Tourism and writers’ houses, in between places and literature

Aurore Bonniot-Mirloup

Key words
Writers’ houses and their visitors
The visiting experience through the golden books


Literature can, in its material (books, writer’s house, etc.) as immaterial aspects (imaginary of places), be appropriated by stakeholders faor whom it is a resource which can contribute to the development of territories. In particular, the writer’s house, this meaningful place of memory, already invested by the history and literature specialists, also resonates with local authorities, which consider it as a heritage to be promoted, and a way to reinforce their territory’s attractiveness.

As a testimony to the past, as a renowned as well as private house, the writer’s house merges times and spaces, imaginaries and private memories. It consists of a heterotopia, in that its levels of interpretation are numerous and can coexist.

The objective of our research is to understand the meaning, or rather the variations in meaning of these writers’ houses, in their encounter with the imaginaries and the various and evolving tourism practices. By questioning the visitors about their expectations, as well as studying the guest books, we are exploring the range of perceptions and emotions of the visitor, which unveil a vast imaginary surrounding the writer’s house, thereby asserting its heterotopian nature. The tourism experience stems from the tri-partite relationship between the author, his or her works, and the places. This enriches the experience of the reception of the works and the overlook of the territory, through a dialectic back-and-forth process.

Key words : Writer’s house, imaginary of places, literary tourism, guest books, experience.

* Thesis conducted within the framework of a research programme of the Auvergne Region, entitled “Imaginary of places: literature, regionality and territories attractivenesss”.


Literary works, like other art works, have the power to convey an imaginary of places, and when shared, to become part of the collective memory; in the region where it was born, it becomes a testimony to the past, both for the traveller and the resident. Literature can, in its material (books, writer’s house, etc.) as immaterial aspects (imaginary of places elaborated in the works, the author’s footsteps, paths associated with the works or the author, etc.), be appropriated by stakeholders for whom it is a resource which can contribute to the social, cultural and tourism development of territories. Sometimes considered as a thematic variation of a generic cultural tourism, literary tourism refers to the visit of places experienced by the author, or of places mentioned in their works (Squire, 1994; Herbert, 1996; Robinson and Anderson, 2002).

Be it through the invention of a new place or by “reinventing” an existing one (Molina, 2010, Choay, 1999), the creation of a “writer’s house” is the demonstration of a will to build a symbolic place, in order to promote the literary heritage (Herbert, 2001). The creation of the place is understood as that of a private house converted into a museum space dedicated to receive visitors. It can also, in a context where rural places are becoming less attractive, testify to a will to develop a positive territorial identity around part of the region’s heritage, and act as an “identifying image” for the territory (Cousin, 2008). There are 185 writers’ houses in France (Fédération des maisons d’écrivain & des patrimoines littéraires, 2012) (see Figure 1). Diversity of places, of stories: there are as many places and stories as there were writers to write their works, as well as positioning themselves, and positioning them in an appropriate space. There is also diversity in the expectations of the visitors entering the writer’s house. As a testimony to the past, as a renowned and private house, the writer’s house merges time and space, in an atmosphere of contemplation and nostalgia, imaginaries meet personal memories, times criss-cross and spaces come together. A writer’s house consists of a heterotopia, in that its levels of interpretation are numerous and can coexist, even for a single individual.

Figure 1. Distribution of writers’ houses and literary places
Source: Survey conducted by theFédération des maisons d’écrivain & des patrimoines littéraires 2012, zonage aires urbaines INSEE. réalisation : Ceramac 2013.

The objective of our research is to understand the meaning, or rather the variations in meaning of these writers’ houses. These houses raise questions for several reasons: in their relationship with space, as well as in their encounter with diverse and evolving tourism practices (increase in the number of short stays, and autonomy on the part of tourists). Is this cultural tourism, memory tourism, literary tourism, or the residents’ visiting their heritage? By questioning the visitors about their expectations, as well as studying the guest books, we are trying to identify how meaningful the place is for the visitor, his or her relationship to the author, the works, the place, and his or her imaginaries.

Writers’ houses and their visitors

Polymorphous writers’ houses

In France, writers’ houses are characterised by great heterogeneity. A writer’s house is a house where an author was born, lived or wrote; it is not necessarily his native home or the one where he spent most of his life. This definition gives rise to a great diversity in these so-called places, in their forms as well as in their real or symbolic contents. A distinction is made between mausoleum-houses established to the author’s glory, museum-houses retracing past ways of life, monument-houses, prestigious buildings surrounded by remarkable gardens, and library-houses filled with books from the author’s private collection. Michel Melot observes that these houses can fall into one and/or the other category, or completely be disconnected from it (Melot, 1996).

