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Sara Sullam

Itinerari nel Regno Unito contemporaneo. Con un’antologia di testi di Caroline Patey

From page to heritage: mapping and marketing in English culture

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1The battle of heritage is still raging. On the one hand, the heritage baiters, a vibrant choir led by Robert Hewison, Patrick Wright and Stuart Cosgrove among others. They loudly deplore that the heritage industry is being used as the cosmetic veneer of a sorely endangered industry tout court and denounce its ways of promoting the flower-scented vision of a sanitized national past. In the view of its radical critics, heritage is “history without the grime” (Cosgrove 1993: 43) and the nostalgic impulse it reveals and stimulates “is an important agency of adjustment to crisis; it is a social emollient and reinforces national identity when confidence is weakened or threatened” (Hewison 1987: 47). Heritage England amounts to little more than a collection of theme parks and dead values where Crabtree and Evelyn join forces with Laura Ashley on the set of a Merchant-Ivory film. Heritage is conservative and southern, it prettifies the past and stifles the present.

2The antagonist vision is encapsulated – famously – in the title of two memorable exhibitions held at the Victoria and Albert Museum: Vanishing History in the early sixties, and The Destruction of the Country House in 1974. In spite of its final question mark, James Lees-Milne innuendo leaves much room for doubt: “Is it purely fortuitous that the decline of our civilization and the collapse of the country house way of life are coincidential?” (Milne 1974: 14). In the view of the arch-conservationists and leaders of the mystical army of preservation, the Roy Strongs, Marcus Binneys and Mark Girouards, the culture of England is therefore coterminous with and stems from historic houses that have taken over, since the Reformation, the duties of the monasteries. Indeed, as stated in Lees-Milne’s striking classification, houses become the defining criterion of an English civilization that is somehow encompassed within their walls: history and culture are the work of the great men who created houses or accrued them, the Sackville, the Pembrokes and the Devonshires, and of the house itself that nurtured their genius, as Turner at Petworth or Sidney at Wilton. The genius of the place and the creative genius are one.

3But there is more to heritage than the master narrative of its detractors and supporters alike. Thanks to its semantic affinities with identity, nation, ethnology, it is at the core of today’s most lively discussion and politics. As a product of the past, then, heritage is interestingly impure Clifford’s words – because the pure products of history and culture have long been going crazy (Clifford 1988: 6). Instead of a unified human history to be either distorted or preserved, there is a plurality of pasts often contradicting each other: “Heritage is a nomadic term which travels easily and puts down roots – or bivouacs – in seemingly quite unpromising terrains, as well as various ones” (Samuel 1994: 205).

1. Money, maps, memory

4One of these roots is firmly planted in economy. Through its various agencies – National Trust, English Heritage, private or public trusts – the culture of the past has become a major business. In the particular case of the National Trust, the increasing ownership of historic houses owes a lot to the legislation on death duties, from the early Land Dedication Bill (1900) – exemption of death duties for whoever dedicates historic monuments or land to the public – to the later 1946 act, stating “that death duties may be paid with land (Jenkins et al. 1994: 29, 135). To the trauma relinquishing the abode of antiquity, beauty and genius, in the name of tax relief, Vita Sackville-West dedicated many a soursweet page: “I have to record with sorrow, that Knole was given over to the National Trust in 1947 […]. It nearly broke my heart putting my signature to what I could not help regarding as a betrayal of the tradition of my ancestors end the house I loved”. However “grey, silent and inscrutable” the house, it has much to say about the history and poetry of England, having witnessed the days of the Magna Charta, welcomed many an Archbishop of Canterbury and entertained such guests as Donne, Dryden, Prior and Walpole. There is a disturbingly bitter and obsolete aristocratic flavour to Vita’s words: “For their comfort, let us suggest that some of the grace of another age may seep into the consciousness of the million wandering freely among these ancient courts, and the the new young Richards, Johns, Annes and Elizabeths (who are also part of a continuous history) may find enrichment in the gift of something so old, so courteous, so lovely” (Sackville-West 1953: 216-18). The negotiation money and canonical culture is not always an easy one and, in this case, the gift of the few to the million seems to have been done grudgingly and haughtily.

