Monday musings on Australian literature: What value writers’ homes?

DKS, in a recent comment on this blog, and Lisa of ANZLitlovers, in a post last week, have brought to my attention the threat to Christina Stead‘s home, Boongarre, in Watsons Bay, Sydney. As a lover of the “literary road”, I’m concerned and so decided to explore it a little more.

The facts, as I understand them, are there is a draft heritage listing on the house, but there is also a development application currently before the Woollahra Council to add “modern extensions and excavate the historic garden” (Street Corner Staff, 6 June 2011). The house was a major inspiration for Stead’s novel, The man who loved children. The Watsons Bay Association has set up a petition to save the home. Their arguments are that the house:

  • will (do they know this?) be a heritage item “within months”;
  • represents 70 years of history of Christina, and her conservationist father and step-mother, David and Thistle Stead; and
  • is one of a “dwindling number of important historic houses in Watsons Bay”.

The Association provides strong supporting evidence for these arguments (which you can read via the link I privoded). They also say that the cause is being supported by such contemporary writers as Jonathan Franzen (who wrote an introduction for a recent edition of The man who loved children), Alex Miller and Nikki Gemmell.

Lake View House, Chiltern

Lake View House, Chiltern, in which Henry Handel Richardson lived (Courtesy Golden Wattle, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 2.5)

There are those, however, who aren’t so quick to leap to the defence of the house. Over at The Australian newspaper’s A pair of ragged claws litblog, the issue was discussed earlier this month by Stephen Romei and his commenters. Stephen posed this:

I’m leaning towards saying it doesn’t bother me, that Schwarzer spent $10 million to buy the place, which is a house not a museum, so he should be able to do some renovations if he wants, that swimming pools are great when you have kids, and that he’s not, as far as I know, also proposing to burn the last copy of The Man Who Loved Children.

But I’d like to hear other opinions on the matter. The fact that Alex Miller, for one, does care, is more than enough to give me pause. So, apparently, does Jonathan Franzen, who is Stead’s literary champion in the United States.

Romei goes on to suggest that seeing a writer’s house, say Hemingway’s, is interesting in a “touristy” way but that he wouldn’t care if it weren’t there the way he would if Hemingway’s books no longer existed. Several commenters agreed with him: it’s the books that matter, they said; and there must be other ways to remember and promote interest in Christina Stead. But, argued others, there is value in keeping and celebrating writers’ houses. My favourite arguments are:

  • When a home and/or museum is done well, it can provide wonderful insights into the writer’s life and serve as a repository for archives and artefacts, as well as a focus for dissemination of the writer’s work and a resource for scholarship. (Nathanael O’Reilly); and
  • Maintaining a house for prosperity is more than a gesture. It is an important anchor point for a culture which says “this is us, this is valuable.. see why”.  It speaks volumes to those coming on, even if they don’t visit.  A writer’s home may seem inconsequential, say compared with Monticello (tell me if that experience doesn’t impact, and last!*), and upkeep payments may seem misplaced or prohibitive, but little by little these things infuse society and enrich us here, and by overseas acknowledgement through visitation, in ways immeasurable.  We really do need to understand these values and to move away from the transigent [sic] “she’ll be right” approach to our “culture” and begin taking a more hands-on approach. (Lobster)

Wow! I didn’t need convincing, but Lobster has nailed it on the head as far as I’m concerned. What about you?

(* It sure does!)

36 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: What value writers’ homes?

  1. I’m with you and Lobster. It’s a bit off subject but this made me think of Alan Brownjohn’s poet about the last rabbit. Do you know it? You can read it at here.

    If we don’t protect things then before we know it they’re all gone.

    • Oh dear Annie … that hits home doesn’t it? Re writers’ homes, I love doing literary tours of England – Chawton, Dove Cottage, Haworth Parsonage, etc.

      An aside: I’m not surprised though that I hadn’t heard it here. I’m afraid we try very hard here to get rid of rabbits – with government supported research into eradication – if you want some come and get them. They came from you in the first place!

      • We haven’t quite reached Brownjohn’s imagined state yet! I suspect he chose the rabbit because if that has vanished then there can’t possibly be any other animal life left at all!!

