I think of Virginia Woolf’s essay and cabin, Vita Sackville-West’s tower, and Carlyle’s study, their necessary, self-imposed isolation, and wonder how Jane Austen managed to produce six scintillating novels, at least two of which are masterpieces, in the midst of the busy domesticity of a small house where servants and family bumped against each other crossing a threshold.
Space for a Pen, part III, by Kenneth Radu
John Ruskin's tower off his bedroom, Brantwood on Coniston Water
Writers in their towers would make for an interesting investigation. Montaigne’s tour could be a starting reference. There is also John Ruskin who attached a tower to his bedroom on his mountainside estate, Brantwood, on the shores of Coniston Water in Cumbria. Unlike Sackville-West’s, his tower room windowed on all sides, almost a capsule, offered a corner in which to escape from recurring nightmares or to watch the stars. The view over Coniston Water of the Cumbrian fells on the opposite shore is memorable. Free from nightmare, if not literary envy, I enjoyed a few minutes in Ruskin’s tower, wishing the estate and terraced gardens on the mountainside were mine. Money and servants, both of which Ruskin had in plentiful supply, are not to be despised. His book-lined and ponderous study occupied by two desks proclaims learned man, engaged writer, every moment of existence preoccupied with thoughts to be transcribed for present and future generations.
Not every great literary man in the nineteenth century England had his personal study. Wordsworth, who disliked the physical act of writing, composed or recited his poems from a cutlass chair in the sitting room of pokey Dove cottage, almost as sparsely furnished as Woolf’s cabin. Designed to accommodate a man wearing a sword, the chair’s arms enabled the poet to sit on either side, as it was shaped like a tricorne. The crowded quarters did not prevent creativity, because his sister Dorothy, and also his wife Mary, both assumed the role of amanuensis and catered to his every need. With the women acting as handmaidens to his art and taking care of household matters, the poet’s writing or speaking tumbled forth during the years they inhabited the cramped and dark abode in the rainy Lake district.
Wordsworth tended to think mostly about himself and his poetry, and thus became a king of infinite space while bounded in a nutshell, if I may be forgiven for mangling the words of Hamlet. When his fame and fortune increased, he eventually moved into Rydal Mount, a fair-sized manor house not far from Dove Cottage with room for everyone. There, having become a cultural icon, he spent much time building gardens and planting daffodils in memory of his daughter who died shortly after her marriage. The grounds, even on a rain-drenched day, are lovely and deliberately kept on the rough, natural side of things, according to his dictates. No Versailles formality here.
Dove cottage in Cumbria is worth the trouble of visiting because it wipes away any Romantic notion one might have about writing poetry in old English cottages at the bottom of a hill in a beautiful landscape. The tiny room upstairs lined with newspapers to keep out the cold is not without interest, especially if one reads the newspapers (now copies of the original) from Wordsworth’s day. The cottage also raises questions about space and creativity, and how much a man’s art depends upon a woman’s self-effacement and goodwill. And her – or their – willingness to take down dictation and write legibly.
Some gifted literary women a hundred years ago in England managed to construct or acquire their own space. Beatrix Potter made a fortune with her brilliantly conceived children’s books of animals common to farm yard, field, and forest. Potter’s acute sense of the physical details of nature explains the fullness of her study and loaded desk in Hilltop, as she liked to collect things for close observation. Painters are often messier than writers in any case and require more paraphernalia for their art. When she married late in life, Potter did not invite her husband to share Hilltop. She vacated and together they set up house across the road in the village of Sawrey, and she could walk alone to her deeply personal and creative space.
To this day thousands of admirers from around the world trek to Hilltop annually, and one has to wait one’s turn to be admitted. Sitting in her real vegetable garden almost identical to the watercolours in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, I recalled that no one stood in line to enter Carlyle’s Chelsea house, his much-larded books on the French Revolution and Frederick the Great lacking the lightsome allure of Jeremy Fisher, Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland, and Jemima Puddleduck.
© 2012, Kenneth Radu
The author in Wordsworth's garden behind Dove Cottage, Grasmere
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Sex in Russia (DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.
Photos: Courtesy Kenneth Radu