5The commodification of the past, however, may also assume less grim visage and even become a source of benefit. In the ease of some economically deprived areas, heritage initiatives have attracted a welcome injection of paying visitors and stimulated employment in its three forms, direct, indirect and induced (Johnson et al. 1992: 52), as indeed has happened with The Beamish Open Air Museum, opened in 1972 in the suburbs of Newcastle (Leech 1997: 146). In a vivid answer to the heritage who deem the industry of the past a conservative conspiracy, the historian Raphael Samuel insists on the fact that the “business corporation is conspicuously absent” and that heritage-ware has given birth to alternative and scattered forms of economic activities, “one-man businesses, female-run franchises and husband-and-wife (or gay) partnerships” (1994: 243). In other words, there would seem to be no unified master plot in the dealings variously taking place between heritage and undertakings that may help local employment, especially in the North of the country, fiscal agreements for the wealthy and decentred and individual commercial enterprise hardly belong to a homogeneous financial reality.

6On the hand, merchandising the past is not always a smooth path to profit. Laura Ashley’s near bankruptcy in 1999 is telling enough, as witnessed by a report of the Policy Studies Institute revealing that historical properties keep closing (32 over the years 1998/1999), many of them “having to struggle to get enough visitors because the odds are stacked against less well-known places, and there are so many new attractions, like aqua which are the new fashion in tourist attractions” (Watson Smyth 1999: 8). Clearly no economic monolith, the past is simultaneously an industrial magnate, an adventurer and a pauper, it makes money and loses it, it barely survives somewhere only to thrive somewhere else while in yet another place it may also be canceled or undergo adulteration in the wink of eye. A monster indeed, true to the Latin etymology of the word prodigious many-headed creature with disproportionate limbs and extraordinary looks.

7In this mercantile intercourse, space acts a major part, as the space of exhibition and a currency in itself. Past culture and heritage have therefore specific territories that give birth to new and sometimes unexpected geographies. The maps and spatial modes of heritage, Outsby reminds us – in the wake of Roland Barthes – owe a lot to the medieval pilgrimage: “When the Reformation purged saints from the calendar, stripped idols from the churches and denuded the landscape shrines, the public need for those things had to find secular equivalents […]. The writer proved the ideal hero for a secular culture, the most satisfying object of national pride” (1990: 22). Among the especially attractive literary shrines – excluding Stratford, for which a case study is required – Thomas Hardy’s cottage is one of the most ‘valuable’. Desmond Hawkins’ biography, published by the National Trust, aptly illustrates the process of enshrinement of literature: the movement of time and the unevenness of history have been replaced by the static idealized picture of a young Hardy whose novels allegedly “drew inspiration directly from a cottage and the intimate neighbouring world of family elders and village worthies” (1990: 8). The sense of permanence is further enhanced by the obsession of continuity – be it with the folklore, the ancestors, landscape – and by the way the description moves gradually into the semantics of transcendence: “Looking at some of our favourite landscapes in the wilder parts of the region (Wessex), we may imagine that traces of pristine creation survive untouched […]. Thomas Hardy liked to think that the surface of his native heath never had been stirred to a finger’s depth, save by the scratching of rabbits […]” (Hawkins 1991: 80). This is the realm of Francis rather than a site for the scars and hiccups of man-made history.

