place and time
a blog devoted to writers and their places
May 2012: H E Bates – A Personal Appreciation
By James Fergusson
Herbert Ernest Bates was born in Rushden in Northamptonshire in 1905 and died in his adopted Kent in 1974.
His first novel, The Two Sisters, was published in 1926. At the time he was working as a journalist, a job which it seems he greatly disliked! He was countryman at heart – the sights, sounds and smells of rural life were his passion.
In 1931, when the great depression was at its cruellest, he viewed, accompanied by his wife (“Madge”), “The Granary”, a large house in the tiny Kent village of Little Chart, near Pluckley. He described how, as they walked over the sodden grass toward The Granary’s old stone walls (which were yellow with lichen), the rural idyll before them was completed by the sun coming out; “It’s all perfick,” as his most famous character, “Pop” (changed to “Pa” in the popular television series based on the books) Larkin, might have said!
All that for £600 – which sounds cheap – but the average wage in industry at the time was some £1 and 12 shillings a week. As a writer in the early stages of his career, it was a substantial and uncertain purchase. He called their proposal to renovate and renew The Granary a “lunatic scheme”, but Madge and he knew that it was right for them and they were to live in The Granary until Bates’s death in 1974. Later on, the lawn of the house was used for filming the, very successful, ITV series “The Darling Buds of May”, under the auspices of his son Richard.
One wonders what the author would have made of the asking price for the house when it came onto the market in June 2018, for £1.1m. Surrounded by an oasis of green, it looked very special in the estate agent’s picture, and for once they didn’t need to use the word ‘bijou’ when dealing with a house with 3,000 square feet of accommodation! (See: https://www.countrylife.co.uk/property/house-inspired-darling-buds-may-open-market-first-time-almost-90-years-179088)
In the early 1940’s, Bates, desperate to join the battle against Hitler (which he could see almost everyday in the skies over Kent) was, with the help and influence of friends, given a commission in the RAF to write a series of first-hand war stories. This work served to make him a household name, with over three million copies of the Flying Officer X stories being sold. At Tangmere RAF station in Sussex (where Douglas Bader was stationed in 1941) he lived and drank with the pilots, attended briefings, portrayed the lives and aspirations of ‘the few’ (as Churchill most memorably called them), and the inevitable sadness of lives cut short in defence of the country. These observations went on to be the substance of his 1944 novel, Fair Stood the Wind for France.
Post-war, he wrote The Purple Plain (1947), again about the RAF, but this time set in the Far East theatre toward the end of World War II. The book was filmed in 1954, with Gregory Peck in the lead as Squadron Leader Bill Forrester. On a completely different note, the 1952 novel Love For Lydia detailed the early life of Lydia Aspen; the novel is a “rites of passage” story of a wealthy girl growing up under the tutelage of two aunts in a much-changed post-war Britain.
This essay can mention just a very small selection of Bates’s work. His output was phenomenal – something over one hundred works, ranging from short stories, novels, essays and books for children to autobiographical texts. Of course it is the five books in the Larkin family series that are nowadays his best known. They were:
The Darling Buds of May (1958)
A Breath of French Air (1959)
When the Green Woods Laugh (1960)
Oh! To be in England (1963)
A Little of What You Fancy (1970)
These novels were very different from Bates’s former work: they are a comic satire on the way that Britain had evolved since the birth of the welfare state some ten years before. “Pop Larkin” is a kind of lovable (?) country-spiv. With streetwise (lanewise?) cunning, he is determined to use the system without paying a penny towards it. Played by David Jason in the TV series (ITV 1991-3), it is of course impossible not to think of the similar character “Del Boy” Jason played in David Sullivan’s urban satire Only Fools and Horses (BBC 1981-91). Pop makes a living by selling “spare” farm animals and items of scrap, against the backdrop of the “perfick” countryside and the seeming chaos of his homestead with its septic-tanks, rusting agricultural equipment and menagerie of farm animals. It’s a sort of Good Life without the idealistic mindset that is affectionately satirised in that celebrated BBC sitcom. “Ma” (as she is called in both books and TV adaptation – memorably played by Pam Ferris) is the matriarch. She never seems to be out of the kitchen, supplying the family with endless massive dinners, washed down with copious amounts of Pop’s favourite “Dragon’s Blood” cocktail.