The roles of these places were long limited to conservation and preservation for memory and heritage purposes. But from the 1990s, local authorities especially saw in writers’ houses a means of promoting the territory’s image and of developing cultural tourism. Since 1997, most writers’ houses were grouped together under a Federation (the Fédération nationale des maisons d’écrivain & des patrimoines littéraires). This Federation was established to provide for the lack of administrative recognition of these hybrid places, as well as to ensure their preservation, promotion and cultural influence. A “Maison des Illustres” (House of the Famous”) label issued by the Ministry of Culture and Communication is adding additional recognition to about half of these. In 2013, 171 heads of State’s or artists’ homes thus received the “Maison des Illustres” label, including 75 writers’ houses. If writers are the “famous” people with the most number of houses under this label, it might be due to the immateriality of their literary works, which justify this need to localise them. Their house would be “the compulsory intermediate between inspiration and writing” (Poisson, 1997, p. 3), a place where it would be possible to establish some form of connection with the author and his or her imaginary world (Fabre, 2001; Melot, 2005).

These places of remembrance sometimes go as far as to transform into spaces dedicated to literature promotion: research centres, educational centres, artists’ residencies, places for cultural encounters, festivals, etc. This deployment of activities generates logistical and ethical challenges for the developers, as they have to accommodate respect and authenticity requirements inherent to the place of remembrance on the one hand, and the will to turn it into a living and attractive place for increasingly numerous visitors on the other hand. Whether he is a reader of the author’s works or not, the visitor devises a series of expectations, that we primarily wanted to capture using questionnaires administered to the visitors of three writers’ houses.

Selection of three writers’ houses

The three writers’ houses chosen for this research were selected based on socio-spatial criteria, as well as considerations to the anchoring of an author or the author’s works in an area. Be it a native house or a house with childhood memories, these writers established a singular relationship with this place and its environment; their writings are a testimony to it, their literature contributes to qualifying a region by a real or imaginary geography. These rural houses, all with the “Maison des Illustres” label, are located in the heart of France, in the Berry and Bourbonnais regions, and are only a few dozen kilometres apart. They are located in similar spaces in terms of tourism attractiveness. It is the house of George Sand, located in Nohant (Indre), the house of Charles-Louis Philippe in Cérilly (Allier), and the house of Alain Fournier, called “of the Grand Meaulnes”, in Epineuil-le-Fleuriel (Cher).

The domain of Nohant (see Figure 2) opened to the public in 1961, and is among the 10 most visited writers’ houses in France. It is a state property (Centre des Monuments Nationaux) and can remain open 360 days a year thanks to this status. After inheriting it from her grand-mother, George Sand had to repurchase it after her divorce. She was very attached to it[1], and to the land of Nohant and this Black Valley which would be the stage of a number of her novels. This domain hosted her circle of Parisian friends, renowned writers and artists: Flaubert, Chopin, Balzac, Delacroix, etc. It was also the stage for some of her famous love stories. The relatively unchanged setting of Nohant, its remarkable park with century-old trees with, a little aside, the graves of the author and her relatives, are all factors contributing to making of this romantic site an exceptional testimony to her life as a woman of letters in the 19th century.

Figure 2. Domain of Nohant, house of George Sand
Source: photo by the author, 6 May 2014.
Figure 3. School-house of the Grand Meaulnes in Epineuil-le-Fleuriel 
Source: author's photograph, 11 July 2013.

Alain Fournier lived in the school-house of Epineuil-le-Fleuriel (Cher) where his parents were teaching till 1898, until he was 12. This house (see Figure 3) left an imprint on him to the extent that he made a focus of it in his novel Le Grand Meaulnes[2], which begins as follows:

"He came to our place one Sunday in November 189–.
 I still say 'our place', even though the house no longer belongs to us. It will soon be fifteen years since we left the neighbourhood, and we shall certainly never go back.
 We lived on the premises of Sainte-Agathe upper school. My father (like the other pupils, I called him 'Monsieur Seurel') was in charge of both the upper school, where they studied for the teaching certificate, and the middle school. My mother took the junior class." (Alain Fournier, The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes), 1913)

In this excerpt, we discover the school, the village, renamed Saint-Agathe, as well as the mysterious character of Augustin Meaulnes. Le Grand Meaulnes is the only novel ever written by Alain Fournier, who died in 1916 on the Meuse battlefield at the age of 27. This Bildungsroman influenced several generations of teenagers, and is among the 10 most read books in France (Savigneau, 1999). The specificity of this writer’s house is that it is not named after the writer, but after the novel and its main character. This old school was renovated and turned into a museum in 1994. The site, with medium tourism traffic (between 1,000 and 10,000 visitors every year), gives a glimpse of the novel, as well as in time, to re-live the school of the 3rd Republic.