8Another winning strategy in the heritage treatment of literary figures is to reinforce greatly the connection between writer, house and garden any; a legitimate speculation on the fact that “a large part of literature’s appeal is its connection with place” (Ousby 1900: 22), So it is, for instance, that a fated destiny unites Kipling to his East Sussex house. Bateman’s; the story tells that haying missed this most delightful and perfect property in 1900 because it was too expensive, the writer managed to buy it for a lesser price two years later, proof enough of the mystical attraction between man and house. A similar stroke of true luck is responsible for Henry James’ Lamb House at Rye, acquired by the novelist thanks to the timely death of its previous owner and at a very convenient price (Edel 1985). Were it needed, William Morris’ magical discovery of Kelmscott comes as a confirmation of the reciprocal embodiment of house and writer: “I have been looking for a house for the wife and kids, and whither do you guess my eye is turned now? Kelmscott […] a heaven on earth” (Dufty 1999: 1); not to mention the frontispiece of the 1892 edition of News from Nowhere, an engraving of the east front of the manor-house. In most cases, the cord uniting the writer to his abode-turned-shrine is represented as a necessity, something so inevitable as to become natural; the flowers and shrubberies often to be found in the gardens are therefore more a sanction of the natural right of the artist to have been there and graced the place with his person than a mere pleasurable addendum to the edifice. Well did Morris know: “The garden […] looks in fact as if it were part of the house, yet at least the clothes of it: which I think ought to be the aim of the layer-out of a garden” (Dufty 1999: 1). The naturalization of the writer goes hand in hand with his sanctification.

9But the topography of heritage is whimsical and its charts reveal discontinuous territories: some voices are never heard, nor are their houses and gardens to be seen. Edward Thomas’ 1917 map of literary heritage shows how arbitrary selections and personal taste may promote a Britain in which Wales and the North hardly have any literary existence (Thomas 1985: 13). Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey is yet another site of idiosyncratic memory, a fact long ago clear to visitors, since Joseph Addison notes amusingly in 1711: “In the poetical quarter, I found there were poets who had no monuments and monuments who had no poets” (Ousby 1990: 29). For, today as then, much is to be learned about heritage – and the culture it strives to represent and preserve – through the pathology of its memory, amnesia and hypermnesia alike. Among the notoriously absent, Thomas Hobbes is a black hole in the fabric of heritage culture; no trace of him is to be found at Malmesbury, where he was born, Chatsworth, where he worked, or Hardwick, where he died, in spite of the high record of visitors achieved by the latter two houses. Unmentioned in booklets, ignored by the staff of the splendid places he lived in, one of the greatest British philosophers lies unobserved and undisturbed under the tombstone of an unvisited country church, with no heritage value whatsoever. Conversely, others are ubiquitous: Jane Austen, thanks to the media, is quintessential heritage. Filmed on different locations – Sudbury for the inside shots, Lyme Park for the exterior, Belton House for Rosings – Pride and Prejudice is appropriated by many environments and its author’s presence disseminated, multiplied and never lost sight of in and around Derbyshire (Birtwistle et al 1995: 24).

10Heritage may not be compressed into a unified diagnosis or map: more sites – cottage, country-house, railway museum, black country museum, perhaps soon the Caribbean Heritage Centre in Greenwich, the film industry itself – record different memories and generate divergent cartographies. In tune indeed with James Clifford’s ethnological wisdom “Twentieth-century identities no longer presupposes continuous cultures and traditions. Everywhere individuals and groups improvise long performances from (re)collected pasts, drawing on foreign media, symbols and languages […] culture and identity are inventive and mobile. Things need not take root in ancestral plots; they live by pollination, by (historical) transplanting” (1988: 15)

2. Past plots and plotted pasts

11There are several narratives of heritage. Is it a product of the Thatcher era or was is born, like the Brideshead complex, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War to rescue the endangered homes of a decayed aristocracy? Or, alternatively, did the heritage ideology begin with the foundation of the National Trust in 1895, in defence of natural beauty and mainly as ecological movement? One could also argue that the spirit of conservation is mostly architectural, stemming from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded in 1877 by William Morris and inspired by Ruskinian ideals. Indeed, as a mode of dealing with conservation and re-enactment or spectacular restitution of the past heritage seems to originate far back in history. In the early eighteenth century, Lord Burlington, having introduced a ticket system at Chiswick, devised an “adequately simplified” handbook for visitors; already, the owners of the historic properties were complaining of vandalism and bad behaviour; already, the tourists had started to protest against the commercialisation of the sites (Ousby 1900: 80). Heritage, thus, is the contemporary invention and entails different chronologies.