For Pop it’s all a “lark” – the “tax lark” is where we first meet Charlie, the respectable but naïve tax-collector trying to get Pop (fat chance!) to submit details of his earnings (Bates himself was very concerned at post-war rates of tax and the effect on authors). Charlie soon succumbs to the obvious and luscious charms of the Larkin’s daughter Mariette, and joins the family. Then there is the “National Health Lark”, by which Pop convinces Charlie to get a sick certificate from the drunken Dr Leagrave, a man getting his per capita quota for patients, whilst seemingly longing for earlier “doctoring” days and calling the majority of his patients, “mere malingerers”. Pop insists that Charlie, “gets something from the government before they get it out of you”!
And of course, there is the “strawberry lark” – a chance to earn extra untaxable money whilst gorging on ripe fruit and taking the farmer for “a ride” by over-estimating the amount of produce picked.
Pop and Ma are concerned that Charlie does not have the “right technique” with Mariette. This is certainly not the case with them as they have produced six children outside of marriage; Pop tries his hand with several other women but never seems to get very far under the watchful eye of Ma.
The necessities of country living with regard to the animals are given full comedy rein by Bates. Pop tells Charlie that the pigs are looking so well, “that we need to kill one tomorrow” and insists what a great day out for him and Charlie it would be to take the pig to the local bacon factory.
Underlying this comedy is a more serious theme: that the countryside has changed. His characters are forced to evolve in a bucolic “survival of the fittest”. Bates portrays the end of any kind of pre-war deference. This is especially relevant to the colourful characters of the Brigadier (called “the General” by Pop) and the spinster Edith Pilchester. Both lament the days when you could get a “man”, and perhaps a whole staff, to wait on you for next to nothing. The Brigadier speaks of the loss of grouse moors, and we can see that he is in a state of penury by the holes in his socks, his rundown appearance and his gratitude for the abundance of food at Pop’s Sunday table, a distinct improvement on the leftover “cold bits” at home.
Edith Pilchester has had to vacate her home and now lives in a run down “byre”. She still takes The Times but bemoans that her 3.5% war stock is keeping her only just above the breadline. All governments are, to her, dishonest. She is on the local committee and arranges gymkhanas and other events, but has to ask Pop to provide a field and refreshments – an unheard of thing in the past. For Edith, everything is, “absolutely ghastly”. Both her and the Brigadier consider that they won the war but lost the peace – it is the Pop Larkins of the world who are better placed to use the system and profit by it.
Pop nevertheless aspires to be like them. He respects and feels sorry for them. Going about in an old Rolls Royce, Pop’s compassion does not however divert his eye from the main chance: he wishes to buy their property and sell it on. He buys their armorial bearings and suits of armour; he would know he had finally arrived if he were made Master of Hounds, the ultimate accolade in his mind.
Bates, with brilliant comedy set in a landscape of idyllic bluebell woods under endless sunshine, gives the lie, in his view, to the submission that the meek will inherit the earth!
By Philip Dodd
“Rochester’s Precincts are as picturesque, peaceful and proper as any city could deserve.”
The same magnificent walnut tree Samuel Johnson sat under was still in the garden of St Margaret’s vicarage when the Thorndike family moved there in 1892 (it had to be cut down during their tenure as its roots were destroying the garden). They were moving up the hill from 2 Minor Canon Row, where Russell had been born in 1885. This was much to the annoyance of his elder sister Sybil, who was born in Gainsborough in Lincolnshire: she loved Rochester dearly and was embarrassed that he could always wind her up about the fact that he was a man of Kent and she was not.
The pair were always very close and started performing plays together in both houses, drawing on Grand Guignol, circuses and travelling performers. The drama critic J.C. Trewin wrote that they ‘must have been the most cheerfully theatrical children that the Precincts can have known.’ Their father, Arthur Thorndike, had been promoted from Minor Canon to Vicar of St Margaret’s and they spent their childhood and teenage years in the vicarage, where they and sister Eileen were joined by little brother Frank in 1895.
if Enid Bagnold was a ‘scallywag’, Russell was definitely a cheeky scamp. He loved writing and managed to squirrel away an old lectern from the church –replaced by the brass beauty that is still there – as his writing desk, and made a den in the side garden. He was at King’s Prep school (Sybil was at the Grammar School) when the Bishop of Rochester visited to ask him to apply as a chorister at St George’s Windsor, which he did. He had an excellent voice and sang at both Osborne House and Westminster Abbey for, respectively, the lying in state and funeral of Queen Victoria.