The museum-house of Charles-Louis Philippe, located in Cérilly, in Alliers (Auvergne), might be the smallest of all writers’ houses (see Figure 4). Re-opened to visitors in 1974, it was labelled as a “museum” and not as a “house”. This humble clog maker’s house was the birthplace of the writer of La Mère et l’enfant (1900). He lived there until 1895, when he left for Paris where he was met with success. He often came back to the town of Cérilly, which he used as a backdrop to a number of his works. C.-L. Philippe is buried in the cemetery of this town, which he himself called “the small town”. This house sees less than 1,000 visitors per year. It offers a retrospective of what constituted the clog maker’s trade, and especially a rich exhibition on the life and the works of this now unsung writer.

Figure 4. House of Charles-Louis Philippe in Cérilly
Source: author's picture, 2nd July 2014.

Thematic analysis of questionnaires administered to the visitors

Questionnaires were left at the reception desk of these writers’ houses, and issued after the visit. The results presented hereafter refer to 121 questionnaires filled by the visitors of these three houses, during the summers of 2013 and 2014. The standard profile of the responding visitor is as follows: it is a female tourist, over 60 years old, visiting as a couple or with friends. She came because of the author (she read one to two novels), and because she is sensitive to places of memory. She already visited writers’ houses in the past, but doesn’t consider her practice to be literary tourism. A synthetic table shows the responses related to the reasons for the visit (See Figure 5). Visitors could tick up to four suggestions in the list of 12 provided. Multiple-choice is justified in that reasons for visiting a writer’s house are numerous and are not mutually exclusive (Herbert, 2001).

Figure 5. Reasons for visiting the writer's house
Following thematic clustering, 121 respondents- several answers possible.

The author comes in 1st of reasons for visit. The sites of the literary works come in 2nd position: recalling and comparing the writings to the sites is therefore important for a number of visitors. In 3rd position comes sensitivity to places of memory. It supports the idea that writers’ houses are the ultimate “places of memory” (Poisson, 1997); the visitors are not so much looking for a specific site but for a place of memory, characterised by a diffuse atmosphere of reverence. “Cultural visits” are mentioned in 4th position; these two reasons for visit are in alignment with a rather generic cultural tourism approach: there is some historical or heritage interest in the writer’s house, as much as for a castle. Responses by writer’s house especially highlight this trend “at” George Sand, a trend confirmed during one-on-one interviews. In 5th position comes the lifestyle at the time of the writer, which is of interest for the visitor. Literary tourism only comes in 6th position. All responses combined, among the reasons for visit mentioned; only 28% of all respondents do not mention the author or the sites of the works.

Actually, 28% of all visitors surveyed haven’t read any works by the author whose house they’re visiting. 48% read one to two works, and 24% read three or more works, which in a way makes them “informed” readers of this author. Furthermore, 72% of people surveyed want to read or re-read the author’s work after the visit: a number of visitors purchase a book after their visit, writers’ houses often playing the role of a specialised bookstore.

Finally, 61% of visitors surveyed are tourists, 39% are local inhabitants[3]. For these local inhabitants, “better” readers than tourists, the author is the first reason for the visit, while memory places are mainly mentioned by the tourists. In total, the practice of literary tourism is claimed by 21% of respondents. However, a third of them never visited a writer’s house in the past, and over half never undertook any literature trips. Conversely, some people who visited the writer’s house on several occasions and who went on literature trips do not qualify themselves as practitioners of “literature tourism”. This reveals the limitations in trying to name, qualify, and summarise a practice that sends back various representations depending on the visitors. Memory tourism, cultural tourism, literature tourism; these tourism terminology variations don’t seem to refer to identified practices, but could be analysed, in a more mundane fashion, as a new products marketing policy (Knafou, 1998, in Cousin, 2002, p. 17).

Hence, practices and motivations are numerous, which makes it difficult to establish visit profiles or rituals from these sole questionnaires. Knowledge levels, both of the author and of his/her works, vary, and while 39% of the visitors never visited a writers’ house before, 33% are at least visiting the place for the second time. During face-to-face interviews conducted in front of George Sand’s house, several people said they were born in the region and sometimes came back in “pilgrimage” during a stay in the surrounding areas, in search of an atmosphere or of their memories.

