Strictly Jane Austen

‘Experiments in Imagination’: Literary Tourism and the Home of the Author

Jane Austen is celebrated all year round in Bath, but fandom reaches fever pitch in September when Janeites from all over the world flock to the city for the Jane Austen Festival. As Bath’s streets fill with readers dressed in Regency fashions, our guest blogger Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm, author of ‘There’s Something About Darcy,’ muses on the history of literary tourism


It’s that time of year again in Bath. September has arrived and tourists will flock into the city for the Jane Austen Festival. Smartphones have been hidden away in reticules, Etsy sites have been plundered for Regency fashion recreations, and the anticipation and anxiety of a Grand Ball is as alive now as it ever was in the 19th century.

All in the name of Jane Austen, probably the world’s leading literary celebrity novelist. Living and dead, writers attract tourists to their homes, haunts, and the places made famous in their writing. When and why did this start? And was Austen attracted to this as a fan of the novel?

Nicola Watson’s book The Literary Tourist (2010) examines how and why the fashion for pursuing this impulse grew. We are accustomed to this now, she writes: ‘After all these years of postcards from Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and biscuit-tins from Haworth, this continuing desire to situate … literary texts in … landscapes may seem … natural …’ but the time and leisure to follow such trails did not fully emerge until the 19th century. This accompanied the boom in printing and publishing as well.

It seems that as soon as books were more widely available the commercial and the cultural intersected to build the literary tourism industry.

The graves and memorials of poets, in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, were an early draw. Starting with Geoffrey Chaucer in 1400, the site grew and became crowded with elaborate tombs and memorials. Austen is, of course, buried in Winchester Cathedral, and commemorated with a plaque in Westminster Abbey. The Hampshire sites, including her grave, are central, for those who can travel, to appreciating her talent and maintaining her reputation.

Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon, the Lake District of Wordsworth, the Bronte sisters’ home on the Yorkshire moors, and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex – these locations grew in importance and popularity throughout the 19th century. They signify the places where authors lived and worked and the fictional settings of their stories. A visit to Thomas Hardy’s birthplace at Higher Bockhampton in Dorset can also take you into his fictional Wessex. Bath offers up Austen’s former homes and places she socialized along with the settings from Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Nicola Watson sums things up when she describes, ‘The experience is perhaps most powerfully compounded if the place of composition and fictional setting coincide.’

Recreations and representations of sites in fiction have also developed. Platform Nine and Three Quarters has half a luggage trolley poking out of the wall at King’s Cross Station. Before Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories there was no 221b Baker Street in London. Now, it houses the ‘Official’ museum.

The literary tourist performs an ‘experiment in imagination’, a term coined by Watson. This means recreating a game of Pooh Sticks in AA Milne’s setting for the Hundred Acre Wood, Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, or being photographed ‘falling’ from The Cobb in Lyme Regis in honour of Louisa Musgrove’s accident in Persuasion. When poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson visited Lyme Regis he dismissed the official guidebook in favour of literary tourism, saying: ‘Don’t talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth … Show me the spot where Louisa Musgrove “fell down and was taken up lifeless”.’

Austen was a follower and supporter of the authors she read and admired. It is widely known that she subscribed to the scheme in support of Frances Burney’s third novel Camilla. Fame and recognition were to come Austen’s way in her lifetime, but nothing like the renown her works now enjoy. Her reputation was solidified in the 20th century, especially after the surge in popularity that came after the First World War. Soldiers read her novels to give them a taste of home and once Rudyard Kipling published his story, The Janeites, in 1921 the prototype of author fandom truly came to life.

New England author Susan Coolidge introduced the idea of her characters seeking out their literary idols. She takes her heroine Katy Carr on a trip to ‘Story-book England’ in the novel What Katy Did Next (1886). There, the teen-aged girl stands over Austen’s tomb in Winchester Cathedral where she ‘laid a few rain-washed flowers’ and listened to the verger’s bemused chat about why so many ‘h’ Americans’ ask about her. He doesn’t seem to appreciate what Austen did or that her stories have any significance for the English.

Reader-tourists are everywhere nowadays, and the industry of literary tourism is booming. It began in a natural way, however, with people seeking out the burial places and haunts of their favourite writers to pay tribute, and like Katy Carr lay a few humble flowers. The idea of ‘story-book England’ had gripped an international audience by the end of the 19th century and it has only grown since then.

So, whether you travel to the Lakes or the Moors, follow Dickens’s London trails, or take to the paths around Bath frequented by Austen, you will be pursuing an imaginative as well as a physical journey. The creative inventions of writers have spurred you on to this in the footsteps of fans across the years and across the world. Follow the emotional, imaginative, and physical maps built in the minds of your favourite authors.