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Wall at Lamb House

The wall around the garden at Lamb House. “In a garden house on this site – destroyed in an air raid on 18th August 1940 Henry James wrote many of his novels”

Henry James was born 171 years ago today, on April 15, 1843, and in honour of the occasion, I’d like to share with you an essay my dear friend Michèle Mendelssohn wrote about her first visit to James’s house in Rye, East Sussex.

Though I had seen pictures of Lamb House, they hadn’t adequately prepared me for the reality. Or rather: they had given me another reality to superimpose upon my experience. Wedged into a dark corner of West Street, the house glowered at me as I approached. The high stone wall that girdled the garden made the place seem carceral….

Click here to read the essay in The New Compass, the journal Michael DiSanto and I co-founded and co-edited several years ago. For more information about Michèle and her work on James and Oscar Wilde, including her book Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture (2007), you can visit the Mansfield College website.

For many years, Michèle and I have compared notes about our research and writing, and she gave me some very helpful advice when I was working on my critical edition of Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country. I can’t wait to read the new book she’s writing, on Oscar Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour in North America – how can you resist a book titled Going ‘Wilde’? (Plus, Wilde visited Halifax, and I love reading about Nova Scotia’s literary history.)

Lamb House

My cousin Honor Lewington took this picture of me at Lamb House, on one of our many “motor-flights” to literary sites in England (inspired by Edith Wharton’s book A Motor-Flight Through France).

I went to Rye once, but my visit was disappointing because Lamb House was closed. I did get to see the house glowering at me, though. Michèle has no photos from her pilgrimage, and she made me promise to include one from my own. I’ve had better luck with visits to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s house in Lenox, Massachusetts, and Jane Austen’s House Museum in Hampshire.

Joy Sussman took some beautiful photographs at The Mount on her visit there a few weeks ago – see her blog post on “Simple Pleasures: All By Myself at Edith Wharton’s House.” You can tour Jane Austen’s House Museum in this entertaining blog post by Karen Doornebos at Jane Austen in Vermont.

Still, I understand the point Michèle makes about “the inevitable discrepancy between our expectations (tempered by our readings) and the real thing.” I wrote a little bit about this idea in my post on “L.M. Montgomery’s Literary Pilgrimage to Concord, Mass.” – do we really think we’ll understand the works better because we’ve seen where they were written? What are we looking for when we visit authors’ houses, and why?  The Real Jane Austen

Paula Byrne writes in her uconventional biography The Real Jane Austen (2013) that “Both [Austen’s] world and her novels can be brought alive through the textures of things, the life of objects.” Perhaps in visiting the houses Austen, James, Wharton, and Montgomery lived in, we may catch at least a glimpse of the worlds that inspired their writing, even though, as Michèle writes, we “must reconcile ourselves to the fact that the author’s house will never be a home, no matter how well we think we know it.”

What literary pilgrimages have you made, and what was your experience like?