This is the first of three blogs posts centred around the 14th May, since Constance Naden included a pair of poems with this date in her year-in-sonnets sequence. They are unusual for their specificity, allowing us to locate Naden in Stratford-upon-Avon on this day in 1880, and even trace her visit to the two main tourist spots – the Holy Trinity Church in which Shakespeare is buried, and Anne Hathaway’s cottage in nearby Shottery. This is a brief introductory post to provide some background to Victorian tourism and the cult of Shakespeare, however if you’d like to skip ahead to read my discussion the poems themselves you can find them here and here.
Julia Thomas has written a book about the Victorian invention of the Stratford tourist trail, called Shakespeare’s Shrine, which traces the memorialisation of and capitalisation upon Shakespeare’s birthplace, a committee having been established to buy and restore the house in the mid-nineteenth century (which still exists today). Thomas emphasises the aura of mysticism around the birthplace, and how it acted as a place of pilgrimage for many visitors. Naden is certainly partaking in this tourist trail, and yet she does not record visiting the birthplace on Henley Street; rather she write of his grave and then taking the 25 minute walk from the church, along the lanes to Shottery to his wife’s birthplace.
I do not think the date ‘14th May’ has any specific significance, to Naden or in relation to Shakespeare, however her choice to record this detail indicates how meaningful it was for her to have (likely) taken the train from Birmingham to Stratford-upon-Avon and gone to these sites. As I will discuss in the forthcoming posts, this pair of sonnets act as a kind of diary entry, recording her visit and vividly imagining Shakespeare as both ‘the boy-poet’ in the lanes around Shottery and ‘lifeless denizen’ of the famous grave.