by Nicola Slade
Literary Tourism has been around a long time: read the book, see the play, visit the location. After reading the Greek poets Roman tourists went travelling, and Regency poetry lovers flocked to the haunts of Byron, Keats and Shelley. Certainly some of the young aristocrats on the Grand Tour will have stopped off in Verona to stare at Juliet’s balcony as travellers still do today. Nowadays I’ve seen Da Vinci Code tours advertised in Paris, Harry Potter locations are popular in Britain, while Dylan Thomas locales still draw tourists to Wales.
We’ve had some great holidays in the pursuit of literary locations, but while a writing friend of mine stays in Cornwall to worship at The Lighthouse (well, she is a biographer of Virginia Woolf, so she has a perfect excuse), the Slade family holidays have tended to be aimed at a much more low-brow level. Much lower.
For most of my life I’ve been an avid reader and collector of what are known in the trade as ‘Old Girls’ Books’. This genre reached its heyday in the years between the World Wars but began in Victorian times and I lap them up. They don’t have to be well-written, in fact many are actually appallingly written.
Sometimes it’s enough that a book has one of those beautifully illustrated covers, all gold-embossed and colored, provided that the price is right. The titles usually give a clue to the style and content: The Daughter of the Manor; A College Girl; An Unpopular Schoolgirl; That Aggravating Schoolgirl. They usually follow a similar pattern of a new girl at school, a misunderstanding, a sneaky underhanded girl, a dramatic showdown and forgiveness all round.
I love them, for the stories, the characters, the glimpse into a long-gone world and, in many cases, for the locations and this is where my own brand of Literary Tourism comes in.
As a seven-year old I loved The Abbey Girls by Elsie Oxenham I’ve been hooked on her long series published between 1913 and 1961. The Abbey in the books is a Cistercian foundation, lovingly described, and to my delight I discovered it was based on a real place, the Cistercian abbey of Old Cleeve, in Somerset in the southwest of England. The author had simply picked it up and planted it further east to suit her purpose.
We’ve been there a couple of times, once with a trail of bored children and once, last year, when the place was empty and magical in the sunshine. I could picture the Abbey Girls in their 1920s dresses, folk-dancing in the cloisters. It’s a wonderful place, do go there if you ever have the chance.
Along with the Abbey Girls I also adored the Chalet School stories of Elinor Brent-Dyer, published between 1924 and 1970. Unusually for the genre, the Chalet school, was established in the Austrian Tyrol, very thinly disguised so that any Chalet fan can make the pilgrimage to Pertisau on the Aachensee, not far from Innsbruck. Again, I dragged my whole family, teenagers by then, to Pertisau while I swooned over the beautiful setting and tried to work out exactly where the heroine had fallen in to the lake. Even more satisfying was the railway holiday we took, minus family, to the Tyrol in December 2000 and experienced the delight of an Alpine winter.
In the United States, I visited Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott and her alter ego in Little Women, Jo March. On the same holiday we went to Boston but that was sadly before I’d read the crazy cozy crime novels of Charlotte Macleod, but later on we did manage a trip to Maine and I had fun pretending to recognise the villages she wrote about. I’ve also been to Charleston and sat on the verandah of ‘Twelve Oaks’ from Gone with the Wind and I’ve sat on the porch at Green Gables.
In view of my holiday habits I was amused and flattered to receive an email from a man who had enjoyed my novel, Scuba Dancing. He correctly identified my fictional town as a thinly-disguised Romsey, pretty and ancient town near Winchester, the old capital of England, but wondered if I would tell him the location of the village inhabited by my characters as he thought he would like to visit the place. I knew just how he felt and was sorry to disappoint him by confessing that the village was based on several places but it was great to know that my characters and locations were so convincing.
If you’ve never indulged in this harmless hobby, give it a whirl. It’s fun and, if you’re a book worm like me, it brings the stories alive, which is always wonderful.
Nicola Slade was brought up in Poole, Dorset, England. She wrote children’s stories when her three children were growing up, moving onto short stories for several national magazines. Winning a story competition in Family Circle galvanised her into writing seriously and since then her stories and articles have been commissioned regularly. Scuba Dancing is her first novel. She lives with her husband near Winchester in Hampshire. For more information about Nicky and her work visit www.nicolaslade.com