As my time in the UK comes to a close, it’s time for me to reflect on my time here. In fact, as part of the Vassar in London program, I have to work on an independent project that reflects on some aspect of my time abroad and uses London as an inspiration. For my project, I’ve decided to study writers’ houses in the greater London area, as well as other site of literary legacies—libraries, museum exhibits, etc. I’m fortunate to have received supporting grant from the Dean of Studies’ Academic Enrichment fund to help me get to, and get in to, all of these places. So far, I’ve visited several writers’ houses and some great literary legacy places as well. If this project serves as my reflection on my time in London, I think it might be the best way to share with you some of the things I’ve learned living abroad and what’s been on my mind as I learn.
From cultural icons like Jane Austen and Sigmund Freud to more marginalized multicultural voices like Gabriel Gbadamosi and Khadambi Asalache, the history of these writers’ homes speaks to Britain’s literary culture and cultural memory. By visiting these sites and collecting media in/about them, I hope to explore the way literary legacies are contextualized, constructed, and even commodified. What forces decide, for example, that Charles Dickens’ house is a shrine to Victorian aesthetics and BBC programming while Gabriel Gbadamosi’s world of ‘70s Vauxhall is “slum cleared?” What issues of authenticity and “literati/nerd identity” are at stake when an American reconstructs Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (to much local consternation)? How does the national narrative of British culture shape these legacies, cityscapes, and voices?
The writers’ houses I’ve visited so far include the one-time homes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, and Khadambi Asalache. I’ve also had the awesome chance to tour the Vauxhall area with author Gabriel Gbadamosi, who lived in the area when they were more often referred to as Vauxhall “slums.” The entire neighborhood has since been “slum-cleared” and gentrified, and exploring the way the legacy of its inhabitants—including Gbadamosi, who focuses on life in 70’s Vauxhall in his most famous book—has been wiped away to make way for apartment complexes and art galleries. Meanwhile, Dickens’ house is saturated with advertisements for and behind-the-scenes photos promoting the new BBC show “Dickensian,” which in my opinion is a terrible fan-fiction-style bastardization of Dickens’ characters. I don’t have strong feelings about it or anything.
In investigating these histories, I’ve also had the opportunity to visit other literary sites. I’ve visited the reconstructed Globe Theatre and the Sir John Soane Museum, both of which hold unique places in London’s history of literature—and literature tourism. This research endeavor has actually turned into a bit of a passion project, and I’ve found myself drawn to similar sites as I travel. In Dublin, I visited Oscar Wilde’s birthplace, the Trinity College library, a church featured in James Joyce’s novels and the Chester Beatty Library (which houses a huge collection of historical books from around the world).
Now that Goldsmiths classes have ended, I hope to spend pretty much every day visiting writers’ houses. I have plans to visit Virginia Woolf’s house and gardens, the Brontë Parsonage, Keats’ house, the Sherlock Holmes museum, and many others—including a tour of scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s house, which is guaranteed to be interesting.
I think that visiting these kinds of locations have given me a really important perspective on city life. I grew up in a relatively small suburban town, and while I’ve worked in Washington, D.C., I’ve never had the opportunity to live in a bustling city day in and day out. At first, it was exhausting. There’s not a single moment without noise, or bustle, or other people. Even though the public transportation in London is great, it’s still a little out of my depth. I have stress dreams about being lost and confused in a tube station all the time. But going to all these literary houses and places have helped me to see the kind of creativity and genius that can come out of rush and connections of city life, and to have a much greater appreciation for the value of the experiences I have every day living in a city like London. I feel like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of what I can experience living in a huge international city like London, and I’m in total denial about having to leave. I’m going to leave this blog here and job back out into the city, to get every drop of London I can. Thanks for reading!