There was an idea he should become a parson but writing was in his blood. He and Sibyl went off acting together – ‘my headmaster at Rochester thought Father entirely mad to let me leave school at the age of seventeen and take up such an insecure profession as the stage’ – before he settled into a life of writing.
His most famous books were the series featuring Dr Syn (vicar by day, smuggler by night). The first of these, Dr Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh ,was published in 1915, the year he dislocated his spine fighting at Gallipoli with the Westminster Dragoons. The remainder were written in the 1930s as prequels to the first. Walt Disney made a film version in 1963 with Patrick McGoohan as Dr Syn and George Cole as his loyal sidekick Mipps and so Russell is probably better known in the USA than in his home country. Dr Syn was, fictionally, the vicar of Dymchurch and the Romney Marsh area was very much Russell’s home (particularly the Ship Inn!). Since 1964 there has been a biannual Day Of Syn festival in Dymchurch: the next one was due to be held in August 2020.
Russell also wrote The Slype in 1927, a murder mystery set in a thinly disguised Rochester, called Dullchester (rather unfairly seeing how much he loved the city). Sybil and Russell had known Dean Hole well: he appears as Dean Jerome, tending his roses in a ‘Precincts as picturesque, peaceful and proper as any city could deserve.’ The Slype was the covered passageway that allowed the monks to walk unseen from the Cathedral to tend the plants in The Vines. The remnant that exists is behind a doorway at the corner of Minor Canon Row and The Precinct.
He wrote a gossipy, bantering and anecdote-filled biography of his sister in 1929 – one biographer makes this diggly remark: ‘by 40 he had peaked as Sybil soared’. His son Daniel, like most of the Thorndikes, went into the theatre profession – a serious and respected actor, he will however forever be remembered as the fanatically puritan Lord Whiteadder in Blackadder. Daniel’s daughter, Nina Thorndike, was one of the key instigators of our Thorndike weekend in 2017: she died in November the following year. At the wake I met her brother Bruce and her son Robbie, and invited them to Rochester in March last year: they had never been there. Elizabeth Weber welcomed them to 2 Minor Canon Row and they were both visibly moved to be in the house where their grandfather and great-grandfather had been born.
Later we went to the top of St Margaret’s Church tower, like the Five Children – only, wingless, we had to climb up. Working on this piece, I had been pleasantly surprised by the many unexpected connections between the four writers. I discovered a reference to Russell talking to E. Nesbit when they were both in Dymchurch. He once asked her if it was indeed St Margaret’s Church and vicarage which had featured in Five Children And It. She was astonished (she hadn’t known the Thorndikes ever lived there) and declared, ‘Why, so it was!’ It’s a small world, indeed.
A meditation on the novels of Anthony Powell
By Charles Williams
Works of the imagination must correspond well enough to reality so that those experiencing them accept their premises without question. The emphasis is important here; the correspondence is not really the interesting bit. Anthony Powell’s Dance To The Music Of Time is often thought of as a roman a clef; his work is dogged by questions about how much he invented and how much is the depiction of actual people, acting as they were reputed to. In a talk about his own spy novel series, Will Self claimed that one of his peers, a household name in spy novels (he didn’t reveal the name itself) had insisted that he made nothing up. The complex narratives and details were simply re-ordered, re-named, re-located.
There is a huge wealth of pictorial detail in Dance To The Music Of Time. The title quotes the Poussin painting of the same name and, as an exhibition in 2005 at the Wallace Collection made clear, the narrative’s structure and theme relates closely to Poussin’s image. I would argue that rather than libellous depiction, Powell is mainly interested in distinction. Not in the sense that is often supposed: the reputation of the books for gossipy, upper-class flim-flam is probably Auberon Waugh’s fault, who, according to Hilary Spurling’s recent biography, assassinated Powell’s life-work in a misplaced Oedipal attempt on his own father.
As the Poussin distinguishes, for example, between modes of Time in the painting (Apollo in his chariot, Time with his lyre) so Powell distinguishes between types of people, holding them up for comparison, examining one set of characteristics against another. His strength and continuing fascination, for me at any rate, is in the way he never stops this process – people’s characters shift, re-focus, reveal different aspects as time, circumstance and place unfold.