The various bits of information confirms the variety of expectations surrounding these places, and, unlike traditional museum spaces, suggest some form of attachment through these renewed visits. These questionnaires offer some insights on the relationships between the visitor and the place; however, they cannot be used to get a glimpse of the senses experienced by the tourist who comes to experience the magic of the place with his/her reading and imaginary’s memories.

The visiting experience through the golden books

To address the place held by the imaginary and emotional dimensions, the golden books happened to be a rich source of information. Free and spontaneous writings, these are snapshots of the visitor’s state of mind after the visit, the expression of an immediate impression. The person writing does not always write to be read, even though he or she signs his or her commentaries. Its addressee is not clearly identified, giving him or her, the freedom to choose who to address: the manager of the place, the nation, the author, or even himself or herself. These writings, public and private at the same time, are not necessarily messages which is why we find them interesting: we can see an inspiration and creativity stemming from the visitor’s imaginary.

For Le Goff, “the imaginary is part of the field of representation. But it takes up the non-reproductive part of the translation, non simply transposed as a mental picture, but also, in the ethymology sense, as a creative, poetic image[4] (Le Goff, 1991, in Amirou, 1995 : 29). Berdoulay (2001) sees in this more than a simple product from the imagination: “the imaginary can be conceptualised as a meditation between the inside and the outside world, giving a very different signification to symbols, signs and allegories it mobilises. By articulating reality, speech and knowledge, the imaginary concept may turn out to be empirically useful”[5] (Berdoulay et al. 2001, p. 421).

Therefore, the use of the golden book and its imaginaries can be seen as a mean to access individual representations. By offering the creative, emotional and sensorial dimension lacking in the questionnaires, the golden books are the embodiment of an encounter between an imaginary stemming from literature and the visitor’s imaginary. It reveals several reading levels of the place. In addition, it reproduces the specificity of the connection between literature and in situ space. Finally, the idea was also to see the emergence of the works in the place, without convening – this works during a semi-structured interview.

Golden books provide an access to “judgement criteria” (Saurier, 2003, p. 130). In her museology doctoral thesis, Saurier identifies seven judgement criteria among the visitors of Marcel Proust’s house (Tante Léonie’s house). These criteria are esthetical, esthesical, memory-based, genetic and interpretation-based (Saurier, 2003, p. 130). References to history of France, the authenticity of the place, the life of the author are frequent, but we didn’t include it in our study. We focused on the writer’s house (or the artist’s house) specific criteria in comparison with other sorts of museum, and selected three: the esthesical criteria reflects the capacity to generate emotions and sensations from the reception desk of the place, the genetic criteria focuses on unveiling creative processes, and the interpretation criteria induces an identity-building reflexive approach in the visitor, especially by sending him or her back to his or her perception of the works or its author (Saurier, 2003, p. 130). Quotes mainly date back to the years 2013-2014, even though their compilation was undertaken over a longer period. Here, the aim is not to conduct a quantitative analysis, but to identify the trends emerging from a specific place by reproducing some of these quotes.

The writer’s house and the spirit of the place

In his book Imaginaires touristiques et sociabilités du voyage, Amirou (1995) writes: “Famous writers’ houses are sometimes visited with a diffuse feeling of impregnation by the places, some sort of belief in a possible intimate encounter with the “spirit” of the writer who would be haunting the place, in some sort of alchemy where the visitor would be the imaginary custodian of a literary genius”[6] (Amirou, 1995, p. 70). The writer’s house often fascinates for its spiritual dimension, in that one can convene the spirit of the writer. Here are some quotes about this:

"This is my second visit and beyond the setting, the atmosphere of the place is always a heartache. This School-House still has a soul”. (House of the Grand Meaulnes)
"The visit of the school, the atmosphere of the village, everything sow the seeds of the writer’s magic in the spirit of the visitor”. (House of the Grand Meaulnes)
“A lot of emotions in CL Philippe’s bedroom. A house where the spirit still breathes… A single wish: read the author again”. (House of Charles-Louis Philippe)

Magic of the place, aura of the writer: the atmosphere is such that the visitors sometimes use the golden book to initiate a dialogue with the author, sometimes in a familiar tone:

"Thank you Aurore, thank you George. I will remain free, as you wish for all women to remain”. (House of George Sand)

In addition, this spirit of the place arouses in the visitor a cascade of emotions and physical sensations, immersing him or her in the nostalgia of his or her own memories.

