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BroadstairsCharles Dickens’s former summer home, dubbed “Bleak House,” has recently been put up for sale for £2 million. (Click here to see the listing for the house, which has six-bedrooms, a sea-facing study, as well as a music room, gymnasium and substantial gardens.) It also retains some original features including a mahogany staircase and fireplaces. The contents of the study, including a desk that may have been used by Dickens to pen David Copperfield, are up for sale under a separate negotiation.

The cliff-top mansion in the coastal town of Broadstairs, Kent, was home to the author during the summers of 1849, 1850 and 1851 when he was working on David Copperfield.  The name “Bleak House” is actually a misnomer given to the house long after Dickens’s death in 1870–it was not the original mansion on which that book was based, which is believed to be located in St Albans, Hertfordshire. He did, however, begin formulating the story for Bleak House (considered by some to be his best novel) while living in the house, which he described lovingly as his “airy nest.” Built in 1801 as the residence of a Napoleonic Wars-era fort commander,  the house was known as Fort House during Dickens’ time.

The coastal town of Broadstairs, which he called “our English watering place,” is proud of its Dickens connections, boasting three more addresses where the writer stayed on his breaks from London. The original Betsey Trotwood, Copperfield’s great-aunt, is said to have lived at a house in the town which is now known as Dickens House Museum. –Joni Rendon

We were devastated to hear the news reported earlier this week by the AP that the 200-year old Kate Chopin House & Bayou Folk Museum, located in Louisiana’s atmospheric Cane River country, was destroyed by fire. The blaze broke out in the early morning hours on Wednesday, and despite the best efforts of local fire fighters, the graceful plantation-style abode burned to the ground. Kate Chopin lived there with her husband and six children in the 1880s, a decade before the publication of her controversial novel, The Awakening.

During her time in Cloutierville, Chopin scandalized the residents of the French-Creole village with her penchant for wearing extravagant fashions, smoking cigarettes and–gasp–taking solitary walks.  Edna, the protagonist of The Awakening, later went on to challenge the traditional values of the Bayou community even further by taking steps to liberate herself from her stifling marriage. (Though today the book is consider a classic of proto-feminist literature, reviewers at the time denounced it as “unwholesome,” “vulgar,” and “immoral.”)

Although the cause of the blaze at the Chopin House is still under investigation, we hope that eventually the museum can be rebuilt and find a second life, simliar to The Thomas Wolfe Memorial, in Asheville, NC, which reopened in 2004 after undergoing restorations from arson damage. — Joni Rendon

As cat lovers, we were thrilled to see the AP news last Thursday that–after a contentious five year legal battle with the U.S. Department of Agriculture–the Ernest Hemingway Home in Key West will be allowed to remain the cathouse of choice for the 50 or so felines that have roamed the grounds there for decades.

The unique, six-toed cats are said to be descended from Hemingway’s cat Snowball, given to him by a visiting ship’s captain during his tenure on the island in the 1930s. (The novelist was a renowned cat lover, and at his later home in Cuba, kept up to 60 cats as pets.)

At the heart of the Key West legal battle was the government’s argument that the property needed an animal exhibition license and that the cats should be caged. The legal dispute began after neighbors’ complaints about the roaming cats in 2003 sparked the Florida Keys Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to raise concerns about the cats’ welfare.

After an extensive investigation, which included video surveillance and the hiring of an independent animal behaviorist, a report issued by a veterinarian from Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine stated that the cats appeared “well-cared for, healthy and content” (though any of the thousands of visitors to this legendary Key West attraction, including us, would have said that’s a no-brainer after seeing these glamour-pusses–with names like Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn–living in the lap of luxury!). The expert also recommended that a special fence be installed to keep the kitties contained on the property, while leaving them free to roam on the one-acre grounds. Now that’s a purr-fect ending.–Joni Rendon

The next best thing to reading the classics themselves is reading novels that vividly re-imagine the lives of famed authors. The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl immediately comes to mind, as does a new book out this week, Cassandra & Jane by Jill Pitkeathley, who is a guest blogger today on Her novel illuminates the extraordinary bond between Jane Austen and her beloved sister, Cassandra, who nursed her through ill-health and later (much to the lament of today’s literary biographers and Jane fans) destroyed much of the great author’s correspondence to protect her privacy.  

