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After Agatha Christie tied the knot with archaeologist Max Mallowan at an Edinburgh cathedral in 1930, they set out on an adventuresome journey. “Max had planned the honeymoon entirely himself; it was going to be a surprise,” Christie penned in An Autobiography.
Romantic Venice was the first stop for the newly wed crime writer. Christie had passed through the Italian city previously while traveling on the Orient Express from London to the Middle East, where she met her future husband on an archaeological dig.
Oh thou, my Muse! Guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp and wink,
To sing thy name.
—Robert Burns, “Scotch Drink”
Haggis, neeps, and tatties are on the menu. Whisky, too, of course.
Lovers of Scottish culture the world over gather annually to celebrate the birth of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, on January 25, 1759. The first recorded Burns Night Supper honoring the poet (famed for poems such as “Tam O’ Shanter” and “Ode to Haggis”) took place in 1801 in his birthplace village of Alloway, and the evening’s line-up of toasts, poems, and bagpipe ditties has varied little ever since.
Revelers dine on a traditional meal of haggis (sheep organ meats blended with oatmeal and spices), neeps (turnips), and tatties (potatoes), washed down with copious drams of whisky. (Non-meat eaters can serve vegetarian haggis.) Festivities are capped off with the joining of hands and the singing of the bard’s great song of parting, “Auld Lang Syne.”
Restaurants, pubs, hotels, and dining halls all over Scotland host Burns Night Suppers. The occasion is also widely celebrated in the U.S. and Canada, so check to see if the wordsmith is being feted in your town.
If you’d like to host your own gathering, Scotland.org has a Burns’ Supper Guide with tips on food, drink, attire, and entertainment. The guide is included on a free Robert Burns App along with a biography, visual timeline of the bard’s life, and more than 500 poems and love songs.
Wish Emily Dickinson a Happy Birthday
The poet was born 185 years ago today. One of these times when her birthday rolls around, I’m going to make sure I’m in Amherst, Massachusetts, for the annual bash held at the Emily Dickinson Museum. What I’d really like is to sample some of the coconut cake, made from the wordsmith and avid baker’s recipe, that’s served at the gathering.
So if you’re in Amherst this Saturday, December 12, stop by the museum. The party takes place from 1-4 p.m. and—along with cake eating—includes readings by a dozen contemporary poets at three different times: 1:30, 2:30, and 3:30 p.m. You can also have a look at Dickinson’s bedroom, recently restored to its nineteenth century appearance.
Celebrate the Season with Dickinson and Dickens
Next Saturday, December 19, the museum is offering a special tour, “A Dickensian Christmas with the Dickinsons.” A guide leads visitors through the festively-decorated, side-by-side houses where the poet and her family lived, and shares how they celebrated the holiday season. Tours end with a reading from Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol given by award-winning author Tony Abbott.
Tours take place at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Advance reservations are strongly recommended. $20 adults; $10 museum members; $5 for students in grades K-12.
Are you related to Harriet Beecher Stowe? As part of its celebrations this year to commemorate the writer’s 200th birthday, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, is hosting a get-together for her family members. “Branching Out: A Gathering of Stowe’s Family” is scheduled to take place in June.
Even if you can’t claim the writer in your family tree, there are plenty of reasons to visit the Stowe Center. One is to take a tour of Stowe’s last residence, a Gothic-style house where she lived for more than two decades. It’s located in Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood, an enclave of writers and intellectuals that included Mark Twain (his mansion is next door).
Although Stowe once described herself as “retired and domestic,” her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin caused a furor across the country and overseas. She was inspired to write the book after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which made it a crime to assist runaway slaves. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852 and selling 10.000 copies its first week, changed how Americans viewed slavery and is credited with galvanizing the abolitionist movement. In its first year, 10,000 copies were sold in the U.S. and 1.5 million in Great Britain.
The tour does an excellent job illuminating the impact and legacy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it also goes beyond the success of Stowe’s best-known book to reveal the different aspects of her career and her personal interests. She wrote numerous other works, including the domestic guide The American Woman’s Home with her sister (“the Martha Stewarts of their day,” according to our guide). Adorning the house are some of Stowe’s paintings, along with decorative pieces brought back from her European travels.
The Stowe Center regularly hosts a robust schedule of events, including a monthly book club discussion on classic and contemporary works, a walking tour of the historic neighborhood, and themed seasonal tours such as “Stowe and Women’s Rights” in March. See the full calendar here.
[Photos © Harriet Beecher Stowe Center]
A lively, informative tour of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home (one of the best tours I’ve had at any historical site) reveals insights into the writer’s early years. She was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925, and lived in the house until she was thirteen. The abode was recently restored thanks in large part to a donation from literary enthusiasts Linda and Jerry Bruckheimer, the film producer.
O’Connor was a precocious child, writing comments in the margins of her books—some of which are on display with her notations, such as Alice in Wonderland, which she panned. Her childhood in Savannah later provided inspiration for some of her short stories, like “A Circle in the Fire,” which features a child eavesdropping on her mother’s conversation from a second-floor window.
While living in Savannah, O’Connor developed a lifelong affinity for domestic birds. The news organization British Pathé once reported on a pet chicken that 5-year-old O’Connor had taught the unusual feat of walking backwards, captured on video. The writer later called the event “the high point in my life.”
The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home is located along Lafayette Square (above right), one of the city’s 21 historic and picturesque squares. Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, it was laid out in 1837. The water in the fountain at its center, which was donated in 1984 to mark the 250th anniversary of Savannah’s founding as a colony, runs green on St. Patrick’s Day.