"A wonderful visit, eventually allowing us to physically relive all the childhood memories buried at the bottom of our heart, and which suddenly come back to the soul in this place”. (House of the Grand Meaulnes)
"Childhood also reveals itself in the attic. The pleasure of the reunion mixes with a return to childhood age which lives in every one of us. The trunks, the schoolbooks, the bibelots, the old sheets, the smells, the dust and the remains of a much-loved soft toy”. (House of the Grand Meaulnes)

Besides an encounter with the author, it is an encounter with oneself, one’s own childhood. Through an awakening of the senses, the smells, the touch, the sounds, the house acts as Proust’s madeleine for the visitors, reliving with nostalgia the time of their first encounter with this author and his or her works. It is especially palpable for a book like Le Grand Meaulnes, a novel that impregnated the teenager-hood of a number of visitors. “I read Le Grand Meaulnes when I was 12, saw the movie when I was 14 and visited Epineuil when I was 47. And always with the same nostalgia”. (House of the Grand Meaulnes).

Hence, it is not surprising to observe that some visitors take ownership of this heritage, establishing a connection with it to the point of returning there:

“A place that makes you wish to live there! A very pleasant time spent in Nohant where everything transpires joy of living (House of George Sand)

"I take every friend of mine coming to visit me to this house, to rediscover the character of George Sand” (House of George Sand)

Unlike a standard museum, the writer’s house conjures emotions, memories and a contemplative state for the visitor, sending back to the spirit of the place, as well as to the writer’s intimacy.

The writer’s house, this heterotopia

This first incursion in the golden books leads us to consider the writer’s house as a heterotopia, in the sense suggested by Michel Foucault (2009), namely it is vested, on a functional and symbolic level, in different ways. In time the heritage of the place, then its preservation gives it a succession of symbolic values. Foucault defines heterotopia in opposition to utopia, with is a place without any real location. Heteroptia is a real place “other than all the locations it reflects and refers to”. Heterotopias are “different spaces, different places, some form of contestation, both mythic and real of the space in which we are living” (Foucault, 2009, p. 15). He associates several principles to heterotopia, applicable to writers’ houses and artists’ houses in general. First, the fact that “the same heterotopia can, based on the synchrony of the culture in which it is based, operate one way or the other” (Ibid, p. 16): the writer’s house was initially the writer’s “topos”, since it has been considered as a place of memory to be protected and preserved, where one would come to honour the memory of its famous inhabitant. Nowadays, it unveils and is visited as a museum, which sometimes requires a conversion of the place, both on an ideological and operational level.

Heterotopias also include a sacred dimension, their role is to “create a space of illusion” (Ibid., p. 18). Golden books demonstrated the extent to which visitors would be imbued by the spirit of the place, the author’s presence being almost tangible. In addition, it opens a door on the mystery of literary creation: “Maybe do we understand your thoughts better after entering this house”, wrote a visitor of the house of Charles-Louis Philippe. We are hoping to come closer to the writer’s literary genius, as if visiting his or her house, touching his or her desk, could provide an access to literary creativity. In this case, the place is idealised by the visitor, conferring on it inspiring qualities.

Then, “heterotopia has the power to add, in a single, real place, several spaces, several locations, all incompatible per se” (Foucault, 2009, p. 17). The historical value and the sacred dimension of the house of the Famous mix with the domestic dimension of a house, with its day-to-day items. The house holds a series of imaginary around intimacy, personal items. We enter the author’s private sphere, while the place is often a public space (Saurier, 2003; Hendrix, 2008), visited freely, in a didactic manner, just like a museum, with exhibition boards, documentary screenings, etc. Historical monument, library, bookshop or shop, conference or performance venue: the variety of possible uses, even though seemingly incompatible, seems unlimited.

Finally, heterotopia is often associated with heterochrony: “it starts operating when people detach themselves of their traditional time” (Foucault, 2009, p. 17). The writer’s house is the domain of various different times, the current period mixing with the author’s times. In addition, the visitor himself or herself gets lost in the meanders of these reading memories, sending him or her back to his or her own childhood (Herbert, 1996). “Tourism and memory are therefore closely connected and it can never be stressed enough that travel is first and foremost a memory affair… of a collective nature. Travel in space and travel in time almost become synonymous”[7] (Amirou, 1995, p. 70). With this time leap, the visitor sways between a discovery intellectual approach, and an introspective approach, rather contemplative in nature, where affects holds a significant place.

