Susan Harlan’s Decorating a Room of One’s Own: Conversations on Interior Design with Miss Havisham, Jane Eyre, Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth Bennet, Ishmael and Other Literary Notables is a singular delight for book nerds, design nerds, and anyone who, like me, happens to be both. The book lovingly spoofs interior design trends and celebrity profiles, illuminating the decorating choices and challenges faced by a host of well-known and obscure literary characters. A professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, Susan is herself an avid collector of everything from cheeseburger art to Day of the Dead memorabilia, and her house is overflowing with objects that tell their own stories. I spoke to her about what design and literature have in common, and how real and imagined homes reflect their owners’ character.
Tell me about how you came up with the idea of bringing together literary classics and interior design.
The book started with Jane Eyre. I was watching a film adaptation one night and thinking about the particular house that was used as Thornfield Hall in that movie, and also my love of home design sites, like Apartment Therapy, which had actually done a house tour of my house when I moved into it five years ago. I thought it would be funny to think about Jane Eyre giving a kind of similar tour of Thornfield Hall, and mapping that whole narrative of “what your house means to you” onto this really Gothic, terrible space. I decided to keep going, thinking about which houses in literature are my favorites, and it turned into a regular column, at [now defunct feminist website] the Toast.
There’s something so funny about trying to fit these disturbing literary houses into the cookie-cutter language of interior design, and ending up with, say, “Jay Gatsby’s Desperately Sad McMansion of Unfulfilled Dreams.” But it also reminds us that in literature as in life, people and their homes are so connected.
The satire about decorating is very warm satire. I really loved doing a house tour, and the whole idea of that, people creating these personally significant spaces and sharing them with one another, with an audience. But it’s always fun to have that dual vision, where you can be a part of something but at the same time stand a little bit outside it and think about what might be funny about yourself and your own domestic tendencies. Since I’m an English professor, the idea of thinking about home in books and in life has always been related. A lot of the models of how I think about my house are literary models—hopefully not Thornfield Hall, though.
What were some of your favorite literary inspirations?
I wrote about plenty of dark, gothic spaces, like the house in The Secret Garden, then others where the house is a lot nicer and more welcoming. Like the house in Anne of Green Gables, which was a really formative book for me when I was younger, that’s obviously a very warm and loving space. And of course, Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice. I’ve taught the novel for years now, so I’ve read the chapter where Elizabeth shows up at Pemberley over and over again—how she comes upon the house with the Gardiners, and then they go inside and the housekeeper shows them the family portraits. It’s a good example of a home that’s really important in the novel.
You also included spaces that don’t really have much of an interior at all. Some of those are places you call “quirky,” which I’ve always thought is such a loaded term in interior design, basically used to describe anybody who dares to have weird stuff in their home.
The column was initially called “Great House Therapy,” and the idea was to explicitly pair the Apartment Therapy-style house tour with the idea of the great house in literature, these big estates owned by landed gentry. But when I developed it into a book, I wanted all sorts of different literary houses, and apartments, and, for instance, King Lear’s hovel. That play is so much about hospitality, how Lear violates the hospitality of his daughters and is cast out into the storm. I wanted some of the interiors to be totally terrible, and to find the humor in that, so I included places like Raskolnikov’s lair in Crime and Punishment, and the room in The Yellow Wallpaper, a place where the narrator is trapped, and I imagined Jane Eyre talking to Becky Sharp, from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, about their dismal governess’s rooms.
Your title is a nod to Virginia Woolf, and her feminist classic A Room of One’s Own. Do you think turning the spotlight on domestic spaces is also a way to turn the focus on women in literature?
Yes—I love that book, and I have a chapter on Clarissa Dalloway’s house, so Woolf does show up in the book itself. I also wrote about a lot of domestic spaces that are ruled over by female characters, like Wickham Place in E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which is one of my favorites, or the Dashwoods’ cottage in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, where even though they’ve been exiled from their estate, it’s still their space and their world, this female home.
And you have “The Marches’ Massachusetts Woman Cave,” of course.
Yes, I knew I would want Little Women to be in there, given how important that book was to me, and this female space where the father is off at war and always on the periphery. So thinking about the domestic spaces is absolutely a way to think about historically female domains. I also really enjoyed working on the chapter on Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, diving back into the book and thinking about her house as the decaying spinster house of horrors, where she’s the woman jilted at the altar, every terrible misogynist cliché in the book. It was fun to try to reclaim that by making fun of the ridiculousness of it, and of male authors who write these female characters and female spaces that are so abject, according to patriarchal standards.
Right—there are so many assumptions in the design world about what kind of home is suitable for what kind of person. And as you say in the book, your own home isn’t really “suitable” in that sense—it’s a big family home, and you live alone.
I never thought of myself as someone who would buy a house. I lived in New York for 12 years, where renting is the norm, and when I first moved to Winston-Salem for my job, I rented for a couple of years. Then I saw this house that was for sale, and asked my former landlord, who was also a real estate agent, if she would show it to me. I’m so glad I did, because it’s become my dominion. I’m a big collector, and I love the idea of the house that reflects yourself and your personality, and is filled with significant objects—not just things that you feel like you should put on your coffee table because that’s how you style a coffee table, but because they mean something to you. For me, owning a house became about decorating and creating a space that was very deliberately the space I wanted. It’s still an ongoing project, and I’m working on a book now about my house, having written a number of essays about it over the years. I wrote so much of this book at home, and was buying books that I needed to reread, and then putting these books into my house, and that was a wonderful process, of adding to my own house even as I was writing this book and exploring all these other literary houses.