In her obituary for Dinah Mulock Craik, Margaret Oliphant wrote how pleased the author had been to learn that American tourists were flocking to Tewkesbury, a medieval market town in Gloucestershire, “not so much to see the town and abbey, as to identify the scenery of John Halifax”.* As postcards commemorating the sites of the novel attest, this literary tourism continued well into the twentieth century. As late as 1977, Dorothy Eagle pointed tourists to the haunts and homes of the Author of John Halifax in The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles.
Looking at these artifacts of literary toursim, I realized just how few literary sites I have visited. In fact, the only literary pilgrimage I can recall making was to Keats’s house Rome. My more practically-minded friends went for gelato while I had a moment to myself, looking out the window of the room that Keats died in to the Spanish steps.
Despite having spent a fair bit of time in the UK, including doing my master’s there, I have never been to Haworth Parsonage or to Charles Dickens’s House in London. During the whole year I lived in Oxford, I never even took the Alice in Wonderland tour. Part of this was due to the nagging sense that those things are for tourists, while serious scholars spend their time in the library with manuscripts. I was just then asserting myself as a scholar, and I stayed in the Bodleian. My training as a scholar had taught me not to fetishize the author and the author’s life as a way of understanding his or her works, but to look to historical context for this understanding. Is this why I stayed away from these shrines to authorship?
No more, I decided. I was intrigued by the many pilgrimages early twentieth-century tourists had made to the sites of John Halifax, and I wanted to make one myself. I’d spent a lot of time writing about the novel, why not spend one day immersing myself in its scenery? My good friend from my master’s, Alice, agreed to come along for the ride.
Our day started with a two hour train journey to Ashchurch and then a tramp along the highway to get to Tewkesbury itself. We were starving by the time we made it to the town. Luckily, we found ourselves right in front of a local tea shop, where we lunched on very buttery omelettes set on plastic lace table cloths and served with strong black tea. We may have been the youngest customers in there by forty years. There was bunting everywhere in celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee. It was perfect.
After lunch we took our time poking around charity shops and book shops as we made our way to the main market square. This is the medieval cross that the town is known for, and some of the distinctive half-timbered houses that have been preserved throughout the centuries:
Next we dropped in at the tourism office, where we were informed that not many people came asking about Mrs. Craik anymore, and pointed in the right direction for the scenery of the novel. The Bell Hotel and the Abbey Mill supposed to be Abel Fletcher’s place in the novel were very near each other:
We made our way to Tewkesbury Abbey, where Dinah Craik’s friends had erected a memorial to her. The Abbey was having a bazaar that day, so lots of people were around. There were dozens of memorials in the Abbey, and no one knew where Mrs. Craik’s was. We wandered around until we found it:
As we were wandering around and talking, Alice, who works on seventeenth-century women’s writing, asked me what I knew about Craik’s writing process. The answer was that I really didn’t know much. But I realized as we were talking that Craik, who came up with the idea for John Halifax while she was on a trip to Tewkesbury with her friend, Clarence Dobell who lived nearby at what is now a bed and breakfast, must have been having a day very like the one that the two of us were having on the day she had come up with the idea for her most famous novel. Alice and I had been meandering, having tea, and chatting through our work on women’s writing all day. A picturesque change of scene and a holiday with a sympathetic friend can put you in a very good frame of mind for being open to new ideas about writing. This must have been exactly what happened for Craik.
In fact, all day I had been noticing that some of the names that crop up in John Halifax had been cropping up all over town. Some of them may have post-dated the novel, but I bet not all of them did. They must have been circulating in her mind when she had to come up with names for fictional characters and places later:
My reading of John Halifax as a novel didn’t change much as a result of our trip to Tewkesbury. But my thoughts about nineteenth-century women writers, and the opportunities and inspirations available to them through friendship and literary tourism changed tremendously. Victorian women writers may not have been able to join gentleman’s clubs in London to gain access to literary networks, but a day trip with a friend could certainly provide an opportunity to talk and some inspiration.
Victorianists, have you made any literary pilgrimages? Did they change your thinking or your approach to literature in any way?
*Oliphant, Margaret. “Mrs. Craik.” Macmillan’s Magazine, 1887. Page 83.