12Crucially, the critics of heritage react against the transformation of England into a theme park and protest that no respect is shown “for the integrity of either the historical record or the historical event, […] (heritage) treats the past as a series of exhibits which can be seen, felt and touched. It blurs the distinction between facts and fiction using a variety of “reality effects” (Samuel 1994: 197). Yet again, the kitsch hyper reality of many period housekeepers who welcome visitors in eighteenth-century garb – or Bess of Hardwick endlessly befriending her guests – is the privilege of the ‘fictionalised’ landscape of the present (Augé 1999: 12). As Simon Schama reminds us, the eighteenth century enjoyed manipulating nature into a storytelling device. At Hawkstone, in wild Shropshire, the visitor would follow a trail of sublime visions – including a Swiss panorama and a Polynesian landscape – until he reached the grove where he was greeted by the voice and gesture of a mechanical hermit who then dissolved among the rocks (1997: 556). Reality effects of post-modern flavour appeared in yet another eighteenth-century garden, that of Charles Hamilton, who offered “a seven-year contract for the position of hermit in his hermitage in the garden of Painshill, Surrey (Carabelli 1995: 157). It so happened, incidentally, that the hermit got sacked after a few months of drinking. Painshill has recently reopened to the public (late 1998) after a general ‘refurbishment’, complete with perfect copies of ‘original’ attractions, gothic temple, Turkish tent, grotto and of course hermitage. Inauthentic as the place is today, is it more so than two centuries ago? Painshill Park, conceived and designed as a fiction, prefigures the general transformation of nature into a show and the ensuing “dematerialization” of the world brought about by mass-tourism (Augé 1999: 12). But above all, it shows that the dichotomy true/false – and its corollary past/present – is no adequate tool to unravel the intricacies of heritage.

13If heritage fictionalizes the past and turns England into a web of different plots, the reverse is just as true: what takes place between heritage and page is a two-way traffic. Literature, culture and history may be processed, commercialised and fragmented beyond recognition: but he page has long devised modes of revenge and learned to use heritage as the very fabric of its tales. Defoe’s A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-26) is an early model of heritage writing hovering on the thin borderline where ethnology meets rhetoric and ultimately fiction:

I shall sting you no songs here of the river in the first person of a water nymph, a goddess […] according to the humour of ancient poets. I shall talk nothing of the marriage of old Isis […] with beautiful Thame […] but I shall speak of the river as occasion presents, as it really is made glorious by the splendour of its shores, gilded with noble palaces, strong fortifications, large hospitals and public buildings; with the greatest bridge, and the greatest city in the world […] (1971: 181).

14Like most travellers wishing to describe a country, landscape or city for an audience, Defoe is caught in the ethnographer’s dilemma in which “[…] the events described are subverted by the transcending stories in which they are cast. They are sacrificed to their rhetorical function in a literary discourse that is far-removed from the indigenous discourse of their occurrence” (Crapanzano 1986: 76). Defoe’s Thames is golden and splendid enough to evoke the beautifying and nation-proud prose of heritage-to-come.

15Having placed at the core of Mansfield Park the conflict between preservers and uprooters of the old, Jane Austen enjoys a sort of anticipatory revenge on her destiny as slick heritage and media icon. In the name of Humphrey Repton and of his Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803) the prospect of a house must be opened and trees cut down: “Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does not it make you think of Cowper? “Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited” (Austen 1966: 87). No matter about which park, this conversation takes place, suffice to say that the debate on conservation/destruction, thanks to the polysemes it entails – improve, alter, prison, beauty – serves as the leading metaphor in the novel, a metaphor that eventually encompasses the main themes of love, transgression, adultery and betrayal. It is ironical that Jane Austen should have selected heritage motives and sites – Lyme Regis, the budding tourism mania, stately home visiting – to depict her word, poke fun at social attitudes and literally knit her narratives; a sarcasm answered with a vengeance by the massive commodification she endures today.