Powell’s work has been described as a series of vignettes in rooms strung out across twelve books. He was a collagist; literally as well as figuratively. His books are structured in the main as a series of two or three central incidents in specific places, involving finite casts of characters, each set on its own journey that might or might not collide with another. But after a morning’s writing he would often retire to his basement, the walls of which he gradually covered with pasted imagery, mostly cut from newspapers and magazines, sometimes prints. He kept scrapbooks as a younger man; again, collage.
Real places rarely match up to or are as magnetic or luminous as described, with the exception of Provence anyway, which is admittedly revelatory – it was like driving through a Cezanne painting. On the same trip, I visited Bonnard’s little town, revealed as far tawdrier and more suburban than I had imagined. The point is to transcend reality. This is the true value of matching subject to object: you can see how the artist has improvised, and perhaps why.
A friend of mine, two years out of Art College and living in a city in the Midlands, with a part-time job in a factory and a subsidised studio in a big complex – all of this the norm for a fine art graduate in the eighties – decided that he didn’t want this life. He wanted to make some money from his considerable talent, not settle for artistic integrity and the chance of an Arts Council Grant.
So he set about working out how to achieve it: given that the people with money in this country in the eighties were primarily interested in sport, by which I mean hunting and fishing rather than football, he decided to make paintings of things that might interest them. His research was exhaustive and his methods bold, and when I knew him he was beginning to succeed in his ambition. Now he’s spoken of in reverential tones by the wildlife and sporting artists of my acquaintance.
He wasn’t happy though, and I think he envied my relative freedom from success. ‘At least when people buy your paintings, Charles, it’s because they like them’ he said once. ‘When I hand over a finished commission the first thing my buyers do is inspect it to make sure the foliage is exactly the right colour to match the plumage and the season – never mind that it’s a fantastic painting!’ He was unable to improvise.
If you indulge in the minute speculation and detective work that is often associated with his work – is Widmerpool William Rees Mogg or Colonel Manningham Buller?– your belief in Widmerpool is shaken if he behaves unlike your chosen model. It’s worse with places. The scene at Thrubworth in Hearing Secret Harmonies, when Widmerpool appears with his fellow ascetics, is not going to work for you if you know that the park across which they run does not exist in real life. This is the jarring point, the place where the imagination has not corresponded with reality. But it isn’t Powell’s reality, it’s yours. Reading Dance To The Music Of Time as a roman a clef nullifies Powell’s improvisation, his imagination, the point of the book itself.
I once spent a very boring evening being told exactly what all the lyrics meant by someone who claimed to love Bob Dylan’s work. I tried to demur a few times but the result was merely raised volume and a developing tendency to jab the forefinger, so I desisted. I must have mentioned the lines ‘she refused the shove her dream / into the ditch of what it means’ or whatever it is, but he didn’t pay that any attention.
I’m not making an argument for solipsism. As a some-time Fine Art studio lecturer I have had quite enough of the lazy student’s protest that ‘if that’s what it means to me, that’s what it means, because I made it’. But there’s a difference between a search for meaning and evisceration; this fellow didn’t love Bob Dylan as he claimed, and his monologue was something more forceful that an act of love.
Meaning is the thing we want from art; it must have meaning to other people to be art. But meaning isn’t necessarily fixed. While I see my own life as an uphill struggle against philistines, I know that there are people who have seen me as a Widmerpool figure or would if they had lowered themselves to read gossipy, posh Anthony Powell.
One of my favourite paintings has a complex narrative in which the house plays an important part. Joseph Highmore’s Mr Oldham and his Guests (1735 – 45) is a work of great individuality. It depicts a most ordinary event; he’d invited two locals, a schoolmaster and a farmer, as well as his particular friend Highmore, to supper, but being a keen sportsman, had forgotten his invitation, distracted by the game on his 40 acres. By the time he returned the three had been drinking negus, a kind of warm port and lemon, for some while. Oldham commissioned Highmore on the spot to record the moment, which he did in a manner unlike any other British artist working at the time, the figures solid, nearly life-size, shown with no flattery or grandiosity, sitting drunk in a room. I can’t imagine why Powell doesn’t mention this painting.
Oldham was a truly individual man. Having inherited a fortune he set about spending it on collecting, ‘curiosities’ as well as paintings, to such an extent that he ran through the fortune and had to sell Ealing House, where he had entertained his guests. He escaped his creditors by taking sanctuary at the Court of St James, entertaining the other courtiers with his outlandish dress and amusing musical performances. Eventually though, he died in a debtors’ prison.
