At Kenilworth Castle, in Warwickshire, England, some tourists read history in the stones; others read fiction. The ruined castle is as well known for its battles, sieges and political intrigues as it is for its role in Walter Scott’s 1821 novel, Kenilworth. Scott’s narrative draws on the story of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, and his romantic courtship of Queen Elizabeth I. In a notable episode in Kenilworth’s history, Dudley hosted the monarch at his castle for a 19-day festival of banquets, masques and spectacles. Though the Earl ultimately failed to win her hand, he remained a favorite of the Queen and over the years their close relationship was the subject of persistent rumor and scandal.
Did the two maintain a secret romance? Did Dudley have his wife killed so as to free himself for a second marriage? Touring the castle grounds, historians and literary readers alike wonder what transpired behind closed doors at Kenilworth. Since renovations in 2014 visitors can now enter the Queen’s private chambers on suspended walkways and imagine her trysts there with Dudley; they reenact in their minds Amy Robsart’s “accidental” fall from the staircase (or the bridge, in Scott’s version); they imagine what might have transpired if Dudley had ever become prince. The writing of history is impossible without such fancies and extrapolations. Likewise, literature can’t do without a basis in reality and the proverbial grain of truth. Adorno reminds us that “Nothing intellectual was ever conceived, not even the most escapist dream, whose objective content did not include the transformation of material reality.”* But the converse is equally true: that any historical construct, however faithful it may be, contains romance, fantasy and imagination, the stuff of Walter Scott’s fiction.
Kenilworth is constructed of local red sandstone, a somewhat friable building material. In places where doorways and corridors are exposed to the west wind, the castle walls look as wild and eroded as sea cliffs. Visitors can’t resist carving graffiti in the soft red stone, as if to write themselves into history.
On the grounds of the nearby St. Nicholas’ church, the gravestones are carved in the same material. Exposed to the elements, words engraved on the stones may last no longer than a passing scrawl of a tourist on Kenilworth’s walls. What pious statement or wild profession of love was carved beneath the date on Solomon Coffe Pratt’s tombstone, the words now illegible, reduced to sheer “material reality,” but provoking fancy, speculation and dreams?
* Theodor Adorno, Prisms, Samuel and Shierry Weber, trans. (London: Neville Spearman, 1967), 108.