16Decades later, Henry James was to renew the narrative potentialities of heritage, electing, as central character of The Birthplace, the caretaker of “the shrine […] the most sacred known to the steps of men, the early home of the supreme poet, the Mecca of the English-speaking race (1937: 134). Between the lines, clearly, Stratford. Guiding his visitors through the low-ceilinged rooms of the house, Morris Gedge gradually turns into the showman of the icon’s life for American tourists who want “[…] everything. The want to see where He hung up His hat and where He kept His books and where His mother boiled her pot” (James 1937: 177). A genuine drama then develops. On the one hand, the story-telling is demanded by the audience and provided by the guide who romances the birthplace and its august presence: “There’s nothing at all like it anywhere in the world. There is nothing, only reflect, for the combination of greatness and, as we venture to say, intimacy (1937: 195). On the other, Gedge cannot forget: “The fact of the abysmally little that, in proportion, we know” (1937: 175). Historical truth and the theatrics of truth, uneventfulness and invention, battle Gedge’s tormented consciousness, and James’ bittersweet meditation on the representation of the past and on the tricks of memory end with appropriate ambiguity. But the dialogue between authenticity and artificial naked truth and its decorated version, has provided the short story with a plot, a central dilemma and endowed the characters with psychological depth; it has also given the debate on heritage an ancestral mood. Intriguingly, and surely by coincidence, James’ story was written in 1895, the foundation year of the National Trust.

3. Menmotechnics for modernity?

17True, then, heritage manipulates, distorts, simplifies, commodifies and adulterates a culture, which, however, has proved capable of reaction and shown readiness to write back. Such a conversation between page and heritage may be taken as an invitation to re-assess their relationship, not in the terms of a dichotomy that has proved sterile, but on the contrary charting the modes and potentialities of their dialogue. Once again, James Clifford is a pertinent guide:

It becomes necessary to conceive ethnography not as the experience and interpretation of a circumscribed ‘other’ reality, but rather as a constructive negotiation involving at least two, and usually more, conscious, politically significant subjects. Paradigms of experience and interpretation are yielding to discursive paradigms of dialogue and polyphony (1988: 42).

18In the wake of Benveniste’s grammar and of course in the shadow of Bachtin, Clifford insists on the relational character of perception and representation:

Every use of I presupposes a you and every instance of discourse is immediately linked to a specific, shared situation: no discursive meaning […] without interlocution and context […]. The words of ethnographic writing, then, cannot be construed as monological, as the authoritative statement about interpretation of an abstracted, textualized reality. The language of ethnography is shot through with other subjectivities and specific contextual overtones, for all language, in Bachtin’s view, is “a concrete heteroglot conception of the world’ (1988: 42).

19As a representation of one or more communities, somehow a kind of ethnography of the present, heritage could become an interlocutor for culture to question and challenge rather than switch off like a trite television program. Envisioning heritage as a living force rather than dead history would help replace the heritage user in the proper context and discover that he is “much more independent and inventive in his response to the past than is generally suggested” (Hunter 1996: 14) and that it has now become clear how “people use the past creatively” (Merriman 1991: 4); disproving the literary snobbery of those who complain that the average heritage user has no taste nor judgment, social theory confirms that “all social actors, no matter how lowly, have some degree of penetration of the social forms which oppress them” (Merriman 1991: 18). Multiplicity is an attitude to conformity: many pasts interpreted by many subjects weave divergent threads of meaning and easily eschew hegemony.

20It is also important to appreciate, in the steps of Raphael Samuel, the ‘democratic’ values of heritage, a form of history – albeit to some a ‘debased’ one – that has opened up the kitchen and servant’s quarters as well as the family bedrooms. Behind the shining copper pans and under the embroidered bedspreads of the country houses, another story unravels, seldom to be found in textbooks: the history of the ones “who never had one” (Samuel 1994: 197). While it is true that this popular history, because its discourse tends to keep politics at bay, has often been appropriated by conservative powers, conservation itself has several times been born in the womb of radical beliefs, as indeed William Morris’ Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings or even, to some extent, Octavia Hill’s original National Trust. The responsibilities of today’s partnership between conservative politics and conservation are not imputable to the only heritage:

[…] the break up of the two-camp ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions in British society, the fragmentation of class into a thousand different splinters, the crumbling of the barrier between high and low culture and the growth of a two-way traffic between them robbed the popular of its subversive potential and even allowed it to be annexed to the conservative cause (Samuel 1994: 163).