His life is like a Powell character’s. I spent a week once in a villa in Tuscany, teaching Ladies to paint in watercolour (such is the life of your correspondent) and among the Ladies was a daughter of Lord Longford. I was thrilled to meet someone related to Anthony Powell, although I found it hard to know what to ask. I quickly fell back on the boring questions of who was supposed to be whom, and Lady Billington gently put me off, saying that her uncle was always keen to point out that Dance to the Music of Time was a work of fiction. Everything was made up.
By Philip Dodd
“I am not a born writer, but born a writer.”
Researching the life of Enid Bagnold – best known for writing National Velvet – threw up a mystery. From the biographies I knew that she was born in ‘Borstal Cottage’, described as a pretty Georgian house in Rochester with views up Medway Valley to Cuxton Hills, but could not locate it. Thanks to Stephen Hannington, who has written Out Of The Shadows, a history of Borstal village, I got a steer that rather than being in Borstal itself the house was in fact up towards the end of Borstal Road before its junction with Priestfields, and next to the Goddings. I went up there, knocked on the door, and was delighted to be greeted by the owners, Jean and John Pimm: even better they were CoRS members and happily, this was indeed Borstal Cottage.
Enid was born there because her father Arthur was in the army. He was from a military family: his father had been a major-general in the Honorable East India Company. Aged 16 Arthur attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich (alongside Hubert Kitchener) and then joined the Royal Engineers. Back in England after tours of duty in the Empire he met his future wife Ethel at a musical evening in the West country. ‘My father was stationed at Plymouth, a major of Royal Engineers: thirty-four. She was twenty-two and a beauty, with golden hair and violet eyes. Her waist was eighteen inches.’
He was posted to Chatham after their honeymoon, and the cottage was one of a number of properties where officers could be quartered: Enid was born there 1889. She lived in Rochester until she was at least five (and so might have known the Thorndikes, who moved to the St Margaret’s vicarage in 1892). She later recalled being punished by her father – he was relatively liberal in many ways, but believed in strict discipline – after a church parade at Brompton Barracks, when she dared a friend to run beneath a tethered horse. She was whipped by father with a ruler ‘still wearing his silver helmet with white cocks’ feathers’.
Her grandmother heard locals saying that young Mrs Bagnold’s little girl ws very spoilt. ‘Grannie heard it and rubbed it in. That too was her opinion.’ Enid was an early reader but ‘I didn’t want to read books, I wanted a horse. I prayed for a horse.’ She learned to ride aged ten while the family were on a posting to Jamaica. They returned to live in Warren Wood, a house in Shooters Hill, as Arthur was stationed at Woolwich Arsenal.
There she started sending her writing to publishers, and in 1907, aged 18, she had some poems published in the magazines English Illustrated and New Age (which Arnold Bennett also wrote for). Her Uncle Lexy encouraged her since her father was initially not happy about this, but he relented and gave her a workroom in ‘the tower room’, where she learnt the discipline of work – she never found writing easy.
She enjoyed long walks. Nearby was Well Hall, where E.Nesbit lived. Enid would wander past secretly hoping to be seduced by the notorious roué Hubert. ‘He had a “reputation with women”, or so I’d heard. Passing the house very slowly I murmured the opening words of his (invented) attack on me. Violently attracted, he called me his Enigma’. She never met him but saw his coffin being carried out. Later she for a while on Hearth and Home magazine, where she interviewed amonst others, E. Nesbit herself. A recent biography of E. Nesbit notes that ‘she welcomed cheery visits from Enid Bagnold, who came to tea on her motorcycle several times when she was working as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD nurse) at the Royal Herbert Hospital’.
In 1920 she married Sir George Roderick Jones, the chairman of Reuters. One profile of him describes him waspishly as ‘the sort of man who in his own memoirs mentions by name everyone who mattered. In the memoirs of most other people his own name is noticeably absent.’ Virgina Woolf was equally damning of Enid, calling her ‘a scallywag who married a very rich man’
Now Lady Jones, she was part of an of arty circle of painters and writers including Vita Sackville-West and Lady Diana Cooper, lived in Hyde Park Gate and had a house in Rottingdean. As her children grew up, horses featured again in her life, as her daughters took part in local gymkhanas. She started work on a book about girls and horse. ‘It would probably have remained an elegantly written, if rather dry discussion of the female-equine relationship’, says her biographer, but a friend made a throwaway comment that she should stick her pwn horse in the new book and ‘jolly well make it win the Grand National’.