Indeed, this time and space apposition is also likely to remind the visitor of the house where he grew up. Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space (1961), dedicates two complete chapters to the house: “Our soul is an abode, and by remembering “houses” and “rooms”, we learn to “abide” within ourselves” (Bachelard, 1961, p. 28). The childhood house is “The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams” (Ibid., p. 43). Confusion between imaginary and memories contributes to give birth to the magic of the place for the visitor, and arouses perplexity when it comes to qualify one’s own tourism practice of the place.

As we can see, the heterotopic dimension of the writer’s house probably explains the challenge encountered when we try to qualify this place or tourist attendance. All of the elements we gathered, falling under museum tourism, memory tourism or literary tourism, contribute to qualify a form of tourism that combines knowledge, imaginary and experience of the places.

The writer’s house and the writer-works-places triptych

For the visitor, this tourism between places and letters is not just about meddling in the idiosyncratic couple formed by the author and his or her works. The words of the writer offer a new way of visiting the memory of a region and to roam the space through a novel. Therefore, it becomes an experience of immersion in the universe of the author, the works and the places, the latter being made up of the writer’s house, as well as the author’s inspiring places. While the term “literary tourism” is being used by local authorities – it is found on brochures, tourism office and travel agents’ websites – it is however neither identified nor studied in French academic studies, in contrast with what is done in the English-speaking world (Squire, 1994; Herbert, 2001; Robinson and Anderson, 2002; Mac Leod et al., 2009). For Robinson and Andersen, the tourist approach is articulated around “the tri-partite relationship between authors, their writings, and the concepts of place/landscape”I[8] (Robinson, Andersen, 2002, p. 3). The term “places/landscape concept” refers to the field of representations and of the imaginary, of the author first, then of the writer when he or she discover the author’s works. This approach through the author/works/places triptych allows one to “break” the author/works idiosyncratic couple. Indeed, the experience of the place places the tourist’s perception on the same level as the author’s, when he or she was only in a position of receiver when he or she was a simple reader. The tourism approach is authentic: indeed, when places derive their meaning from an imaginary world, they trigger very real meanings and emotions (Herbert, 2001, p. 318).

We represented a tri-partite author-works-places relationship within which the visitor or the tourist bases his or her writer’s house visit experience (see Figure 6). This triangle includes, to simplify; an author « pole » connecting the visitor to the knowledge and historical domains. The “works” pole calls on the imaginary, and finally, the “place(s)” pole refers to the physical experience of the visitor. For the latter, it is eventually the combination of these three forms of relationships, associating knowledge, imaginary and experience, which produces the singularity of the relationship to the writer’s house, and contributes to qualify the tourism experience in respect of literature.

To continue on the study of the golden books, this time adding the evaluation grid of the triptych, for each house, we identified how the combination was expressed, and if, besides the differences associated with individual perceptions, specificities emerged in the visitors’ imaginary.

a) The house of George Sand in Nohant: « The house and the writer »

The feeling that the writer still lives in the place transpires from the visit to George Sand’s domain. Indeed, it has remained almost unchanged since the death of its inhabitant, who is actually buried there.

"A very emotional visit, as it seems we’re back to the time of George Sand, as if she never left the place!”

In Nohant, the writer’s aura is such that the house seems to be personified, as this quote suggests:

"Travelling through Berry, an always pleasant stop, Nohant and its history. The Belle Dame leaves a soft imprint of nostalgia about this past rich in reflections where music, literature and love merge”

The “Belle Dame” is both George Sand and the domain of Nohant; the house embodies the romantic author, whose memory it materialises. It is a “representation of writer’s body[9] (Melot, 2005, p. 64). The ambiguity between the house and the writer is sustained by this other formula: “Thank you for these beautiful moments in your arms, Madame”. In the commentaries left after the visit, there are only a few mentions of George Sand’s writings, even though everything around Nohant, the settings of her novels, still exist, just like the places that inspired her (The Devil’s Pool, le Moulin d’Angibault, etc.). The author’s personality and commitments, combined with the luxury of the site, are all brought forward during the guided tour, conducted at a high pace, not conducive to contemplation. Their nature seems to overshadow the literary works and this Berry that George Sand roamed and described so well.

b) The museum-house of Charles-Louis Philippe: “The house and the small town”

Charles-Louis Philippe’s birth house is located in Cérilly, in the Tronçais forest. The comments left in the golden book of this small house are often full of nostalgia. The tribute to the author and the social realism of his works consists of a pledge for a rurality and a Cérilly of days gone:

