A.S. Byatt, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, history, Hound of the Baskervilles, house museums, J.K. Rowling, Jane Austen, Neil Gaiman, Possession, preservation, Rumpelstiltskin, Sherlock Holmes, Undershaw
There is a wonderful scene in A.S. Byatt’s Possession in which two scholars, on the heels of a literary mystery, have an opportunity to go through the rooms in the manor house where half of their pursuit’s objective, the famous poet, Cristabel LaMotte, once lived. By matching some of her verses with their present surroundings, they discover LaMotte’s clever hiding place for the love letters she exchanged with the renowned (and married) poet, Randolph Henry Ash. There’s much more to the story, of course, and I hope you’ll read it, but it’s tantalizing to imagine that, at any time, new connections might be made from the relationship between authors’ works and their working surroundings.
There is a Rumpelstiltskin-esque alchemy to a writer’s process—experience and imagination are drawn together with the added influence of place, past and present, to create the literary equivalent of threads of gold. We desire that gold for our entertainment and to be introduced to situations, possibilities, and points of view we might never consider on our own; we need it to maintain perspective on the sometimes bizarre complexity of our own lives. Naturally, we revere the people who can take us out of ourselves and enrich us with seemingly nothing more than a pen and piece of paper. It is certain that even the café where J. K. Rowling penned the first chapters of her story about a boy wizard, has never done better business. Seeing where authors are from, where they liked to do their writing, seeing with our own eyes what they looked at every day, adds depth to everything they’ve written and brings us closer to understanding the source of such expansive creativity.
The relationship between authors and their homes has been on my mind since following a link on Neil Gaiman’s Facebook page about the on-going effort to preserve Undershaw, the home Sir Arthur Conan Doyle designed and where he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, among other influential works. It’s hard to believe Undershaw didn’t achieve house museum status decades ago—that generations of schoolchildren and their exasperated handlers haven’t walked through Conan Doyle’s study the way they’ve been able to walk through Emily Dickinson’s gardens, Jane Austen’s 17th-century house, or Edgar Allan Poe’s modest row house, itself at risk because of budget cuts. It is unconscionable that the home designed by the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger should be lost to ‘development’ and neglect. Many years of education, dispensed within its walls and across its grounds, could be an important part of its future and an anchor to the writer whose work, familiar to and beloved by children, scholars, and Hollywood alike, will continue to inspire the generations to come.
UPDATE: Please read more about the Undershaw Preservation Trust on both its site and its Facebook page—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s house is in terrible disrepair and the decision regarding its destruction or preservation is expected in July 2012. More of the story behind Undershaw and a chronology of the effort that has been made to save it can be found in Jeremy Kimmel’s “A Call to Arms” on his blog, Museomole. Also, some easily accomplished measures that fans can take are listed here. I keep thinking about a line from You’ve Got Mail: “People are always saying that change is a good thing. But all they’re really saying is that something you didn’t want to happen at all… has happened.” Some changes should not be inevitable; there is a particular sadness associated with this one. Undershaw is not Sherlock Holmes, who will endure until the end of time because he is still so compelling and new; but Sherlock Holmes lived there and walked those grounds every bit as much as Conan Doyle. Holmes is tangibly connected to Undershaw in a way that the set dressing that is 221B can never be. Make your voice heard in any way that you can to preserve this bit of literary history.
Also, if you are interested in the disposition of the Poe House in Baltimore, here is the link to a petition for its continued operation.