21A last plea, then, must be made for the visual. Images, places, sites may happily disturb the exclusive authority of linear and verbal history. More importantly, the material embodiment of the past and its spatialization have been seen to bar the way to dangerous revisions of history. Cancellations threaten memory in both the large ocean of world history – the Shoah – and in the small pools of local past – the site of the Rose theatre, saved by the memorable occupation led by Peggy Ashcroft: in an increasingly virtual world, three dimensionality and the sheer physicality of sites, buildings or landscapes alike, act as welcome antidotes against the dangers of forgetfulness.

22Because, of course, heritage and past culture entail the question of memory. Visions and revisions, nationalistic turmoil, ecological disasters or the redrawing of geopolitical borders have blurred or even blotted the notion of community and disrupted the languages of memory. In order to face these major theoretical and historical displacements, social theory is busily investigating new semantics of memory and its relations to history. In such a recognition of the unpathed country, Pierre Nora has stated with unfailing clarity the tug of war taking place, in our post-industrial societies, between memory, a social and inviolate space “exemplified in but also retained as the secret of so-called primitive and archaic societies, and history, the way in which our forgetful societies organise the past” (Nora 1989: 8). Sites of memory, or lieux de mémoire, originate therefore with the sense that “there is no spontaneous memory that we must create archives […] because these activities do not occur naturally” (1989: 12). Constantly struggling on the field of time, and especially so since the disintegration of the rural world, memory attaches itself to space “whereas history attaches itself to events” (1989: 20). The proliferation of lieux de mémoire occurs, paradoxically, “at the same time that an immense and intimate fund of memory disappears, surviving only as reconstituted object beneath the gaze of critical history” (1989: 11). Nora’s works and words offer a framework for a fresh interpretation of heritage as the battlefield between history and memory. No doubt, the reconstructed slices of the past are no longer “quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded” (1989: 12); yet again they bear witness to a past that is not shared anymore by a common memory – therefore in danger of dissemination and loss – and precisely for this reason becomes available to the constitution/construction of heritage.

23But the battle of heritage goes on, ruthlessly. On the 20 August 1999 Natasha Walter launched, from the columns of The Independent, a distinctively highbrow and condescending attack on the

[…] new best-selling historians who are interestingly bland writers. None of them has much an opinion on anything. They are not like E.P. Thompson, Michael Foucault, Sally Alexander or Camille Paglia. They feed the hunger of readers who want solidity, not airy-fairy opinion or fancy-ideas, but thickness, detail, documentation. And so the past is wrapped into big-sized packages (1999: 5).

24Let her remember that in the course of history memory and its arts, visual and spatial – to some extent the stuff of heritage – have assumed various forms and had mixed receptions. Much appreciated as part of the rhetorical discipline in the Middle Ages, they were dismissed by humanist scholarship as dubious magical lore, and condemned, in the sixteenth century, to the clandestinity of occultism as antiquated Neoplatonism (Yates 1966: 127), only to exhale a final breath after Leibniz (Rossi 1960: 242). In spite of Walter’s harsh sanctions, the versatility of mnemotechnics and its dependence on space and visual perception may be taken as an invitation to rethink heritage sites not only as the artificial representation of a forgotten past but as the loci of the potential reactivation of the lost dialectics between our falling memory and history; as the sites where, most importantly for the fabric of time, they meet, interact and diverse without ever coinciding; as, willy-nilly, the serious partners of the present and the future, and, ultimately, the fragmented theatres of multiple pasts that beg for remembrance, howver imperfect.


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