Walter Scott’s house is a monument to himself as a writerby Simon Goldhill / September 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
The entrance hall of Walter Scott’s home Abbotsford. The novelist designed a house that belonged in one of his books
I never used to understand why anyone wants to visit a writer’s house: aren’t the books enough? What would you really learn by staring at Martin Amis’s desk or Philip Roth’s kitchen table? The millions who process piously through Shakespeare’s house receive a full theme-park experience, with over-enthusiastic guides leading to the inevitable gift shop—although Shakespeare never wrote any of his plays in Stratford, and may not even have been born in the room displayed as the Bard’s birthplace.
If you join the surprisingly long lines of Japanese tourists at the Brontës’ house at Haworth, you can see Charlotte Brontë’s underwear on display—although I can’t think of any woman, let alone the paralysingly shy Charlotte, who would want her used knickers pored over by tourists. It is baffling how Shakespeare’s plays or the Brontës’ novels are meant to feel more vivid or exciting by the wet Sunday experience of a slow walk through the rooms where the author once lived. I’d rather stay home with a good book. But a visit to Abbotsford, Walter Scott’s country house, off the beaten track in the borders between Scotland and England, changed my mind.
Scott was a dumpy lawyer with a limp and a thing for old Scottish traditions. But during the first quarter of the 19th century he came to define a new category of celebrity—the superstar writer. His Waverley novels were the first to have queues waiting to buy them hot off the press; they were passionately read by adults and children alike, discussed, loved and re-read by hundreds of thousands of people across the world. Like Harry Potter now, they defined the imagination of a generation. When you come to Edinburgh today, you arrive, symbolically enough, at Waverley Station.
Scott was the first of a series of writers who became hugely famous—Byron, Dickens, Wordsworth, Hardy—and with this new passion for writers as cultural icons came a new branch of tourism: the visit to the writer’s house. Some travelled to track down the author in his home space. Wordsworth, as he became a sort of monument to his past greatness as a poet, had a well-worn spiel prepared for the star-struck visitor, a gentle tour of his garden nestled amid the mountains his poetry had celebrated. Even the…