She liked the idea and changed the book from one aimed at adolescent (now called the Young Adult market) to one for adults, researching it with a trip to Aintree: the plot of course is that young Velvet Brown disguises herself as a boy to get into the Grand National, where she rides her horse The Pie to victory, but is unmasked and disqualified. ’When the book was finished I knew I had caught something back out of the passage of time, at least for our family’. Enid’s daughter Laurien Jones provided the illustrations for the book.
The book was published in 1935. Enid was on a break in South Africa for a few months. She returned to find it was a bestseller. In June that year Paramount bought the film rights for $40,000, or £8,000 (equivalent in 2020 to £575,000). A salutary note – later she was hit by a bill from the US taxman for $30,000 including interest. She had spent all the money, mainly on ponies, and had to sell investments and borrow money to settle the bill. She never made any further money from the film as it had been an outright deal.
Casting the part of Velvet took eleven years. It was a difficult brief: they needed a young girl who could act, ride and had an English accent.
Thousands were considered and/or auditioned. Finally, they found their Velvet: a 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, who said, ‘I loved the part because Velvet was an extension of me. I rode every morning and I knew how to jump.’ London-born she could also deliver the requisite English accent. As a 13th birthday present Elizabeth was given the horse who appeared with her in the movie; she kept him until he died twelve years later.
Enid continued writing, especially plays. Sybil Thorndike starred in Lottie Dundass (1943); The Chalk Garden starring Glady Cooper and Peggie Ashcroft was Tony-nominated in 1955, and made into 1964 film with Edith Evans and Deborah Kerr (in 2018 Chichester put on a revival with Penelope Keith). In her late eighties Enid had a final success when Katharine Hepburn appeared in a production of A Matter Of Gravity on Broadway. She died in Rottingdean four years later. She was always proud of the Bagnold name she wrote under, although she was Lady Jones in society. One of her grandchildren, Annabel, had a daughter called Samantha… who later married a chap called David Cameron.
Snodland, Swedenborg and Scrooge
By Stephen Moriarty
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Snodland is a small town between Rochester and Maidstone in Kent. The most prominent industry is papermaking (a long-established activity in the Medway valley). The industry in Snodland was greatly expanded by the Hook family, who came to Snodland from Gloucestershire in the middle of the 19th century.
A visitor to Snodland is apt to mistake the main shopping street, Holborough Road, for the High Street – which is a narrower thoroughfare running between the town and the railway station. Initially, one might also think that the Victorian ragstone church on the High Street is the Anglican centre of the town, but Snodland – like many Medway settlements – has its big, medieval, Anglican church beside the river (about where Caractacus’s army stood to taunt the Romans, unaware of the trap they were in). The huge modern paper mill owned by “Smurfitt Kappa”, known as its Townsend Hook plant, is right by the old church on the river, making one of those startling contrasts typical of the region, where industry meets “the marsh country”.
In fact, the Victorian church on the High Street, now a dwelling, was a “New Jerusalem Church” dedicated to St John the Evangelist and funded by the Hook family, who were “Swedenborgians”. The New Church was not their only philanthropic contribution to Snodland. They also had built the Fire Station:
A school (now the Town Hall):
Some almshouses (multidenominational):
And a clocktower:
The clocktower was erected in the memory of Charles Townsend Hook, the founder of the family business in Snodland, who died in 1877. There were other buildings in Snodland erected by the Hooks, including one for the first doctor in the town in the late 1860s, and some fine houses built by another Gloucestershire-born Swedenborgian, Joseph Privett, one of which became a home for the Swedenborgian minister. The Hooks lived in Snodland at “Veles” (the Slavic god?), a manor house, which sadly burned down in 1906.