"A pretty little house, where the smell of clog’s wood lulled this little Charles, and gave birth to his works full of tenderness. A child of the area, with a small air of countryside and a melancholia of its small Cérilly, a quiet hamlet in comparison with impersonal Paris”.
"I, as a child of Cérilly, discover with emotion, after 34 years, the Charles-Louis Philippe museum. A simple man who described life in Cérilly so well”.
"You, the charming little museum; you remind us of the time where the writer used to live with his parents, spending his time observing people and their behaviours. You made us discover his books describing the life of the “poor” […]”

While the museum and education dimension is at the heart of this writer’s house, a lot of tenderness is expressed in the visitors’ writings; it includes a number of aspects related to senses (smells) and emotions (melancholy). The word “small” appears in a recurrent fashion, in association with the house or the village, which refers to the way the author himself was describing the place. The house seems to be in itself the symbol of Cérilly. It also demonstrates the difficult living conditions at this time and confirms the writer’s humble origin[10]. The house serves as a bridge to discover an area, its history and the history of its inhabitants. In a way, the writer’s house can change from being “containing” to being “contained”: it is indeed a closed space, located and limited, but it is part of a territory, that the author knew and described in his or her time, and that nowadays, the house offers to discover.

c)The school-house of the Grand Meaulnes: “the house and the novel”

The original character of the house of the Grand Meaulnes comes from the fact that this place has a double signification, both in reality and in the fiction work, the latter being characterised by a surreal and mysterious atmosphere against the backdrop of teenage emotions. Amongst some visitors, it gives rise to a state of contemplative daydream and nostalgia, exacerbated by the reconstitution of a Third Republic classroom. In some comments, the imaginary and dreamlike dimension is striking:

"One would almost expect to see the long cape of the Grand Meaulnes in the schoolyard… as soon as the gate starts grating, one enters his dreams. We can almost hear his footsteps climbing on the river banks, from the appearance of the first star, one can guess his look hidden between the trees and his laughter imprisoned in a castle with light towers…”
"The entire dream of our teenager-hood in the melancholic autumn landscapes. Dreams of simple joys, for ever forgotten. For you, Grand Meaulnes d’Angillon…”

These quotes demonstrate some form of contamination by “the spirit of the place”: a poetic writing tinged with melancholy, as well as an awakening of the senses: the grating gate, the footsteps that one can almost hear, the look that we guess, the ringing of laughter, all this against a backdrop of imaginary, where dream and reality are merging together. The visitor imagines himself or herself in the setting of the novel, until getting a glimpse of the character of the Grand Meaulnes; he or she takes pleasure in positioning himself or herself between realism and magic, like Alain Fournier, who himself used to define his adventure novel, with an autobiographic nature, as an “permanent, imperceptible back and forth between dream and reality” (letter of the 22nd of August 1906 to Jacques Rivière). We find the use of the familiar tone, but in this quote “for you Grand Meaulnes d’Angillon”, the visitor directly talks to the fictitious character, whom he voluntarily amalgamates with the author, born in La Chapelle d’Angillon.

Alain Fournier wrote: “I only like wonder when it closely combines with reality. Everything I tell is happening somewhere[11], getting his inspiration from the toponymy of the places and landscapes of the surrounding Berry. This need to find traces in reality is also experienced by the visitor: the writer’s house, which “makes a reality of the language works”[12] (Fabre, 2001, p. 175), materialises and embodies the novel.

To complete our reflection on the heterotopia that is the writer’s house, the examples elaborated from the golden books show that in the imaginary of the writer’s house, the latter can eventually embody the writer (Nohant and George Sand); sometimes, the house is a symbol of the space-time described by the writer (the Cérilly of Charles-Louis Philippe) or can also be the allegory of an imaginary works (Le Grannd Meaulnes).

Through the examples of these three writers’ houses and their golden books, we could highlight each pole of the writer-works-place triptych. However, it is indeed the singular relationship between the three we are interested in. Through its practices of the place, each visitor connects with the author, his or her works and the places. Through a sensitive approach, this combination allows one to connect the works to the places, and in a way to reread the works. This is what the following quote sums up, suggesting the dialectic back and forth between the works and the place.

"An emotional, interesting, endless visit, making one want to read, to roam the village, to dig in images and correspondences… to come back. So, see you soon”. (House of Charles-Louis Philippe)

The reception of the works is updated by the confrontation between the visitor and the place. A visitor wrote the following: “All I have to do is to re-read the Grand Meaulnes, with the images of the school-house and Berry’s landscapes, the novel’s atmosphere will be even more perfect”. This back and forth between reading of the works and discovery of the place make a bridge of the writer’s house, between reality and magic, which is one of the specificities of literary tourism.


