North and South… And everywhere else: the rise of literary tourism

By Alice Garvey

The concept of ‘literary tourism’ is one that grows ever more popular and yet has been around for centuries. As an incidental visit on a summer holiday or as a determined homage to a favourite author, the opportunity for textual travel is never far away.

The purposes of literary tourism are threefold: it deepens understanding of the text and its author, enriches our appreciation of certain environments and their inspirational capacities, and these sites are often noteworthy places independent of the text. For example, Victor Hugo’s Guernsey home was meticulously designed by the author himself. ‘Hauteville House’ can be seen as the architectural equal of his literary magnum opus Les Misérables; where the journey up through the house acts as an allegory of the journey made by his characters in the novel. The dark, forbidding lower floors are succeeded by the loftier and lighter rooms above, eventually rising to a glass-topped writing room. The transition from darkness to light presents a physical experience of the figurative theme of the novel. This is but one of the ways in which literary tourism provides a complex and interconnected view of a text and the author. Potential destinations consist of birthplaces, writers’ homes, famous streets, stretches of countryside – in short anything remotely alluded to or visited by the author.

It can be said that there are two subtypes of literary tourism, one sort visiting places that pertain to the author, and the other to the textual world created by the author. These types often overlap, tellingly. The appeal of literary orientated tourism can be said to lie in the connections it establishes between the text and its real-world doppelgӓnger. The relationship between the author and their surroundings is formative in the construction of fictional worlds; this is nowhere more evident than in the work of the Brontës and their characterisation of the Yorkshire moors with which they were eminently familiar. The merest allusion can prove magnetic to the literary tourist; the slightest of reference by the author’s pen inscribes upon a place the indelible mark of ‘literariness’.

This is demonstrated particularly with ‘Casa di Giulietta’ in Verona, Italy, as a case study of the perils of literary connection. ‘Juliet’s House’ is long fabled to have been the home of the real life Juliet Capulet of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, although there is little corroborating historical evidence of this, or simply of the notion that she even existed. Yet the house still draws many visitors despite blatant flaws in its literary validity. Such is the reverential atmosphere of the place that many tourists feel compelled to write their own devotional messages on the walls of the 13th century house and courtyard (though mostly resulting in the disapproval of the museum curators). The infamous ‘love locks’ also festoon what appear to have once been gates, transforming this doubtful historic site into a literary shrine.

Arguably, the Harry Potter series may be considered as at the epicentre of the literary tourism industry in Britain today. Sites that run parallel to the novels can be found throughout Britain, testifying to the books’ imaginative scope and their grounding in the modern world. From the Warner Bros. studio tour in Watford to the more remote Glenfinnan viaduct, the franchise has ensured its longevity by rooting itself in the very cultural fabric of the UK. Indeed, it is well known that J.K. Rowling took inspiration from diverse sources; place names that inspired Rowling lie littered across the country, gems of literary connection that continue to delight fans. Personally, I cannot help smiling whenever I pass a road called ‘Snape Hill’. The choice of filming locations when the books were realised into film associates the familiar with the other, imbuing famous places and places of interest across the country with magical interest. Tourism within the Potter franchise even extends to its very origins, namely ‘The Elephant House’ café in Edinburgh, where Rowling wrote much of the first few books of the series. Edinburgh Castle is broodingly present in the backdrop of the café, a real-world Hogwarts. The commercialisation of this connection however, as is the case with much tourism, has resulted in the probable destruction of the very reason for its attractiveness. It is not likely that J. K. Rowling would write in the café now, along with her Edinburgh contemporaries Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall-Smith. However, there are many who would contest the ‘literariness’ of this sort of tourism, despite its success.

It can therefore be seen that opportunities abound for literary tourism, a positive library of destinations. And though it can be decried that many places may be capitalising on tenuous connections to the literary past, there is still an irresistible charm in revisiting it.

Photograph: Cayetano

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