The cost of our dead poets society | Belinda Webb

The enormous sums spent on dead authors' houses should be used to support those with few other chances to write

Keats House in Hampstead, the low pale villa where the poet lived, has been renovated and will be opened to the public tomorrow. It is proudly proclaimed to be the house where he penned Ode to a Nightingale and asked the girl next door to marry him. Yet Keats lived there for just two years, albeit his most creative. It prompts the question – does this postcard-pretty house of a writer who died at 26, which will attract those who like visiting pretty houses in Hampstead, deserve a £424,000 grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund, supplemented by the Corporation of London?

Let's contrast the apparent ease of finding the money for the young man Keats with the struggles over Mrs Gaskell, whose former house is at 84 Plymouth Grove, Ardwick, Manchester. It is a Grade II*-listed Regency-style villa, and it is on the English Heritage buildings at risk register. The Gaskell Society says it needs over £2m to save it, yet it has secured just £260,000, covering the first phase of renovation. I hope the society does not find the rest of the money; let the house rot and wilt and tumble down. These houses of the well-read dead signify only the self-importance of the literary society, waving the bowl to feed the cult of the author.

I used to live in Ardwick, and knew the Gaskell house long before I knew of her, or read anything by her. For years I walked by, to and from school, in total ignorance. Yet, while I became sympathetic to the didactic aims of her works, which make her of far higher social importance than Keats, and may explain her relative neglect, I would rather see the energies of these literary societies channelled differently. Dare they turn their gazes from the dead to the living?

The Gaskell Society declares that "the restoration of the building will act as a flagship for the regeneration of a socially disadvantaged area". This is a repulsive sentiment – the girls of nearby Moss Side need more than Mrs Gaskell's bricks to inspire them – and it is hard not to think that the fundraisers are leeching off the "socially disadvantaged" label of the area that has grown up around it.

But by ditching these shrines to dead writers, they could begin to make a real difference to living ones. Gaskell made her fortune and reputation writing about downtrodden women. Ardwick has plenty of them, many of whom could be finding their own literary voice. Ardwick needs youth centres and libraries and creative writing groups, where these woefully under-represented working-class women can be encouraged. Then we would have a richer and more diversified literature – actually penned by those that live it.

Let us find ways of encouraging potential writers. Then I will give you an area that will be its own social regeneration. Because it is the works that matter, not which room the author squatted in, twiddling her hair and sucking the end of her quill. I'm sure that Mrs Gaskell would agree.


Belinda Webb

The GuardianTramp

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