        When are you coming to do your literary tour of Shakespeare’s England?

        • Ah you’re probably right (re Brownjohn)! I told my reading group friends about the poem and my rude response to you, and they laughed and said tell her we’ve read Watership Down!

          As for my literary tour of Shakespeare’s England, you never know. We may come to Europe next year though the focus will probably be Spain and Germany. I’ll be sure to let you know though if we spend time in “the mother country”.

  2. I hadn’t thought about it much, Sue, but Bob and I are embarking tonight on what we are dubbing the Literature Nerds’ Tour of New England, specifically to visit the homes of some of our favorite writers. We are going first to Edith Wharton’s estate (I have longed to see her gardens since hearing them described), then Emily Dickinson’s home, on to where Melville lived when he wrote Moby Dick, then to the mother-lode in Concord, Mass, to see Louisa May Alcott’s farm (and father Bronson Alcott’s experimental commune), Walden Pond, Emerson’s home, Hawthorne’s Old Manse, and then to my favorite destination, a cemetery, the one that gave a final resting spot to Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Alcott, and more.

    These homes provided a creative environment for each of these authors–there is something integral to their works that arises from where they did their work. Plus, for those of us who don’t really worship anything much besides the creative genius of writers, it provides something in the way of a pilgrimage, perhaps an activity that is something humans need to do at some deep level.

    • Oh good reasons Cate … and, as I’ve written to Hannah below I agree that their homes do often tell us about them and their work, plus, as you say, what’s wrong with a pilgrimage! We have visited some of those homes – Louisa May Alcott’s home, Hawthorne’s, and Walden Pond. That was in late 1983 and they – particularly Alcott’s home and Walden Pond – are still vivid memories for me. (Also, we visited Thomas Wolfe’s home in Asheville on our first visit there in 1984. I guess you’ve been there.)

      Anyhow, do enjoy your self-styled literary nerds tour. I look forward to some photos on Facebook!

      • Arsonist’s guide! That sounds dangerous!

        As for Diane Armstrong, I’m afraid I know of her but haven’t read her. Another woman who has done pretty well in terms of nominations for and occasionally winning awards, but doesn’t get pushed. I should rectify. Have you read her — or are you trying to decided whether to?

        • I came across Armstrong’s name in connection with one of her novels (being published THERE not HERE) and couldn’t really tell if it’s my sort of thing or not.

          The Arsonist’s Guide is very very funny. It takes a few pages to warm up and get used to the quirky narrator, but it’s well worth catching.

  3. I’ll never forget Jefferson’s bed-in-the-wall, and I do long to one day visit Laura Ingalls WIlder’s home, so I think I’m in the pro column?

    • Sounds like you might be … Monticello is pretty unforgettable and the thing I remember most is how much it told us about the man – his passions and his ingenuity for a start. And his location near the homes of other early presidents, particularly Monroe’s Ashlawn, tells a lot about the sharing of ideas between those men.

  4. I feel that having literaure-related destinations and collections of literature-related material open to the public helps keep literature and culture alive. They may not be essential, when it is the work itself which is central, but it says something about what matters to us if we choose to preserve or erase the past. Is culture only what’s happening now? I don’t feel it is: culture has an embedded history which has led the way to the present, and as such, is worthy of respect.

    • Ah, thanks Faisal, another Lobster supporter! I agree with the fact that they keep literature and culture alive. I liked Lobster’s point that these places are important to us all – say something about us as you say – even if we don’t all get to visit the places. Knowing they are there is important, silly as that may sound to some.

  5. Even the hard-heads should realise that there is a valuable tourism asset at risk here. Australian tourist operators have got to get over their simplistic and IMO lazy attitude that all we need to offer is some cuddly animals and sunshine and the hordes will flock here. There ought to be activities for people to enjoy when it rains, too.
    What we have that could be very attractive to Asian tourists is ‘Western culture’ on their doorstep, much cheaper and easier to get to than Europe, with a multilingual host nation to welcome them. The concept of literary pilgrimage that brings thousands to Britain could be luring visitors here, if only we preserve it and make it attractive.

