Going on an outing: the historic house and queer public history

Using the metaphor of ghosting, this article examines the ways in which lesbian, gay, queer (and other) visitors have looked for sexual dissidence in historic houses and their former inhabitants by exploring the complicated processes through which visitors both identify with those queer past lives, and experience a sense of otherness or historical distance from them. It focuses in particular on two sites: Plas Newydd, home of the Ladies of Llangollen; and Sissinghurst, the garden created by writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. The article questions the distinction (and often implicit hierarchy) made by academic historians between identification and queering, between similarity and otherness, in public history. Identifying historical figures as having had same-sex relationships is important in constructing a sense of selfhood for many queer women and men. Visiting a significant historic site can therefore be seen as an act of pilgrimage. Yet ghostly hints of the otherness (or alterity) of the past are inherent in the complexity of the historic house. This dissonance is provoked by contrary interpretations of the household's past found in biographies or published diaries of former residents, guidebooks and exhibition displays about their lives, and the interpretation strategies of curators. The materiality and spatial qualities of the old building create further narrative complexity, inevitably reflecting both distinct layers of time, and domestic layouts which support or challenge an assumed story of interior family life. These complex possible readings overlap to disrupt heteronormative presumptions about the historic house and instead reveal elements of queer domesticity.