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 nonpareilleLizza 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.
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.
Rumer Godden: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita Introduced by Anita Desai
Virago Modern Classics 2015 (1963)
Speaking as someone who has holidayed there, I can confirm that Lake Garda is a jewel, one of Italy’s many natural delights and the largest of its lakes, nestled at the foot of the Dolomites. When viewed from Limone on the western shore the picturesque town of Malcesine is dwarfed by the bulk of Monte Baldo rising behind it two kilometres into the sky, but in Malcesine itself the eye is drawn by the waters, to the craft which ply its surface and the changing outlook determined by the time of day and the weather. It was so in the nineties, and it was so in the early sixties when this novel is set. But for one of the main characters in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita trouble is looming, just as Monte Baldo looms above the seemingly impregnable castle of Malcesine.
Fanny Clavering is unhappy in her Home Counties village of Whitcross: she rattles around her home, her army officer of a husband is often abroad, her children preoccupied with their own lives. She finds herself attracted to Rob Quillet, who is directing a film in the vicinity, and they begin a chaste affair, meeting clandestinely for quiet meals and outings. There comes the inevitable moment when, rejecting her husband Darrell’s advances, she escapes, divorcing her husband and eloping with Rob to the Villa Fiorita near Malcesine. Here she discovers an idyllic existence on the borrowed property, one she had hardly ever dreamed of. But, like the sudden squalls that sometimes buffet the lake, a tempest is on its way to the villa in the persons of her two youngest children, Hugh and Caddie.
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.
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.
We’ve been holidaying in East Sussex, near the historic town of Rye, seeing sites, such as gardens and buildings, and sights, such as the sea and countryside. Amongst them all is beautiful Rye itself.
Rye is also a veritable literary mecca. Natives and residents have included playwright (and sometime Shakespeare collaborator) John Fletcher, Henry James (who completed The Spoils of Poynton near Rye, and then wrote his remaining novels in Lamb House, Rye), E F Benson (author of the ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels), and Conrad Aiken (poet and author), not forgetting Joan Aiken, his now more famous daughter, born here ninety-four years ago on 4th September 1924.
Aiken celebrated her birthplace in her fiction, sometimes obscurely. For example, the short stories in The Monkey’s Wedding feature towns called, variously, Rohun, Rune or Ryme. The Wolves Chronicle entitled Midwinter Nightingale, first published the year before her death, was partly set in marshland reminiscent of Romney Marsh, the coastal area between Winchelsea and Dungeness, and accessible from Rye. And, of course, The Haunting of Lamb House, her supernatural novel from 1991, is specifically set in Rye.
Forgive me but please be indulgent, for I shall in due course be posting a little bit more about this part of East Sussex and its literary links; for now it seems a good time to celebrate the genius of Joan Aiken and draw attention to her Sussex birthplace.
Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House. Jonathan Cape, 1991 ~ Midwinter Nightingale. Red Fox, 2005 (2003) ~ The Monkey’s Wedding. Small Beer Press, 2011
Dorothy Eagle and Hillary Carell (eds): The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles. OUP, 1977
Henry James: The Spoils of Poynton. Penguin Classics 1987 (1897)
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.