Since Bachelard and his Poetics of Space (1961), the house is often mobilised as a spatial concept to understand the projections of the qualms and representations of its inhabitant. Through the observations of the heterotopic nature of the writer’s house, the combination of memories and imaginaries, we demonstrated that the writer’s house, which connects the writer to his spatial, sensory and affective environment, is an object that makes sense in the spatial translation of an imaginary of places.

Through the questionnaires analysis, it was possible to highlight the diversity of the reasons for visit, which had already been identified by writers’ houses professionals. In addition, the study of the golden books allowed for a study of the visitor’s affect and imaginary dimensions, confirming an experiential approach of spaces, where the tri-partite relationship between the author, the works and the places feeds both the reception of the works and the way the territory is perceived, as a dialectic back and forth. All the features analysed contribute to an analysis of some form of tourism combining knowledge, imaginary and experience of the places, and therefore defines a literary tourism forming part of a global and integrated territorial approach.

By treading upon the floor a writer’s house, it does indeed seem that the steps of the visitors converge towards a place to experiment, to live or re-live. While the visit to a writer’s house is experienced as an inner journey, it also opens on surrounding landscapes it invites one to discover. From there, the routes and literary walks organised around these houses can be seen as an extension, a spatial and time continuation of the visit experience towards landscapes and territories, especially since the linearity of writing brings up the journey unfolding in space and time.


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Bachelard Gaston, 1961 [1957], La poétique de l’espace, Paris, PUF, coll. « Quadrige » n°24, 214 p. Paris : Les Presses universitaires de France, 3e édition, 1961, 215 p.

Berdoulay Vincent, Castro Inès, Da Costa Gomes Paulo. C. , 2001, “L’espace public entre mythe, imaginaire et culture”. Cahiers de géographie du Québec, 45(126), p. 413-428.

Choay Françoise, 1999, L’allégorie du patrimoine, Paris, Ed. du Seuil, 270 p.

Cousin Saskia, 2002. L’identité au miroir du tourisme. Usages et enjeux des politiques de tourisme culturel. Thèse de doctorat en anthropologie sociale. Paris : EHESS.

Fabre Daniel, 2001, “Maison d’écrivain, l’auteur et ses lieux”, Le Débat, 3/ 2001, n° 115, p. 172-177.

Fédération nationale des maisons d’écrivain & des patrimoines littéraires, 2012, Enquête sur les maisons d’écrivain, pour le compte du Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication – Service du livre et de la lecture, juillet 2012, 61 p.

Foucault Michel, 2009 [1966], “Le Corps Utopique”, dans Le Corps Utopique, suivi de Les Hétérotopies, Fécamp, Nouvelles éditions Lignes, p. 9-20.

Hendrix Harald, (Ed.), 2008, Writers’ Houses and the Making of Memory (Vol. 11). Routledge. 284p.

Herbert David, 2001, “Literary places, tourism and the heritage experience”, Annals of Tourism Research 28 (2), p. 312-333.

Herbert David,1996, “Artistic and literary places in France as tourist attractions”, Tourism Management, 17 (2), p. 77-85.

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[1]About her house, George Sand wrote: “But I did have the home of my memories to shelter the future memories of my children. Are we really justified in holding on so tightly to these dwellings filled with gentle and cruel images, the history of our own lives”. (George Sand, Story of My Life, 1855)
[2] Translator’s Note : The Lost Estate in its latest English translation.
[3] Day trip
[4] T/n: Translator’s own translation.
[5] T/n: Ibid.
[6] T/n: Ibid.
[7] T/n: Ibid.
[8] T/n: Ibid.
[9] T/n: Ibid.
[10] In a letter written by C.-L. Philippe on the 11th of November 1903, he said: “My grand-mother was a beggar, my father who was a child full of pride, begged when he was too young to earn a living. […] You are dissociating nationalities, this is how you differentiate the world; on my behalf, I dissociate classes. […] In France, I think I am the first of a race of poor people to become a man of letters” . [T/n: Translator’s own translation]
[11] In a letter of the 1st of September 1911 to Jacques Rivière. [T/n: Translator’s own translation].
[12] T/n : Translator’s own translation.


Aurore Bonniot-MirloupGeography doctoral student CERAMAC, Université Blaise Pascal, UMR Métafort, VetAgro Sup

Translation French > English

Murielle Jackson