I first read Joan Bodger’s How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books (1959) about twenty years ago, and I recall liking it well enough, but wishing that there was a little more about their bookishness and a little less about England.
“It was to see a moor that we had come to England! Ever since reading Frances Hodson Burnett’s The Secret Garden when I was ten I had wanted to see Yorkshire; reading the Brontë novels when I was older had intensified that longing. Then, the past winter, when it seemed that spring would never come, I had read The Secret Garden aloud to Ian so that now he was as eager as I to see ‘how the heather looks’.”
You see how it is: just as in the Emily Dickinson poem, these book-lovers have long imagined the places in which their favourite tales unfolded, to the point where they feel that they know exactly how it is.
But then they are exactly where they take place: and how could that not be even better!
Well, they couldn’t always find *exactly* where those stories took place, but they tried awfully hard. A lot of reading done in advance, and a lot of trips to local libraries, a lot of calls to bookish folks nearby, and a lot of hoofing it around the countryside: they were determined to find the proper setting whenever possible.
Often they simply came close, and sometimes close was more than good enough. Sometimes it wasn’t until years later (thanks to a biography published years hence) that they realized how close to or far from the mark they’d been.
Anyway, sometimes they were lucky, as they were with their Beatrix Potter explorations.
“Hill Top garden is, of course, Jemina Puddle-Duck’s. When I said something to Lucy about its being the scene of Peter Rabbit’s adventures, too, Mrs. Ludbrooke corrected me in shocked tones. To see Mr. MacGregor’s garden one must journey to Tenby, in Wales, where Beatrix’s uncle used to live. The house is called ‘Gwynanog’ and has been turned into a girls’ school. Mrs. Ludbrooke had heard that the garden, the potting shed, and the gold-fish pool are still in existence.”
No matter: as the Le Guin quote goes, it is the journey that matters in the end, more so than the destination.
Although one might argue that it is the bookishness that matters in the end, more so than the journey, because the family members continued to take pleasure in those places on the page, long after they had returned home.
“Ian took especial pleasure in the fact that Louis [Stevenson] liked old maps, pirates, knights, toy soldiers, elaborate games of history and make-believe, just as he himself did. Of course, Ian may like all these things because we read Stevenson to him at such an early age. It is hard to tell.”
It’s a lovely account, whether you like the idea that it’s bookish, or that it’s a tale of English explorations.