, her looking and wish to touch, in her essay. I went to see the Brontë things too, on another literary bender, and I stood reverently in front of the glass case, gaping with everyone else at the clothes' tininess. I wondered if all the other tourists were imagining trying them on.
My bet is yes. I'd argue that many readers and researchers get infected with this brand of entitlement, an outsiders' envy, and we picture ourselves in the story. This ranges from first-year students muttering if the novels on my reading list aren't "relatable," to the great Richard Holmes putting his younger self, on the trail of Shelley and co., into Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. Joyce Carol Oates recently tweeted succinctly, "If the dead only knew--how the living exploit their names, their work, their reputations while having done nothing themselves to earn it." But maybe we earn our keep by being aware of what we're doing, as Oates clearly is in her novels, and wrestling with it.
I had a fairly violent fight when I turned from academic writing to my own novel, All True Not a Lie In It, the explorer Daniel Boone's story of childhood, exploration, and captivity, in his own voice. So little remains of him, besides a passel of fraudulent relics like buckets and guns, that it's easy to overwrite any sense of who he really might have been. People were making up stories about him even while he was alive (my title comes from his laughing response to a questionable "autobiography" someone wrote for him). I struggled with taking on the first person--see my last post here--but Dan was so far from my experience that I thought I had at least the liberty to create him as I saw him.
Until friends read it and started pointing out connections with my own life. One said, "Dan as a kid, when he's watching everyone and trying to be alone, that's you." Aren't we taught to walk a mile in someone else's shoes? That's what I was doing, I argued. They argued back: Dan's kids are my kids, his grief is mine, his jokes are mine. As they said it, I saw it. So perhaps I'm with Flaubert: Daniel Boone, c'est moi.
Only c'est pas moi, too. Not all moi. Writing is necessarily transformative, even when you're writing about actual people, as the dozens of books and stories about Dan have shown over the decades. I've thought often about the sharp critic Janet Malcolm's sentence on whether we own our lives: "After we are dead, the pretense that we may somehow be protected against the world's careless malice is abandoned." I've thought about how we inevitably shape any figure we write about, living or dead or imagined, and how we are inevitably there too, at least in part, like it or not. There's no way not to be there.
Maybe this will make us less careless. Maybe we should admit it, take our place. Stare openly, wave, say hello, go inside, sit down.
I'm the author of My Name is a Knife, All True Not a Lie In It, and The Old Familiar.