Though there were eight Austen siblings, there were only two girls, and Jane, like a typical younger sister, doted on Cassandra. As their mother once ruefully commented, “if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too.” Though not a writer, Cassandra also had a creative bent, and her watercolors graced the pages of Jane’s early parody, The History of England, written when she was just fifteen years old. (You can virtually turn the pages of this youthful literary gem by clicking here on the British Library’s website.) 

Most importantly, Cassandra is responsible for the only reasonably certain portrait of the author from life, which is on display in England’s National Gallery. The portrait dates from 1810, a year after the two sisters had moved with their mother into a small cottage in Chawton, England. After the death of George Austen in 1805, the three women were dependent on the charity and goodwill of the Austen brothers for their survival, but nonetheless, the years they spent in Chawton were largely happy ones. (One of my favorite mementos from their time there is a quilt the three women stitched together, which you can check out if you visit the cottage today.)

Unfortunately, a cloud marred their shared happiness in 1816, when Jane’s health started to rapidly decline from a mysterious illness (suspected to be either Addison’s Disease or Hodgkin’s Lymphoma). She died in her sister’s arms a year later on July 18 at the age of 41.–Joni Rendon

Ten years after her death in 1998, Dorothy West has been finally been given her due. The writer, whom Langston Hughes nicknamed “the Kid,” was long one of the few surviving members of the Harlem Renaissance. Recently, the Cape Cod home where she spent her final years was dedicated as a site on the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail.

Although West had faded into relative anonymity by the time her bestselling second novel, The Wedding, was published in 1995, the writer had established herself as a literary tour de force decades earlier. After one of her early short stories tied for second place with Zora Neale Hurston in a writing competition, Hurston befriended the young writer and encouraged her move to New York, where she was taken under the wing of established Harlem Renaissance greats.

In Harlem, West founded the literary magazine Challenge, which published groundbreaking stories by up and coming writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. In addition to shining the spotlight on the work of her African American contemporaries, she went on to publish her own novel, The Living Is Easy, in 1948 after moving into her family’s modest wood-frame summer house on Martha’s Vineyard. There, she became a Cape Cod fixture, entertaining visitors on her porch when the weather was nice enough and later hosting Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her editor at Doubleday publishing company, for weekly editing sessions. It was with the former first lady’s encouragement that West was finally able to complete her long-awaited second novel, The Wedding, published nearly fifty years after her first and dedicated to Onassis.

West’s star rose even further in the year of her death when the book was adapted by Oprah into a TV miniseries starring Halle Barry as the novel’s protagonist Shelby Cole, the youngest daughter of a prominent African American family who causes a stir with her plans to marry a white jazz musician. –Joni Rendon

With Labor Day just around the bend, it’s the perfect time to start thinking about attending one of the dozens of fall literary festivals that take place between September and November each year. Some of our favorites are the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, and the Texas Book Festival in Austin, where Shannon will be speaking and giving a slide show presentation highlighting some of our literary travels.  

Novel Destinations includes a full chapter devoted literary festivals, but to peruse an online list, you can visit this link at Publishers Weekly.  

Last night I was watching The Black Dahlia, an intriguing dramatization of Hollywood’s most notorious and gruesome unsolved murder. Though the movie’s plot was a bit convoluted, it successfully evoked the glamour of Hollywood in the 1940s and inspired me to want to read the book the movie was based on.  Although I love mysteries and crime fiction, I haven’t yet read anything by James Ellroy, whose real life could have come straight out of one of his noirish novels. His mother was murdered when he was just ten (the culprit was never found), and he faced a harrowing descent into clinical depression and alcohol addiction.  Fortunately, he eventually recovered from those troubled years and has gone to write nearly a dozen successful books, including his memoir My Dark Places.  

