Where Great Books Began
Foreword by Julian Fellowes
London: Robert Hale, 2015
Hardcover. 264p. ISBN 978-0719806643. £22.00
Reviewed by Jacques Carré
This book describes a number of houses, cottages, villas or stately homes, connected in some way with famous British writers, either because they were born there, because they lived there for a time, or simply because they were frequent visitors. Forty-seven of these houses are in England, five in Scotland, five in Wales, none in Northern Ireland. The book ranges from William Shakespeare to Roald Dahl, although most of the writers mentioned lived mainly in the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition to the description of the houses, there is a short potted biography for each of the writers. There are surprising omissions, like Alexander Pope’s villa at Twickenham, or William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, which, unlike some of the houses discussed, played an important part in their owners’ literary production.
The problem with this book is that one does not know for what kind of reader it is intended. Those who love literature will be disappointed to find that Nick Channer has little interest in his authors’ texts, and rarely quotes them. In fact it soon transpires that he has not read them. We are only expected to assume that all his authors, even the more obscure, have written unforgettable classics. A sense of proportion is clearly lacking. Channer asserts in a vague way that writers’ houses ‘caught their imagination and shaped their craft’ . But this is hardly demonstrated, except perhaps in the chapters about writers of children’s books like Beatrix Potter or Enid Blyton. On the whole what Channer has to offer is mostly biographical anecdotes of the most trivial kind, in addition to his personal responses to the places he visited.
As for those readers who like architectural history, they may also find this book slightly baffling. The houses described range from Dylan Thomas’ Boat House at Laugharne to Vita Sackville-West’s 365-room country-seat at Knole, from D.H. Lawrence’s terraced birth-place in a mining village to Walter Scott’s baronial mansion at Abbotsford. Such extraordinary variety precludes any serious comparison, even if houses are classified by region. In fact writers’ houses only reflect the vagaries of social origins or literary success, and have very little in common. Some authors were poor, some were not, some had taste, others not. All Channer can do is to describe locations, façades, furnishings and gardens, in the manner of a National Trust guide (he never fails to mention whether a building is listed Grade I or Grade II). He has a clear preference for picturesque mansions in rolling landscapes, but one can hardly object to this. The book is illustrated with small but fine colour photographs. The short bibliography mostly includes literary biographies.
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