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!)