When I was reading about him online this morning, I came across a tour company in Los Angeles that runs a “Real Black Dahlia” bus tour, which takes mystery fans around to some of the spots related to the real-life Dahlia, Elizabeth Short. Among them are the lobby of the Biltmore hotel, one of the last places she was seen alive, and Leimart Park, where her grisly remains were found. This tour sounds like it’s not for the faint of heart! The next one is taking place this Saturday, August 16th.
–Joni Rendon

I was intrigued to read Brunonia Barry’s new novel The Lace Reader because of its setting: contemporary Salem, Massachusetts. I visited Salem two summers ago to do research for Novel Destinations, which has a chapter devoted to the town’s famous native son — Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose gothic tale The House of the Seven Gables was inspired by a seaside residence there.

The Lace Reader is the story of Towner Whitney, who returns to Salem after an absence of more than a decade. A self-confessed unreliable narrator, Towner hails from a family of Salem women who can read the future in the patterns of lace. The disappearance of her beloved aunt compels her to finally return to her hometown…and ultimately brings to light the truth about her twin sister’s death.

I enjoyed The Lace Reader as much for the setting as for the plotline. It was fun to read about places I had visited during my Salem sojourn. The House of the Seven Gables (at right) receives a mention, as does the Custom House, Hawthorne’s one-time place of employment.

If you do make it to Salem, it’s an opportunity to explore the landscapes of both a contemporary and a classic tale. On is a walking tour brochure of sites in The Lace Reader (you can also enter a sweepstakes to win a weekend getaway for two to Salem), and thanks to the National Park Service you can take a self-guided walking tour of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Salem.

Along with details about Hawthorne’s ties to Salem and a tour through the House of the Seven Gables, Novel Destinations has plenty of suggestions for a literary itinerary — what to see and do as well as places to drink, dine and doze, among them the ideally-located Morning Glory Bed & Breakfast. You can slumber directly across the street from the famed gabled dwelling. —Shannon McKenna Schmidt

It wasn’t difficult for me to decide which book to take along on vacation last week. Mark Twain’s Roughing It seemed fitting reading for the adventure my husband, Brian, and I undertook: rafting some 240 miles down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

In his travelogue Twain recounts some colorful escapades, among them working as a reporter in Carson City, Nevada, where he began using his famous pseudonym (he was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens) and visiting the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) where he stayed at a hotel perched on the edge of a volcano on the Big Island.

Twain also recalls a 200-mile trek on foot through Nevada to prospect for silver, and he writes, “We all confess to a gratified thrill at the thought of ‘camping out.’” My own adventure included camping out for six nights — most of which were spent sleeping under the stars — and traversing some of the biggest white water in North America. The trip was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done and quite a feat for two people who had never before been rafting or camping.

Twain’s spirit of adventure was prevalent throughout the trip, from rafting down the river to making camp on a different stretch of beach each night to taking in the dramatic and varied canyon scenery. Our group of twenty-seven passengers (a terrific bunch!) voyaged with Canyoneers, and the excellent crew not only knew how to navigate the waters but how to make delicious prime rib and homemade brownies in such a rustic setting.

And somehow I think intrepid traveler Mark Twain would approve of our guide Brandon’s motto for riding the rapids: Go big or go home. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Along with visiting the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and sampling the Hemingway-inspired Papa Dobles cocktail at Sloppy Joe’s while we were in Key West, my husband and I explored a connection to another literary legend.

Poet Robert Frost was a frequent visitor to the island in the 1930s and 1940s, often staying in a garden cottage (left) at the home of fifth-generation Key Wester, avid preservationist, and legendary hostess Jessie Porter. Porter’s Caribbean Colonial house — where playwrights Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams also visited — was built in the 1830s and is now the Key West Heritage House Museum and Robert Frost Cottage. The beautiful tropical garden has more than 200 varieties of orchids.

This past April I had the chance to tour the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, which is where he lived as a struggling writer before moving to England and launching his career as a poet. It was interesting to learn more about Frost during my Key West visit, this time focusing on his later years. During one stay on the isle, Frost wrote the poem “The Gift Outright,” which he recited at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.

Like Hemingway and Frost, I found Key West alluring. It’s hard to resist a place that has a nightly sunset celebration at Mallory Square (said to have been inspired by island regular Tennessee Williams) and such a laid-back, quirky vibe. Three days in Key West was not nearly enough, and someday I’ll be back to visit the cats at the Hemingway House and indulge in another Papa Dobles at Sloppy Joe’s. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

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