    • Good points Lisa … the challenge with such literary tourism here is that many people from overseas don’t know our writers in the first place! We go to England and we know Austen, the Brontes, Wordsworth etc. We go to America and we know Louisa May Alcott, Hawthorne, Steinbeck (Cannery Row) etc. How many people coming here know Stead, Henry Handel Richardson, Eleanor Dark etc? It’s a big worry. All that said, I did go to Lafcadio Hearn’s house in Japan even though I’d only vaguely heard of him, just because he was a writer, and what a fascinating treasure we found.

  6. I agree with you and Lobster. I mean even in Minneapolis we have Fitzgerald’s childhood home all preserved even though he didn’t even live there very long. I would love to go see Emerson’s house and Emily Dickinson’s house and Edith Wharton’s house. Yeah, Stead’s house needs to be preserved.

    • Ta, Stephanie. It would be interesting to hear from someone who didn’t agree – though perhaps they’ve been scared off by the body of opinion here. Next time I go to the USA I’ll make a bee-line for Edith Wharton’s home.

      BTW, the Lafcadio Hearn example I mentioned in a comment on this post is like you Fitzgerald one. As I recollect, he only lived in the house for a few months, but it is where he met his wife and they clearly are proud of him!

  7. Sorry, then, Guy that I can’t help you on that … I’d certainly be interested to read her, particularly with her Polish background but I’ve not heard enough buzz to say yay or nay in terms of quality or your interests.

    I love the title of the Arsonist’s guide (though perhaps given the awful fires we’ve had here recently it’s a bit close to home) so am rather glad you say the author has pulled it off.

  8. The best tribute to an author is an affordable, handy edition of his or her work, and readers who will purchase, read, and consider it. Unless perhaps for the scholar I don’t think the residence is more than a curiosity. I vote with Mr. Romei. Let the council put up a plaque, and the Schwarzers have their renovations and their pool.

      • Certainly there are buildings I’d argue to preserve, chiefly those with historical associations or architectural significance. In American terms, take Mount Vernon or Independence Hall as an example of the first, the RCA Building in New York or the Pension Building in Washington for the latter. I’ll remark while I’m at it that Theodore Roosevelt thought his own birthplace nothing worth preserving, a typical New York brownstone like so many others.

        • Yes, I guessed you’d talk about architectural significance cos that is pretty significant. Historical associations though are a little more subjective. I guess Preservation Hall is where people performed but how different is that from where a writer lived and perhaps gained inspiration?

          You don’t agree with Teddy Roosevelt re his home? Is there a Presidential Library for him. I must say that it was a real eye-opener for me to see Nixon’s birthplace. I may not have agreed with the man but seeing where he came from rounded out my “understanding” of him. But it’s a humble place and probably not particularly worthy on its own account, unlike perhaps Mt Vernon (which I suppose has significance as the first president’s home while he was president). It’s very grey don’t you think?

  9. Yes, of course gray. Still, I think of presidential libraries as I do of writers’ homes: useful to the scholar, otherwise a curiosity. Theodore Roosevelt wrote quite a few books, by the way; one probably finds more of him in those books than one would in a presidential library. Downloading one of his works from the Gutenberg Project and reading it would be a better use of time for one interested in him than traveling to New York and visiting Oyster Bay.

    The other point I would make is that there is an element of piety attaching to the historical sites such as Mount Vernon. Henry Adams’s novel Democracy is, as novel, not that great–that I know of, Washington novels (Stead’s apart) just aren’t. But he captures that element in a couple of set pieces within the novel, namely an excursion by boat to Mount Vernon and ride to Arlington Cemetery. Should I have similar respect for the writers who helped shape America? I think I do, but it attaches to their books, not their houses.

    • All good arguments I can’t fault – except I like to see the houses too, particularly for significant authors and where the houses add to our understanding of them or their work. I certainly agree that protecting the books should be our number one priority.

  10. I know nothing about Stead’s house or of the current controversy. Although I will say, living in a city which has the largest preserved historic district of any in the country (U.S.A.), we are mightily and staunchly supportive of historic preservation in general. But you mentioned something that I totally understand. Standing in Thomas Jefferson’s library at Monticello, gazing at the bed tucked into the wall, desiged so he could rise one morning in the library and another in his sitting room, and seeing where the great man is now resting was a thrill.

