Literary Britain: The Romantics

Lecture 26—The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales

Continue your literary journey through Britain. From the great Scottish writers Walter Scott and Robert Burns to Wordsworth’s evocative descriptions of the Lake District, the Romantic writers of the 18th and 19th centuries created an enduring mood and style that still resonate today. Also tour the quiet villages where Jane Austen worked and the Jurassic coast at Lyme Regis.

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Romantic Writers of Scotland: Robert Burns and Walter Scott

Is it possible for a writer to have a loyal following among people who don’t actually read his or her books? A trip to Scotland will convince you that the answer is yes. Scotland’s two greatest literary names, Robert Burns and Walter Scott, were immensely popular in their own times, but their works have now fallen on hard times.

Nevertheless, both men stand front and center when it comes to Scotland’s idea of itself and its heritage. In fact, Burns was voted the “Greatest Scot of All Time” in a 2009 poll by a Scottish television network. A large, drum-shaped memorial at the foot of Calton Hill in Edinburgh commemorates his life and work. It was built in 1831 and originally contained a marble statue of the poet, which has since been moved down the hill and is now on display inside the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
The Robert Burns Monument at the foot of Calton Hill in Edinburgh is a small, circular temple in the neo-Greek style typical of Georgian era, constructed in honor of Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns (1759 to 1796).

Burns is also one of three writers enshrined at the Writers’ Museum in the center of Edinburgh. It’s an imposing house, built in 1622 and restored at the end of the 19th century by Lord Rosebery. Like many of the houses on and around the Royal Mile, old Edinburgh’s main street, it’s more vertical than horizontal, and has a grand double-height main room, with an interior balcony. Large exhibits are devoted to Burns and Scott—there’s even a painting, by Charles Hardie, of the one occasion when the two of them met.

The place to see Scott’s idealized version of himself and his native land is at the house he designed and built, Abbotsford, in the lowland hills, near the English border. His literary success enabled him to buy the place, demolish the small house there, and build according to his romantic tastes, in a style that’s now known as Scottish baronial. Visitors are given a warm welcome and you’ll find eager and informative guides in each room.

The place is, first of all, chock full of armor, swords, pikes, muskets, heraldic shields, and banners. They’re fit objects for Scott’s medieval warrior heroes, and the swords seem more like chivalric decorations than fiendish instruments for killing other people. But Abbotsford is also a hard-working writer’s house. Scott would often come down to his fine study early in the morning, hours before anyone else got up, to carry on with the current book project.

The sad thing about Abbotsford is that it was no sooner finished, in 1825, when Scott was plunged into debt through the failure of a company in which he had invested. He and his heirs were able to hold onto the house. One of them, who converted to Catholicism, added a plain Catholic chapel to the house, which looks oddly out of place and isn’t heavily advertised as part of the tour.

The Romantics of Southern England: Jane Austen

Southern England: Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s modest brick cottage, in the village of Hampshire, where she completed many books.

There’s a stark contrast between the life and work of Walter Scott and the life and work of his near contemporary, Jane Austen (1775-1817). His novels are full of dramatic adventure, battles, chases, and great public scenes; her novels are quiet and domestic. But while Scott’s readership has declined, Austen is probably more popular now than she has ever been.

The logical places for Austen pilgrims to visit are the villages around Winchester where she lived for much of her life, along with Bath in Somerset and Lyme Regis in Dorset, where important scenes are played out in some of her books.

Austen grew up in the village of Steventon, in Hampshire. Though her childhood home no longer stands, you can still visit St. Nicholas Church, where her father served as rector. The family moved to Bath in 1801 and then, after Austen’s father’s death in 1805, to Southampton, a major naval base. Four years later, they moved again, to the nearby village of Chawton in Hampshire. Austen lived the rest of her life there, in a modest brick cottage, where she completed Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park.

Chawton is now a museum, full of Austen memorabilia, including several of the manuscripts, a quilt she made, her bed, and a pianoforte. Its well-tended gardens bear witness to the pride of Jane Austen enthusiasts who treat it as a shrine. Her brother Edward lived nearby in Chawton House, a much grander residence, in whose library Jane spent much of her time. It, too, is open to visitors, 10 minutes’ walk from the cottage.

Jane Austen lived at the lower end of the gentry class, never married, worked steadily, published anonymously, kept a sharp eye on the manners and activities of the people around her, and died at the age of just 41, in 1817. Her funeral was at Winchester Cathedral, attended by only four mourners. Her gravestone made no mention of her work as a writer, but her fame kept growing as the 19th century progressed. Enthusiasts added a brass plaque in 1872, and subscribed for a memorial stained-glass window in 1900.

The Lake District: William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and Beatrix Potter

Another near contemporary of Austen was William Wordsworth—who, again, makes quite a contrast. Where she deprecated romanticism, he rhapsodized about wild landscapes and the emotional states they induce. He is strongly associated with one of the most picturesque areas of northwest England: the Lake District.

In 1799, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy settled at Dove Cottage, which has become a magnet for Wordsworth pilgrims from all over the world. It’s a tiny house, at the edge of the village of Grasmere. By our standards, it was horribly overcrowded. Even lingering over each object, I was in and out of the cottage itself in 15 minutes. There is a museum adjacent, however, containing many of the manuscripts as well as paintings and some of the Wordsworths’ possessions. It also contains Dorothy’s journals, which are a vital source for Wordsworth scholars.

During Wordsworth’s lifetime, and partly because of his work, the Lake District became a tourist attraction, and has remained one ever since. Whitewashed houses are among its many attractions, and it contains some of the finest hiking country in the whole of Britain.

Remote in Wordsworth’s early years, the Lake District became more accessible when the first railway to the district was built in the mid-1840s. In the later 19th century, the area’s popularity continued to grow. One new resident was John Ruskin, the art critic, moralist, and Oxford professor of art. He bought Brantwood, a house overlooking Lake Coniston, in 1871, and spent most of his later years there. Modifying and extending the house to improve the view, he built a glassed-in turret for the main upstairs room.

He was not alone at Brantwood—his cousin, Joan Severn, and her husband, lived there, too. He left them the house and, despite promises to the contrary, they began to sell off all its principal treasures. Only in the 1930s did Ruskin admirers intervene to restore the collection and turn the house into a museum. Local artists now exhibit in Ruskin’s studio, and the place is equally interesting to historians, gardeners, and architects.

Drive a few more miles on the narrow, winding Lake District roads and you’ll come to Hill Top, near Hawkshead. This was the home of Beatrix Potter, author of children’s books, including Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Two Bad Mice, and Jemima Puddleduck. As with Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, so it is with Hill Top. It is phenomenally popular.

In the Lake District, Beatrix Potter carried on with writing her books. The desk where she worked is preserved. So is her bed, with its view over the hills. She became interested in conservation, buying up land in the area to prevent it from being developed and donating it to the National Trust, of which she was an early proponent. In the gardens at Hill Top there are simple terraced flowerbeds. It’s easy there to imagine Mr. McGregor rolling his wheelbarrow and keeping a sharp eye open for misbehaving rabbits.


Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture


Suggested Online Reading About British Literature

Robert Burns
Scottish Literature
How Jane Austin’s Emma Changed the Face of Fiction