Charles Townsend had become a Swedenborgian (a member of “The New Church of Jerusalem”) after meeting a devotee of the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Reverend T. Goyder, in Gloucestershire. On Goyder’s demise, Charles took over the community role as “Leader” and continued his religious leadership into Kent after acquiring the Snodland paper mill in 1855.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was, as a younger man, a member of the “Swedish enlightenment”. The son of a pietist heretic to Lutherism (pietists rejected the doctrine of sola fide, faith alone, instead emphasising communion with God), Emanuel was a serious scientist and inventor (he was championed by Erik Benzelius the Younger in Uppsala, and Erik was married to Emanuel’s sister, Anna). In the 1740s, Emanuel obtained official sponsorship for a trip to study natural history in London and Holland (presumably from books). He was interested in the nervous system. In 1735 he had suggested that the soul might be material. Not unusually for the period, his religious, philosophical and scientific elements were all highly stimulated simultaneously. During his travels in Holland he had begun a “Journal of Dreams” in which he recorded his sleeping visions.
In 1745, Swedenborg was dining alone in a private room in a London tavern, when he had a mystical experience awake. The room darkened and changed and a figure appeared. The vision’s first words were: “Do not eat too much!” Swedenborg ran back to his lodgings in fear, but the same figure reappeared that night to tell him that Swedenborg had been appointed to reveal the meaning of the Bible, from dictation (see Bergquist 1999).
Thus began a vast output of religious writing. The most read was “Heaven and Hell”, written in 1758. What is most outstanding in Swedenborg’s vision is the emphasis on the spirit world, a kind of earthly purgatory in which moved, for those with eyes to see them, angels, demons and spirits. The more charitable one had been in life, Swedenborg asserted, the less one suffered in this spectral realm after death.
In 1841, Charles Dickens had a copy of “Heaven and Hell” presented to him by the New Church movement. In a letter of thanks he promised to read it. Perhaps he already knew something about Swedenborg – the “Bagman’s Tale” in the Pickwick Papers 1836-7 has humourous echos of Swedenborg’s vision in the tavern – but one cannot in any case think of “Don’t each too much!” without recalling Scrooge’s “fragment of underdone potato” as an explanation for the apparition of Marley’s ghost in a Christmas Carol (1843). Mary Lutze of Loyola University (Chicago) convincingly argues that Swedenborg’s experience was one of Dickens’ inspirations for ‘Carol. Beneath its bold, fairy-story-like, simplicity, the novella is full of subtle biblical and pagan references. Dickens cuts the Gordian knot of theological controversy with his heartfelt collation of ghosts, spirits, giants and spectres, but his brilliant mind makes textural and philosophical references throughout. Like Swedenborg, albeit more knowingly, he makes an impassioned, intuitive, appeal for charity from a personal hinterland of religious knowledge. That sounds almost banal, but in theological and social terms it was not. ‘Carol had a huge moral effect in the Victorian period, encouraging many paternalistic entreprises. What is less acknowledged, is that this was also Swedenborg at work, through Dickens, although possibly not quite so much in the case of the Hooks in Snodland, where Swedenborg’s influence was more direct!
Snodland is greatly blessed to have the pleasant, useful buildings left to it by the Hooks. I don’t know if Charles Townsend ever met Dickens on one of his walks.
Not Just Dickens: Rochester’s alternative literary heroes
This is an extract from the City of Rochester Society Members’ talk on January 23rd 2020.
The first thing to say is that the title of this talk is in no way a dig at Charles Dickens: I love his writing, and running the Dickens Book Club has proved a chance to rediscover the fertile brilliance of his writing and share it with others. However, he looms so mightily over the cultural life of Rochester that I wanted to illuminate some of the other talented authors who lived here or were inspired by the area: E. Nesbit, Enid Bagnold, Bennet Langton and Russell Thorndike.
“Only by remembering how you felt and thought when you were yourself a child can you arrive at any understanding of the thoughts and feelings of children…”
E. (for Edith) Nesbit was the only one of our four who never lived in Rochester, but she loved the city, the Medway and this part of Kent. She is probably best known for her books Five Children And It and The Railway Children, both brought to wider notice by TV and film, particularly The Railway Children – who can forget Jenny Agutter’s ‘Daddy! My daddy!’ when the steam from the train clears to reveal her father, finally back home after being unjustly imprisoned.
Born in Kennington in 1858, E. Nesbit had a peripatetic childhood: one of her sisters had a serious medical condition and the family were constantly moving around Europe looking for cures. They lived for a while in Halstead Hall, north of Sevenoaks – the excavation of a railway tunnel for Halstead station was one of the inspirations for The Railway Children – before moving to south-east London.
