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Interactive Website Merges Technology, History, and Literature

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The poet John Keats was born in a home located where this Moorgate pub now stands.

New Interactive Website Links Networks of British and American Authors

During frequent return trips to London, Stanford Professor of English Literature, Martin Evans spent many days searching for houses, apartments, pubs, and other buildings associated with literary authors throughout the city. Using the popular tour book, Walking Literary London as a guide, Evans sought out and photographed more than three hundred literary-historical destinations.

Among other areas, Evans visited Hampstead, a residential London neighborhood, which John Keats and George Orwell once called home, and Primrose Hill, a tree-lined neighborhood in Northwest London where two former homes of Sylvia Plath are located.

During the course of his research he came across several interesting connections, for instance the fact that both Donne and Milton were born in Bread Street, that Lord Byron, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene all lodged for a while in Albany, just off Piccadilly, that at different times Henry James and T.S.Eliot both had apartments in Carlyle Mansions in Chelsea, that Virginia Woolf once lived in a building that formerly housed Bernard Shaw and his mother, that as a boy Yeats lived in the same house that Sylvia Plath was to occupy many years later, and that Hilda Doolittle hosted D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda in her Bloomsbury home  at 44 Mecklenburgh Square while they were house-hunting.

Along the way he noted surprising facts about literary networks.  “Mary Shelley lived in twenty-five different places while she was in London,” he explained. “It struck me as quite extraordinary.” On his return to Stanford, Evans found himself speculating about what other connections might be made between the lives of his favorite authors.

Sharing a Passion for Literature

This interest led him to create Authorial London, a website where he could share his growing knowledge of the locations associated with the lives of literary figures who resided in London. For as George Williams put it in his encyclopedic Guide to Literary London (1973), “a visit to a house where a great writer was born or died, to the church where he was baptized or married, to the streets along which he walked, to the places he frequented, to the home where he wrote, even to the grave where he is buried – this gives a peculiar sense of immediacy, of flesh-and-blood reality, of humanness, that mere reading of the printed page cannot possibly give.”

In the last several years Professor Evans, whose research centers on the poetry of John Milton, has been developing the website with the specific aim of adding cultural and material context to the lives of authors who resided in London. To appeal to a wider readership, the site is organized authorially, rather than geographically and is designed primarily for those students of English literature who may not have an opportunity to explore in person the innumerable literary sites that London contains, and who may want to focus on only one or merely a few of the vast number of authors who spent part of their lives in London.

“For those people whose primary interest might be a particular writer or group of writers,” Evans explained, “there is no better way of organizing it.” From Geoffrey Chaucer to Mark Twain, Evans selected a shortlist of fifty North American and British authors who spent a significant part of their lives in London. Evans joked that a comprehensive overview of all the writers who crossed paths in London “would occupy an entire server.” Readers may be surprised to learn that Sylvia Plath once lived in the same modest house in Primrose Hill in which W.B.Yeats lived many years earlier.

In Plath’s time, it was a working class area beset with blue-collar workers and struggling artists. These days, glamorous socialites like Kate Moss and Sienna Miller have been dubbed by the British tabloids as the “Primrose Hill set.” The website explains that Plath’s apartment consisted of a small bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and a bath. “Plath loved it, at least at the beginning,” the website explains. Here, Plath wrote her great social commentary of mental illness, The Bell Jar. “Some authors like Mary Shelley lived in as many as 25 different places while they were in London,” Evans explained. “Others, like Dickens, were fairly mobile while Carlyle and his wife spent most of their married life in a house in Chelsea.

Merging Technology and History

Professor Evans, who has taught at Stanford University since 1963, is no stranger to technological innovation.

In addition to the Authorial London website, Evans has created several other multimedia sites on the famous authors who spent time in Florence and Rome. These sites were originally intended as tour guides for students enrolled on the study abroad program in Florence. Evans spent a total of four years teaching in Florence. He said he was heartened to discover that Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s former residence was located only minutes away from Stanford’s campus in Florence.

With Authorial London, Evans initially wanted simply to present basic biographical information in a visually engaging format. In February, however, Authorial London was updated with an elaborate map interface. The new website clearly demarcates the areas of London that attracted an extended circle of writers. It allows viewers to track the movements of the authors guided by data collected from biographies, guide books, and other sources.

Slide your cursor over a hotspot and a pop-up appears with an image of the location where a famous author lived or died.  The website is like having your own personal museum curator with you to explain where authors lived in the city and the inter-actions they may have had. In order to remain historically accurate, the site has juxtaposed contemporary satellite and street maps with geo-rectified maps of London from the 17th and 19th centuries. 

Geo-rectification, the process of deforming historical maps for display with modern cartographic projections, is more of an art than a science, as evidenced by their distinctive warping and uneven accuracy. Elijah Meeks, an academic computing specialist who assists Stanford faculty on digital humanities projects, partnered with Professor Evans on the new website. He said he deliberately kept the original content as the average user “can’t engage very deeply with too much data.”

Meeks added that he enjoyed working on a project that is not strictly quantitative. Pointing to a visualization of the underlying structure of the dataset, Meeks noted that you don’t really see a social network in the traditional sense of the word, “but rather a social network across time and geography through place.” He added that the site only “keeps track of the places that authors share in common, and not their actual relationships or collaboration.” Meeks anticipates that the website will have the “capability to bring to bear significant scholarship” by charting past movements of London-based literary figures and delving deeper into an understanding of the lives and works that go well beyond the capital city’s famous blue plaques.

A Work in Progress

Professor Evans hopes to eventually to open up the site to viewers to upload their own content, such as photographs or additional biographical information. “I’m not doing anything on the scale of Wikipedia,” he said. “But there are lots of authors I haven’t covered.”

Evans said he hopes that Stanford students enrolled on the study abroad program at Oxford University will be interested in contributing to the website. “They might enjoy exploring the city and tracking down and photographing a particular address where their favorite author lived or died” he said The purpose of the website is to bring the city alive for anyone interested in English or American literature.

Speculation is part of the fun, Evans said. “Some writers were really rather solitary,” he added. “But others like Yeats and George Eliot had parties and receptions to which they would invite many of their literary friends.” In the heart of Silicon Valley, Evans would be remiss not to consider a smartphone application. An iPhone application, for instance, could provide a virtual tour and GPS function to enable users to follow in the footsteps of their chosen authors. The iPhone application might lead them to places like the Fitzroy Tavern where Dylan Thomas and George Orwell were regulars.

A Living History

Evans said he most enjoys finding new insights about his favorite author, Milton. However, his interest is also piqued by the great love stories. 50 Wimpole Street, for example, is the site of one of the most famous love stories in literary history. It contains an unassuming plaque identifying the building as the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Passers-by may not be aware that this is the very spot where Robert Browning fell madly in love with the young Elizabeth Barrett. Barrett’s tyrannical father disapproved of the union so the pair were forced to marry in secret in a nearby church and then elope to Italy. 

A quick visit to http://authoriallondon.stanford.edu/ reveals several poignant stories like this, episodes that foster not only interest in literature, but a more nuanced appreciation of the writers’ personal lives, which impacted the great works of literature they produced. Professor Evans hopes to demonstrate that neighborhoods have a living history. Browsing his new website to reveal a map of London in 1843, he said with a wistful smile: “I’d love to have heard some of those conversations.”

By Christina Farr