In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys a book about the rooms in which great writers worked
‘Writers stamp themselves upon their possessions more indelibly than other people, making the table, the chair, the curtain, the carpet into their own image.’
So wrote Virginia Woolf in Great Men’s Houses (1911), several years before she would transform the humble room into a space of daydreaming, reverie, and imagination in her famous short story, ‘The Mark on the Wall’, and almost two decades before she would give the series of Cambridge lectures which inspired the title of both her best-known work of non-fiction and, with a slight change, the title of Alex Johnson’s Rooms of Their Own.
And the above quotation also serves as epigraph to Johnson’s introduction to this beautifully produced book published by Frances Lincoln, with James Oses providing wonderful illustrations to bring the various writing spaces to life.
Johnson has previously authored or co-authored books on classic menus from history and interesting anecdotes involving writers and their pets, and I’d recommend both for the wealth of fascinating trivia and stories they contain. He’s also written a very readable book of bookish lists. With Rooms of Their Own he offers another mine of curious information, this time focusing on the spaces where authors have composed some of the most celebrated and influential works of literature ever created.
And the sheer range of authors whom Johnson includes here is admirable. Here we find everyone from Maya Angelou to Margaret Atwood, Agatha Christie to Anton Chekhov, Ray Bradbury to the Brontë sisters. Balzac appears after James Baldwin, Edith Wharton and E. B. White give way to P. G. Wodehouse, and Johnson’s alphabetically arranged selection of authorial spaces ranges from houses to hotels, huts to bedrooms, cafes to billiard rooms.
We learn that Angelou liked to rent a hotel room near her home and go to write there every day, while Ernest Hemingway shunned the four-storey writing tower his wife Mary built for him in their Cuban home, preferring to write in the bedroom nearer the ‘hustle and bustle’ of the house.
Meanwhile, George Bernard Shaw’s writing hut at his home in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire could be rotated according to which direction the sunlight was shining from, or simply if Shaw wished to look at a different view out of the window.
The French pioneer of the essay form, Michel de Montaigne, meanwhile, wrote of the need of every man to have, in his own home, ‘a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself’, but also a place in which ‘to hide.’ It turns out that, pace Virginia Woolf, it isn’t just women writer’s who need a room of their own.
Montaigne’s dedicated writing space is the stuff to inspire envy in other writers: Johnson tells us that he had a large library study on the third floor of a tower next to his chateau in the Dordogne, a place which he fell in love with after he ‘retired’ at the age of thirty-eight (if we didn’t envy him before, we surely now do).
In a side room where he could light a fire on colder days, he decorated the walls with murals displaying the Judgement of Paris and Venus and Adonis, among other things. Whilst other writers often prefer a bare, plain room without any adornments which might serve as distractions, the French master of the essay clearly liked to be inspired by beautiful artwork while he sat plunged in thought.
And then there are the refreshing tales of authors who don’t have a set of daily rituals and ceremonies before they sit down to write – or, indeed, don’t even write every day at all. Margaret Atwood is one, although when she does work on a novel, she writes in longhand first before transcribing the manuscript onto a computer.
Johnson’s book is a treasure-trove of interesting information about some of the greatest writers who have ever lived, but he wears his learning lightly, making the authors and their hallowed writing spaces approachable and relatable. Often it’s the little ‘human’ touches: the entry on Kipling prompts an aside into writers and their preferred kinds of ink to use, and there are similar digressions on such things as chairs, typewriters, and pets. This is a beautiful coffee-table book which is best dipped into at the reader’s leisure, and even the most incurable bibliophile is bound to discover a few new things about their favourite writers and their approaches to their work.
Of course, not every writer of note can be included in a book of this kind, and Johnson has done an admirable job with his selection here. If I were to add my own suggestion, it would be Isaac Asimov, a true workaholic who was never happier than when he was sitting behind his typewriter, who lived in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York but preferred to work with the blinds down.
In this room Asimov penned a fair number of the 500-odd books he has to his name, suggesting that if you want to get some serious writing done, it doesn’t much matter where you are: shutting out the world is the number one priority.
Rooms of Their Own is out now from from Frances Lincoln.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.