10 Real-Life Places That Inspired Literary Classics


Earlier this week, we read about plans to turn Moat Brae, the Georgian townhouse in Scotland that inspired JM Barrie’s Peter Pan into a center for children’s literature, which we think sounds like a wonderful idea. It also doesn’t hurt that Absolutely Fabulous actress Joanna Lumley is the primary advocate and fundraiser behind the project. But more importantly, the project got us thinking about all the real-life places that have inspired some of our favorite works of literature. We’re not talking big cities like New York and LA and their numerous pleasures, which figure in thousands of books, but houses and moors, caves and farmlands hidden away in authors’ hometowns or childhood vacation spots. Of course, some of the mythology of inspiration is always guesswork, but we can’t deny that we feel a little literary tingle when we look at these places. Click through to see our list of ten real life places that inspired literary classics, and let us know any we’ve missed in the comments!

JM Barrie’s Neverland (Moat Brae, in Dumfries, Scotland)

Almost 140 years ago, on his first day at Dumfries Academy in Dumfries, Scotland, J.M. Barrie was invited to join the ‘pirate crew’ of a classmate, Stuart Gordon, and proceeded to adventure with him and other boys in the verdant backyard of Gordon’s home, Moat Brae, a late Georgian town house. It was there that Barrie began to imagine the magical realm of Neverland and the boy who would never grow up. In his memoirs, he wrote, “When the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians changed their skins, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan . For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work. We lived in the tree-tops, on coconuts attached thereto… we were buccaneers, and I kept the log-book of our depredations, an eerie journal without a triangle in it to mar the beauty of its pages.” You can learn more about the project to turn the original Neverland into a children’s literature center and support it here.

Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (Fort House, in Broadstairs, Kent)

Fort House, Dickens’ holiday estate (which has since his death actually been renamed Bleak House), where he famously finished his novel David Copperfield , was also the site of his inspiration for Bleak House . The house, particularly the view from the study, which overlooks the English Channel, is said to have inspired the novel, perhaps especially in gloomy lines like this: “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights…”

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth (Moseley Bog and Birmingham)

“I lived, for my early years, in the Shire,” Tolkien once told a friend, “in a pre-mechanical age.” According to the Telegraph UK, Birmingham, where Tolkien grew up, is filled with inspirations for his epic novels. The shadowy descriptions of the Old Forest were inspired in part by Moseley Bog, the marshy wilderness behind Tolkien’s childhood home, and the Great Mill is a reincarnation of Sarehole Mill, where as a child Tolkien and his younger brother frolicked, explored, and raised the ire of the miller, just like some young hobbits we know.

Herman Melville’s Pequod (the Essex)

Melville’s Moby Dick was inspired by the story of the Essex, a whaling ship captained by George Pollard Jr. that was rammed by a sperm whale in 1820. Only a drawing from that time exists, but earlier this year, US marine archaeologists found the remains of another of Captain Pollard’s ships, the Two Brothers, which had gone down near Hawaii after hitting a coral reef. Some bad luck he’s got, that Captain Pollard.

Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” (at the Robert Frost House in Derry, NH)

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, but Frost did. This stone wall at Frost’s home in New Hampshire is where Frost would chat with his neighbor, Napoleon Guay, who told him ‘Good fences make good neighbors,’ as Frost fiddled with the boulders and loaves. If you’re behind on your reading for ninth grade English, check out the poem in question here.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Green Gables (in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, Canada)

When Montgomery was a child, she visited the Green Gables farm (so named for the dark green paint on the farmhouse gables, of course) owned by her cousins, the Macneill family. Entranced by the house and surrounding land, like the “Haunted Woods”, “Lovers Lane”, and “Balsam Hollow,” Montgomery based her Anne of Green Gables novels on the property. In the 1930s, the international popularity of the books led to the house and grounds being granted national park status, though in the interest of tourism the surrounding farmland has been developed into a fancy golf course.

C.S. Lewis’ Narnia (Narni, Italy)

According to his former personal secretary and biographer, Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis’ magical land of Narnia was inspired by the real-life town of Narni, 50 miles north of Roman in the hills of Umbria. Though as far as anyone knows Lewis did not actually visit the place, so the inspiration may come from name and history alone (the town has been written about by the likes of Tacitus, Livy and Pliny the Elder), there seem to be a few mysterious similarities between the two lands — the castle overlooking the valley, the lake with silver waters — that may be cases of coincidence, art imitating life or life imitating art. Who can tell?

Emily Brontë’s Earnshaw house (Top Withens, near Haworth, West Yorkshire, England)

Though the association is unconfirmed, many believe that the ruined farmhouse at Top Withens was the inspiration for the setting of the Earnshaw house in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights . A plaque on the wall reads, “This farmhouse has been associated with “Wuthering Heights”, the Earnshaw home in Emily Brontë’s novel. The buildings, even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described, but the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of the Heights. — Brontë Society 1964. This plaque has been placed here in response to many enquiries.” It’s a hesitant recommendation to be sure, but that doesn’t stop fans from flocking there.

Mark Twain’s McDougal’s Cave (Cameron Cave, Hannibal, Missouri)

The cave in which Tom and Becky Thatcher adventure in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is based on a real cave in Mark Twain’s childhood home of Hannibal, Missouri. Now rechristened the Mark Twain Cave, it is a registered national natural landmark that you can explore (kind of) in guided tours. We can’t promise you’ll see “Becky & Tom” etched on the walls in candle-soot, but it would be a nice touch.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s Mansion (Sands Point, NY)

A 1902 home in Long Island was long reported to be the inspiration for Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s mansion in Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby. During its heyday, the house was owned by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Herbert Bayard Swope, who had people like Winston Churchill, Dorothy Parker, and Fitzgerald himself over for parties. Unfortunately the home was recently demolished, leaving only the bittersweet memories of Daisy and Tom’s carelessness.