    • Thanks for contributing to the debate Grad. Monticello is truly illuminating isn’t it. I guess in the end these decisions should be made on a case by case basis. Clearly we can’t preserve every home every major writer lived in, but this particular house (Boongarre) of this particularly writer (Stead) is I think worthy of preservation.

  11. Romei’s position (“…but that he wouldn’t care if it weren’t there the way he would…”) is a strawman fallacy. No one is arguing that the house is more important than the books, or that the preservation of the house should take place at the expense of the books, or that building a swimming pool is like burning the last copy of The Man Who Loved Children. We can have both. We should have both. This is not an either/or. The fact that the books are more important than the house is not an argument against the house. His exaggeration makes me think of those people who come into online discussions of, say, sexual harassment, and shout, “But how can you talk about this while people in the Third World are starving! That’s what real suffering looks like!” It’s a distraction. It’s an irrelevance. You can have both. You can think about sexual harassment and also starvation; you can have books and also a house. You can be rich in two ways, not just one. Abundance is possible.

    Incidentally, if anyone wants to visit one of the other houses where Stead spent time as a child, Lydam Hall is open to tourists on Sundays:

    • My point exactly, DKS, but you have argued it beautifully! We supporters – who are generally readers – argue that we can (should) have both, whereas the naysayers are suggesting that there is little value in preserving the houses (etc). So far, they haven’t convinced me. The value of preserving such places goes way beyond being simply a “touristy” thing.

      • The only valid argument I can see against preservation, is the one which states that the house was renovated so extensively during the ’80s and ’90s that it’s no longer the same house. It’s a house, but it’s nowhere near being the house. The damage has already been done. So the argument goes.

        Romei’s flaccid making-do tone annoys me massively. It’s a complacent tribe that neglects its own totems.

        • A valid (though not necessarily a deal-closing) argument for the naysayers in this particular case. My main point here, as I know you realise, is the principle of the thing. Each house clearly does need to be argued on a case by case basis. I didn’t know enough about this one to get into an impassioned advocacy for it per se – but I did want to discuss the issue re just a “touristy” thing versus what such decisions to preserve say about who we are.

          Re Stead’s house. When arguing on a case by case basis, I’d have to look at the changes and how major (and that would need to be defined on a case by case basis too) they are, and then weigh these changes against the significance of the author. Stead is a significant writer so the starting weight should swing in her favour methinks!

  12. I’m afraid I have to side with George and Mr. Romei here. I enjoy visiting this sort of place just as much as the next book lover, and there are certainly some writers’ homes I would like to see. There is certainly also a cultural value in the existence of those places. But they should be museums—that is, the people who care about it need to buy the house and do what they want with it, not put a lot of restrictions on what someone else can do with their own, bought-and-paid-for home.

    • Thanks a bunch Nicole for joining in. No need to be “afraid” of siding with Stephen Romei and George. We like a discussion and they’ve made fair points! Your point is a good one … it would be better if the public could actually visit the places rather than just look from outside. So, I’d argue a couple of things.

      In Australia (as in other places) many buildings are heritage listed while still being lived in or used for contemporary purposes, and the owners/occupants must abide by the restrictions that go with that listing. Listing allows buildings to continue to be used but to not be “spoiled”. It’s a complicated business to put in practice, I know, but the principle is reasonable I think. Heritage listing does not necessarily mean a place can’t be modified but requires those modifications to be sympathetic with the building and why it was listed.

      Secondly, once a place is heritage listed and protected it does mean that sometime in the future – when the funds are available (as they are not always at the moment these issues arise) – it can be bought and used as a museum (research centre, etc) if that seems appropriate.

      In other words, I agree with you to a point but think it sometimes has to be a staged process?

  13. I am barging in here to mention that I just read a section in Muriel Spark’s autobio that made me think of you. Her best childhood friend lived next door to Robert louis Stevenson’s birthplace, and she mentions that the house (no. 10 Howard Place) was a museum.

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