Writing and particularly finishing a novel is never easy (not for me, anyway), and I’m always interested in any snippets of information or clues from the greats about how they did it, and that’s one of the reasons why I love a literary pilgrimage. As far as I’m concerned all holidays are improved by the inclusion of an excursion to an author’s house.
In the UK, there are many houses with literary connections open to the public such as: Jane Austen’s house near Alton, Dickens’ Portsmouth birthplace, the Brontés’ parsonage in Haworth, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Thomas Hardy’s Max Gate, Agatha Christie’s Devonshire hideaway and Dylan Thomas’ Boathouse and writing shed.
Last summer, however, a literary trip took me further afield. After the full on, money-draining, sensory overload that is Disney, Orlando, I headed south on a road trip to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West.
This was the place he shared with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. It’s a beautiful French Colonial style mansion full of six-toed cats (descended from Hemingway’s own polydactyl cat, Snow White). The house was a wedding gift from Pauline’s uncle (nice uncle) and it came with a carriage house, the second floor of which became Hemingway’s writing room.
An exterior metal stairway takes you up to the somewhat gloomy writing room that now overlooks the pool. Originally, there was a boxing ring below and Pauline had the pool built at huge expense while Hemingway was away reporting on the Spanish Civil War.
So, what’s to gain from visiting such places? Does it help to see where Jane Austen or the Bronte’s lived? Yes, I think it does. Jane Austen worked at a tiny writing table squished by the window. She could watch the world go by, but was far enough from the creaky door that she would be warned of any imminent disruptions. And, similarly, it was fascinating to see where the Brontés workshopped together (perhaps the most successful workshop ever).
However, these houses are usually preserved in a semi-realistic way. For instance, I doubt that Pauline Pfeiffer lined the walls with framed posters of all the film adaptations of Ernest’s books once he went off with Martha Gellhorn. And yet the house gives a sense of a writer’s life, the domestic set-up with kids and pets and the complications that arose from Hemingway’s appetite for wine, women and macho pursuits.
The Key West house was only a small part of his life and yet it offers insights into how he lived and more importantly it made me want to read more about him.
I visited at a time when I was struggling with the umpteenth rewrite of my latest novel, My Life as a Bench, and it helped to read about Hemingway’s perfectionism and his reluctance to give up his novel A Farewell to Arms until he was entirely happy. Apparently, he rewrote the ending as many as seventeen times. And reading this spurred me on to once again tackle the ending of My Life as a Bench. I don’t know why, but somehow it helps to know that even the greats have struggled with endings.
Next stop, Hemingway’s house in Cuba … or more likely Dickens’ London residence.
This post is brought to you by Jaq Hazell.