I’m a sucker for literary tourism. It’s something to do with getting a sense of place and for me this often makes for a richer reading experience. I know that as a former lit theory student I should repudiate any exploration of an author’s background or biography (yes Barthes, I know, the author is dead…il n’y a pas de hors-texte). But I have always loved seeing where books have been set and the places writers lived or visited, so I’m going to share some of my favourite bookish trips on this blog. Without further ado…
‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…’ So begins Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous sonnet and probably the poem for which she is best known. But my admiration for EBB only really began when I read Aurora Leigh, the extraordinary novel-poem about a young Victorian woman’s self-education and her journey to becoming a poet. I have, to quote Spamalot, lovingly ripped off Aurora’s opening lines to create the tag line for this blog:
OF writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine, –
Will write my story for my better self…
Feminists, ahoy: simply by choosing to write in epic form, Barrett Browning was planting her flag in very male territory, something that was seen as the preserve of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Tennyson. Women, y’see, didn’t write epic poetry, they wrote lyrics. Or were meant to. Anyway, it’s a many-sided, curious beast, is Aurora Leigh, and it doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of university syllabi. I’ll endeavour to bang on about how astonishing and brilliant it is in a future post.
While on a mini-break in Florence, it seemed only right to pay my respects to Barrett Browning by visiting Casa Guidi. This is the house she shared with husband and fellow poet Robert Browning after the pair married in secret and escaped to Italy. Tucked away in the Oltrarno area of Florence, nowadays the property is owned by Eton College and can be rented as a holiday home.
Warning: it’s only open to the public at certain times of the year and on certain days.
Here I am with EBB’s writing desk. I don’t think you were actually meant to touch the desk. Technically I didn’t physically touch it, honest – just did a silly pose and hoped that her wisdom would filter through to me, as if by osmosis…