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Visiting the homes and haunts of famous writers is a time-honored tradition—one that intrigued some of the very authors whose own houses are now popular destinations for literary travelers.
After the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in 1868, fans of the book began trekking to Concord, Massachusetts, where the boldest ones knocked on the door of Orchard House, the Alcott family abode, looking for the author. Publicity-shy Louisa sometimes pretended to be a servant to deflect the attention, but she probably understood their curiosity. During a trip to London three years earlier, she visited sites featured in Charles Dickens’ tales. She revealed in her diary, “I felt as if I’d got into a novel while going about in the places I’d read so much of.”
Two decades before Louisa’s London sojourn, Charles Dickens helped raised funds to preserve Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. His signature appears in a facsimile copy of a visitors’ book along with those of other early sightseers, including Romantic poet John Keats. A glass windowpane also bears the etched signatures of other literati who stopped by to pay their respects to the Bard, one of whom was Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott.
I’m not sure how Nathaniel Hawthorne could fail to be impressed with Sir Walter Scott’s striking home, Abbotsford, in the Scottish countryside. “Its aspect disappointed me; but so does everything. It is but a villa, after all; no castle, nor even a large manor-house, and very unsatisfactory when you consider it in that light,” he petulantly penned in Passages from the English Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne. He did like aspects of the interior, including the weapons room where Rob Roy’s sword is on display, and the cozy study, where a servant invited him to sit in Scott’s writing chair so that he might “catch some inspiration.”
Close friends Edith Wharton and Henry James were much more enthusiastic about their spring 1907 pilgrimage to the 18th-century château of French feminist writer George Sand, whom they both admired. In her travelogue A Motor-Flight Through France, Wharton reminisced about the visit (her second) to Nohant. The house, she believed, led “straight into the life of George Sand.” While strolling through the dining room, Wharton imagined the conversations that took place there among Sand’s “illustrious visitors,” among them Gustave Flaubert and Alexandre Dumas.
Wharton and James also stood in the garden, gazing at the house and guessing which rooms famous guests might have occupied (some of whom, like composer Frederic Chopin, were also Sand’s lovers). True literary travelers, Wharton and James even christened the car in which they motored through France “George” in their predecessor’s honor.
[Photos: London, Orchard House, Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Abbotsford © NovelDestinations.com; Nohant Wikimedia Commons/By SiefkinDR]