Freud's Couch, Scott's Buttocks, Brontë's Grave
(University of Chicago Press, London)
US: Nov 2011
At least in the opening chapter, ‘The Golden Ticket’, academic and writer Simon Goldhill has the grace to acknowledge that receiving a book commission such as this one was like a gift from heaven. His editor told him to “Make a pilgrimage… go anywhere and write about it.” He spends the next few pages agonising over how and where he should achieve this, and so evolves this reinterpretation of the ‘Victorian fad’ for literary tourism thacht took on the reverent aura of pilgrimage as the 19th century progressed. So, he amusingly offers up a fetish item for each writer he trails. Sigmund Freud’s couch, obviously, Emily Brontë’s grave; because she grew up in close proximity to a cemetery, presumably, died young and was, well, Victorian. And ‘Scott’s Buttocks’, which as far as I can work out is due to the imprint of Sir Walter Scott’s behind on his study chair at his self-styled home, Abbotsford, near Edinburgh. Scott, crucially, helped with the invention of the celebrity author in the early 19th century and was also a bit weighty in the rear.
When meditating upon celebrity and drawing connections with then and now, Goldhill is a trifle obvious and superficial, unfortunately. Lord Byron, it seems, was just like a James Dean or Kurt Cobain – really? And Scott’s construction of his Victorian, historical, medieval fantasy of a home is just like William Randolph Hearst or Michael Jackson. It reads rather like a Cambridge Don, which is what Goldhill does for a day job, wants us to know he has heard of Cobain and Michael Jackson – he can be cool too! But not exactly contemporary. What would he make of the Kardashians, I wonder? But then again, he probably doesn’t have a television, or if he does only his kids watch it and they don’t get satellite.
He’s much happier when ruminating on the past. As he gets into his stride, Goldhill gives us exquisite little snapshots of the ‘shrines’ of the literary past. The sepia tone of the pages, retro-styled cover, and grainy black and white pictures signals that this is intended as some sort of vintage guidebook. It will look elegant on a shelf or coffee table, a little bit intellectual, but a little bit cheeky, with the whole ‘buttock’ thing going on. Pun intended. The perfect gift for Anglophile literary buffs possibly?
His pilgrimage takes in the Lake District homes of William Wordsworth, and he is excellent on the influential role of the poet across time. Next, he ‘seethes’ into Yorkshire on the trail of Emily and her sisters and argues extremely well for the role of novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte’s early biographer, as the one responsible for helping create the Brontë myth. He’s shocked at the closet-sized room Emily occupied and where she did most of her writing before ailing too badly from consumption and dying on the downstairs sofa. He’s more dismissive of the extravagant claims at Stratford-upon-Avon, where the chance to ‘experience Shakespeare’s world’ are, he asserts, inauthentic and impossible to conjure.
This is part travelogue, part literary and social critique of the reception and perpetuation of fame in culture. When he is on solid territory: analysing the social and cultural impact of writers, Goldhill is fine and insightful. When he tries to inject more contemporary popular culture references he sounds more like the uncle who wants to try and be cool – and perhaps appeal to a wider audience. But he’s preaching to the converted. This book is not in any danger of widening the already huge appeal of literary tourism – or reviving an interest in any part of Scott, let alone his poor buttocks – anytime soon. Goldhill needs to stick with the studious Oxbridge tone and not try too hard to be witty, and then it’s just dandy.
Given the chance to write any kind of book on literary culture, this Cambridge professor chooses dead, white male established figures, oh – and the Brontë Sisters (everyone’s token girl writers!). No boundaries broken here.