Blame it all on Jane Austen. From the moment I gazed reverentially upon the three-legged writing table at which she pondered truths universally acknowledged and penned masterpieces like Persuasion, I became an unabashed literary voyeur. Standing in the modest red-brick cottage, I felt my pulse race and my skin prickle at the visceral sensation of inhabiting her world.
After that, it was no longer enough to merely delve into the pages of my well-thumbed classics and literary biographies. Instead, I had to follow a trail of ink drops to where the stories got their start. As an American newly transplanted to London, it was easy to fan the flames of my obsession.
Bypassing Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace (they could wait), I made a beeline to humbler destinations like the brick Georgian dwelling where Dickens penned Oliver Twist. I even stumbled upon literary riches while strolling my own neighborhood, once home to Victorian essayist Thomas Carlyle. Venturing into his quaint historic house, I found myself lusting after his soundproof attic study and cringing at a charred scrap of paper on display—all that remained of one of his lengthy manuscripts after a maid accidentally set it alight.
These emotionally charged moments are what draw me time and again to the personality-filled homes and haunts where scribes once dreamed, dozed, drank and drew inspiration. Fortunately, my bibliophilic friend, Shannon, is equally afflicted by this compulsion. The mere mention of Wuthering Heights was enough to inspire her to pack a bag and book a transatlantic flight from New Jersey for a sojourn to the Yorkshire moors.
At the Brontë Parsonage Museum, we grew misty-eyed gazing at the black couch where 30-year-old Emily had gasped her dying breath from tuberculosis, and stared in disbelief at the tiny dresses of diminutive Charlotte, who succumbed to illness a few years later. Alas, we didn't meet Heathcliff while rambling across the brooding moors, though the atmospheric conditions did inspire us to contemplate future literary pilgrimages.
With our writerly imaginations fueled by a few pints of sturdy Yorkshire ale, we ruminated about creating a booklover's Baedeker that would take us from Steinbeck's Monterey to Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg and all points in between. But more than just crafting a bibliophile's Life List of must-see literary locales, above all, we wanted to illuminate the behind-the-scenes stories that captured the magic and romance of places famed novelists had once made their own.
We were fortunate that Novel Destinations soon found a home with an editor whose love for literary travel rivals our own (she once considered selling an organ to buy the Connecticut abode of Fitzgerald and Hemingway's legendary editor, Max Perkins!). Working together made the monumental task of researching hundreds of destinations seem manageable, and writing the book gave us the perfect excuse to visit more literary locales than we'd ever dreamed possible.
While my not-so-literary husband graciously tagged along to soak up the sun in Ernest Hemingway's Key West and tilt at Quixote's windmills in central Spain, it was more gratifying to travel with Shannon, who never tired of waxing poetic on Austen's heroines or Edith Wharton's impeccable taste. One of our favorite trips à deux was to Paris, where we luxuriated in the lavishly decorated Maison de Victor Hugo and were reprimanded for trying a little too zealously to find a secret staircase said to be used by his mistress. Later that night, we toasted Shannon's birthday at Le Procope, where Hugo and other scribes once dined. Despite the standoffish service, we refrained from behaving like former patron Oscar Wilde, who banged his walking stick on the table to attract a waiter's attention.
Since closing the final chapter on our literary labor of love, my book-stuffed suitcase continues to stand at the ready for more adventure. Just like the eager 10-year-old in me who always begged the librarian to take home "just one more book," I will forever be angling for my next literary fix. Back then, mere words were enough to transport me, but these days, traveling off the page is the way I prefer to see the world.
When not taking to the road, travel writer Joni Rendon resides in her adopted home city of London. The literary travel guide Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen's Bath to Ernest Hemingway's Key West is her first book, written in collaboration with longtime friend and fellow travel writer Shannon McKenna Schmidt.