At 21 she married Hubert Bland. Theirs was an unconventional marriage. Hubert was wayward to say the least, one biograpy of Edith describes him as the ‘sexist, womanising, monocle-wearing Hubert Bland’. He already had one extra-marital child, and then Edith’s friend Alice Hoatson became pregnant by him. The Nesbits adopted that child (a daughter, Rosamund) and Alice moved in to their home in Eltham as ‘housekeeper’. Edith and Hubert had three children of their own, and Alice another child with Hubert, a son John, also adopted by the Nesbits, and the dedicatee of Five Children And It.
H.G. Wells painted this thumbnail sketch of the pair: ‘E. Nesbit was a tall, whimsical, restless, able woman who had been very beautiful and was still very good-looking; and Bland was a thick-set, broad-faced aggressive man, a sort of Tom-cat man, with a tenoring voice and a black ribboned monocle, and a general disposition to dress and live up to that.’
Edith turned to writing when Hubert’s business went into receivership, and she became the breadwinner. Five Children And It – in print continuously since 1902 – was fuelled by the frequent trips she made with her (five) children to Kent. Yalding was a favourite holiday haunt. ‘If you go to Yalding you may stay at the George and be comfortable in a little village that owns a haunted churchyard, a fine church, and one of the most beautiful bridges in Europe’, she wrote. ‘The Medway just above the Anchor is a river of dreams. The grey and green of willows and alders mirror themselves in the still water in images hardly less solid-seeming than their living realities.’ In Five Children their uncle takes them boating on the river there. (The Anchor has since been rebuilt as the Boathouse, but the George is still operating.)
One summer Edith rented a house somewhere near Blue Bell Hill, described by her biographer as ‘a solid, ugly stucco villa between Maidstone and Rochester’. (NB I have been working with E. Nesbit’s most recent biographer, Eleanor Fitzsimons, to see if we can locate which villa this was – and am following up clues that it might have been in Sandling, but no longer extant, in which case I am looking for a photo of the villa… Investigations continue.)
This is doubtless when the family explored the nearby chalk pits and gravel quarries. In the novel, the Five Children are staying at ‘the White House’ when they discover, in a chalk pit, the Psammead, a magical sand-fairy who grants them one wish a day, that will last till sunset.
One day they ask for gold, and the quarry is suddenly full of it: they hire a cart to head into Rochester – named as such in the novel – where they are dropped off near the bridge. They find it hard to spend the gold. Beale’s the bakers won’t take it, calling it ‘furrin money’. The children go to the Castle gardens where they are arrested on suspicion of theft, but while they are at the police ststion the sun goes down and the gold vanishes, so they are let off.
Next they ask to be given wings, and go flying off over Rochester – there’s a lovely illustration of this by H.R. Millar, who also illustrated Kipling’s Puck Of Pook’s Hill. On the way back they spot a church tower, near a vicarage with a larder on graveyard side. I am convinced that this is St Margaret’s Church, especially from the description. ‘There was a little turret at the corner of the tower and the little turret had a door in it.’ She describes ‘the worn steep dark steps of church tower… corkscrew staircase… the bellringers’ loft’ and beyond the belfry ‘a little stone stair’ up to the top.
With the help of the E. Nesbit Society I tried to find a reference in her writings to prove she had visited church, and studied documents held at the University of Tulsa, but sadly much of her archive was destroyed by Rosamund, her adopted daughter, who had a terrible relationship with Edith once she found out she was not her natural daughter. (One Daily Mail article about Edith has the headline ‘The Railway Children author whose life was a train crash’…)
E. Nesbit retained a love for Kent throughout her life. She rented holiday homes in Dymchurch from the 1890s onwards, and there got to know H.G. Wells, who was in Sandgate near Folkestone for health reasons, and the Thorndike family, who had a couple of coastguard cottages in Dymchurch. In later life, when Hubert died, she re-married a Cockney barge captain, Tommy Tucker, and they moved to two former army huts on Romney Marsh: she died in 1924 aged 65 and is buried in the graveyard of St Mary in The Marsh near New Romney.
Her legacy lives on: Jacqueline Wilson updated the Psammead books; Neil Gaiman is a big fan and J.K. Rowling has said, ‘I think I identify with E. Nesbit more than any other writer.’ Like E. Nesbit, J.K. Rowling is part of a long list of female writers who used initials for their pen names, often to avoid prejudice from predominantly male publishers: think of P.L. Travers, P.D. James, A.S. Byatt, A.L. Kennedy and E.L. James.
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