O’Connor was baptized at the French Gothic-style Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (below), and she later attended services and made her first communion there. Religion is a central theme in much of O’Connor’s fiction, which she combined with dark comedy. “My subject in fiction,” she once said, “is the action of grace in territory held larely by the devil.”
Another historic dwelling on Lafayette Square is the Hamilton-Turner Inn, where rooms are named for famous Savannah figures. Located in a carriage house, the Flannery O’Connor Room features bright blue walls, a decorative iron bed, and French doors opening onto a courtyard patio.
The French Empire mansion was built in 1873 by the city’s mayor (and a blockade runner) and opened as a B&B in 1997. The abode was featured in John Berendt’s 1994 bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as the site of some notorious parties. Tours related to Berendt’s true tale of murder in Savannah have brought literary travelers to the city in droves and are still a big draw. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had quite the life, at least judging by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, home where he lived for 40 years in the 1800s. Marble busts, chandeliers, and oil paintings in gilded frames adorn the house, along with 10,000 books that belonged to the poet.
Among the illustrious visitors to cross the threshold were Charles Dickens, invited for breakfast during his first tour of America, and playwright Oscar Wilde, who said of his host, “Longfellow was himself a beautiful poem.”
The house remains much as it did in Longfellow’s day, now maintained by the National Park Service, and it’s one of the more elegant author homes I’ve seen in my literary travels—more along the lines of Edith Wharton’s The Mount, albeit with a city setting, than the stark residences in Baltimore and New York City where Edgar Allan Poe lived a hardscrabble life. Hardship did find Longfellow here, though, when his wife, Fanny, died after her dress caught fire.
Longfellow wasn’t the only famous figure who lived at 105 Brattle Street. Less than a century before the poet took up residence, the house served as the headquarters of General George Washington during the Siege of Boston in 1775. When strangers knocked, asking to see “Washington’s headquarters,” Longfellow graciously showed them around.
Further north in the seaport town of Portland, Maine, is the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, where the writer lived for the first fourteen years of his life. Three generations of his family resided in the abode, the oldest standing structure on the Portland peninsula. Among the mementos on display is evidence of Longfellow’s wanderlust: a leather traveling trunk he took with him during a European grand tour in the late 1820s. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt
Edith Wharton’s Berkshires estate, The Mount, opened today for the 2008 season.
I plan to visit the house and Italianate-style gardens, both of which were designed by Wharton, this summer. And if ever there was a time for bibliophiles to pay a visit to a literary landmark, this is it. The Mount is facing foreclosure, and a fundraising campaign has been launched to save the property, a National Historic Landmark. A significant amount of money still needs to be raised by May 31st. To see pictures of the house and gardens or to make a pledge (which won’t be called in unless the monetary goal is reached), go to www.edithwharton.org.
The Berkshires area is a paradise for literary travelers. In addition to The Mount, Lenox is also home to the Shakespeare & Company ensemble, which stages productions of the Bard’s works from May through October. In nearby Pittsfield is Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s farmstead and where he wrote Moby-Dick, and the Herman Melville Memorial Room at the Berkshire Athenaeum, which houses the world’s largest collection of memorabilia related to the writer. One of the items on display is his passport signed by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was Melville’s overseas sponsor while serving as U.S. Consul in Liverpool, England. And last but not least, the Hawthorne House is a small red cottage where the novelist penned his gothic tale The House of the Seven Gables. It’s located on the grounds of Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer performance venue, and although it’s not open to the public it can be viewed from the outside.
This summer will be my first trip to the Berkshires, and I’ve already started my itinerary to make sure I don’t miss any of these literary sites and events. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt
The literary lodging was one of the highlights during a road trip my husband and I recently took to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The New England adventure began in Concord, Massachusetts, where we stayed at the charming Hawthorne Inn. We slept in the “Alcott Room” with a canopied bed, a bay window, and a view of The Wayside, the former home of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott and her family. (Nathaniel Hawthorne lived there in later years.)
Concord boasts an array of literary riches, including Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived and set her famous tale about the March sisters; the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial House; and a replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. We enjoyed trekking around Walden Pond (at left) in the gorgeous weather, but by far the biggest surprise was the grounds of the Old Manse. The Old Manse was a farmhouse once owned by Emerson’s grandfather. The philosopher lived there for a time, as did a newly wed Nathaniel Hawthorne.
From the front it looks like an interesting but rather nondescript property. Once I rounded the side of the house, though, I was in for a surprise. A vast lawn slopes down to the Concord River, and there’s a great view of the North Bridge, where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired. (It was Pariots Day weekend, and the next morning we watched a battle re-enactment.) Even with the trees still bare, it was an impressive site. The grounds of the Old Manse adjoin Minuteman National Historical Park.
After leaving Concord we headed to Derry, NH, and were given a tour of the Robert Frost Farm (at left) by the wonderful Laura Burnham. Frost lived at the farm for more than a decade, and during that time he raised poultry and wrote poetry. Some of his most famous verse, including “Mending Wall,” was inspired by his time in Derry.
For our second night’s lodging, we stayed at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used the establishment, which opened in 1716 as a tavern and lodging place, as the backdrop for his poetry collection Tales of a Wayside Inn. The Inn is a destination in itself and even has a walking tour brochure for exploring its sprawling acreage, which includes a working grist mill (at left), a one-room schoolhouse, wooded paths, a pond, and the not-yet-in-bloom Longfellow Rose Garden. The grand finale of our literary weekend was dining at the inn and then having a nightcap in the rustic Old Bar Room, one of the Wayside’s two orginal rooms. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt