On this day…

Young Joan Aiken (photo: http://joanaiken.com/pages/gallery.html)

Joan Aiken would have been 95 today. Born on 4th September 1924 in the historic Jeake’s House in Rye, East Sussex, she produced a distinguished body of literary work of extraordinary quality as well as quality. Regular readers will know that I am a major fanboy of hers, as a glance at the tag Joan Aiken on this blog will confirm.

There’s more to her fiction than The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, fine and deservedly famous as it is, and though I’ve barely read a fraction of her published work I’m constantly amazed by her range, from novels to non-fiction, short stories to book sequences, fairytale retellings to Austen homages, and much more besides.

Find out even more on the truly marvellous Joan Aiken website and on the equally delightful blog run by her daughter, the nonpareille Lizza Aiken, here. My photos of the downstairs rooms of Jeake’s House, where Joan lived until 1929 when her parents divorced and is now a superior B&B, are in this post.

Jeake’s House, Mermaid Street, Rye, East Sussex

Seesaw sympathies

Brighton Front (postcard image: Old UK photos)

E F Benson:
The Blotting Book
Vintage Classics 2013 (1908)

Set partly in Brighton and partly in Falmer (on the road east to Lewes, East Sussex) this crime novel — less a whodunit, more a courtroom drama — is a stylish period piece, an Edwardian mystery with just a hint of the supernatural in the guise of a prophetic dream. In a way this novella doesn’t quite make up its mind what kind of genre it intends to be so includes a bit of everything, even including a bit of financial advice along the lines of *the value of your investments may go down as well as up*.

The essential plot is so simple that to do more than recount the basic set-up would be to give the game away. Let me introduce the two lawyer partnership based in Brighton of Edward Taynton and Godfrey Mills. Then let’s meet two of their clients, the widow Mrs Assheton and her son Morris, a young man soon to be of age, a ‘racey’ chap who likes fast cars. Morris hopes to be engaged to Madge Templeton, daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Templeton.

When one of these individuals disappears an Inspector Figgis gets involved, and when matters eventually come to court we finally learn not so much who-did-what as how-it-all-happened, amidst all the to and fro of legal proceedings and timely revelations. Fraud, gambling, blackmail, slander, forgery, murder — it’s all here, but as this involves the upper middle classes rest assured that it’s mostly quite genteel, there’s little or no gratuitous violence and the lower classes know their place.

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Weird and wilderness

Sketch map (not to scale) of Rotherweird, based on the text of the first instalment and the cover art of all three books in the trilogy (image © Chris Lovegrove)

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird (reviewed here) kicks off a fantasy trilogy being published in the UK, with the final volume due to appear in July this year. I’ve previously mentioned my fascination with maps both real and imagined and even suggested that the author, whose distinguished grandfather lived in Sussex and Kent in the far southeast of England, may have based his concept of Rotherweird on the town of Rye in East Sussex. You may remember that Rye boasted many literary associations such as (in alphabetical order) Joan Aiken, E F Benson, Rumer Godden, Radclyffe Hall and Henry James.

Now, I have no idea if Andrew Caldecott visited here, though given its relative proximity on the south coast to London it’s not unlikely, but I believe there are a few clues pointing to Rye faintly being a possible model for the fantasy town.

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A lodge of her own

Patio and deckchairs in front of Virginia Woolf’s writing lodge

Another visit to the literary south coast of England finds us at Monk’s House at Rodmell in East Sussex, the home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. We start at Virginia’s Writing Lodge, essentially a superior garden shed, completed in 1934.

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Literary Rye

Mermaid Street, Rye

We’ve visited Rye in East Sussex before on this blog, looking at Lamb House which was associated with various literary figures, including Henry James and Rumer Godden.

Let’s now see a selection of who else with bookish leanings found so much to inspire them in this picturesque and historic town.

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Literary bookshelves

Lamb House bookshelves

You may remember among the photos I included in a piece about Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, the picture of some bookshelves as Henry James might have seen them (sadly the books pictured are not James’ originals).

I thought I might also share with you some images of other bookshelves I saw on a recent visit to places in East Sussex and Kent, shelves associated with a couple of other literary figures. You may care to imagine, as I did, the authors in these places scribbling away or reading the latest publication sent their way.

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Merely raw materials

Lamb House and garden, from the south

Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House
Jonathan Cape 1991

‘Perhaps we are nothing but the raw materials of a ghost story.’
— Hugo to Toby Lamb

A ghostly apparition, what does it signify? Misfortune? Death? Something lost or unfinished? Are inexplicable happenings evidence of a poltergeist or just the wild imaginings of the observer? Do houses, ancient sites and natural features attract supernatural entities like a genius loci, or perhaps preserve the memory of ancient associations? Will we ever fathom out true answers?

The Haunting of Lamb House is a ghost story unlike any other I’ve read. True, there may be more than one ghost (it appears) and there are three related stories: but if you’re looking for your spine to be tingled or expecting multiple bumps in the night you might be disappointed. Instead, what you’ll be offered is a sense of place and of the personages, real or imagined, that inhabited a three hundred year old house, so that the house becomes as much a character as the denizens that inhabit it.

What for me adds to the novel’s attractiveness are a couple of considerations: first, the house featured in it actually exists — and can be visited by the public — and second, the three narratives, with their different voices, give the novel a documentary feel, as though one was perusing transcriptions of actual historical artefacts. Their combination in one narrative thread somehow allowed me, Coleridge-style, to willingly suspend any sense of disbelief.

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Rye thoughts

Allan Ramsay: Thomas Lamb of Rye (1719-1804) painted 1753; National Galleries of Scotland

I promised some more Rye, but not wry, thoughts about that East Sussex town bordering Kent, where we’ve recently spent a very pleasant week.

Normally I wouldn’t post about holidays — they tend to be personal matters, after all, of little concern to the world at large — but in the case of Rye and further west in Sussex there is much of huge literary interest, as is appropriate for a bookish blog.

As it happens, this little town is well worth a pilgrimage: here I want to mention a particularly significant building, but I shall later also post about the town in general and later still about other selected sites in East Sussex and Kent.

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