A worship of Kent writers
PUBLISHED: 10:32 30 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:55 20 February 2013
Just as people congregate as a gang of labourers or a galaxy of film stars, so a worship of writers is the correct collective noun. For Kent, the term is particularly fitting as the county has been the inspiration and home to many well-known wordsmit
A worship of Kent writers
Just as people congregate as a gang of labourers or a galaxy of film stars, so a worship of writers is the correct collective noun. For Kent, the term is particularly fitting as the county has been the inspiration and home to many well-known wordsmiths
Kent, sir everybody knows Kent apples, cherries, hops and women, was Mr Jingles opinion of the county in Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers.
Although inextricably connected with London, Dickens loved to escape to Kent. He featured Rochester in his writing more than any other town apart from London, the row of childrens graves in the churchyard of St James Cooling now inevitably called Pips Graves gave Dickens the idea for the opening scene of Great Expectations, and he completed David Copperfield in Bleak House at Broadstairs. The town has been the inspiration for other writers too. John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while convalescing at Broadstairs; the book drew on the stairs down to the sea from North Foreland and the disused smugglers tunnels at Kingsgate Gap for its title and denouement.
Another Thanet seaside town was the birthplace of well-known writer, wit and TV personality Frank Muir. Born in Ramsgate, Muir is one of the very few writers to use his county of birth in the title of his autobiography A Kentish Lad. Unfortunately and most unusually for Muir he got it wrong. Those born east of the Medway are Men of Kent; those west, Kentish Men.
Man of Kent Arthur Russell Thorndike, brother of actress Sybil, was born in Rochester and used Romney Marsh as the setting for his Doctor Syn books. The vicar of Dymchurch by day, Doctor Syn was by night the Scarecrow, leader of a gang of smugglers. Residents of Dymchurch still hold a Day of Syn Festival during the August Bank Holiday of even-numbered years. Visitors can see locals in period costume re-enact scenes from the books.
Dymchurch was a favourite holiday destination for E. (Edith) Nesbit. Her family moved around a lot but lived for three years at Halstead where Nesbit got the idea for The Railway Children. The station was first called Halstead for Knockholt but became Knockholt in 1900. Nesbit loved the Kentish countryside. In The Incredible Honeymoon she says: 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. Nesbit eventually settled in Dymchurch and is buried at St Mary in the Marsh.
Noel Coward was also a resident of Romney Marsh. He was the last Chairman of the parish of Hurst before its incorporation into the parish of Aldington and lived at Goldenhurst until his house was requisitioned by the army during the war. For somewhere to live while restoration was in progress Coward purchased White Cliffs in St Margarets Bay, Dover. Works written there include Blithe Spirit plus adaptations of his plays This Happy Breed and Still Life into filmscripts; the latter became Brief Encounter.
Coward eventually sold White Cliffs to his friend Ian Fleming for a weekend cottage, and numerous references to Kent appear in the James Bond books. For example, Fleming was extremely fond of playing golf at the Royal St George course at Sandwich and used the location as the Royal St Mark golf course in his novel Goldfinger. One of Flemings favourite locals was The Duck at Pett Bottom and in You Only Live Twice the obituary for James Bond written by M says that the young James went to live with an aunt at the quaintly-named hamlet of Pett Bottomin a small cottage hard by the attractive Duck Inn.
As befits the premier cathedral city, Canterbury is associated with a number of writers, although Geoffrey Chaucer is of course the most obvious. Born in the fourteenth century he continues to influence writers today; Patience Agbabi, the poet and performer who lives in Gravesend, cites Chaucer as one of the poets who has influenced her own work.
Now most noted for his The Canterbury Tales, in his day Chaucer was more famous for his services to the king. At various times he was a yeoman of the kings chamber, comptroller of the Petty Customs, went on several diplomatic missions abroad and was eventually created a Knight of the Shire for Kent.
Christopher Marlowe, poet and playwright, also worked for the government, although in the rather more shady capacity of a spy. Born in Canterbury he went to the Kings School and from there to Cambridge on a scholarship. Apart from his six plays and a few poems, remarkably little is known of his life. He performed some espionage work among the Jesuits in Rheims, was probably an atheist and was killed in a tavern brawl in 1593. He was only 29.
Another famous Kentish writer who attended the Kings School, Canterbury was William Somerset Maugham. After the death of his parents Maugham was brought up by an aunt and clergyman uncle in the rectory at Whitstable. He used his experiences in his autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage; Whitstable became Blackstable and Canterbury, Tercanbury.
Thinly disguised Kentish place names appear in some of the works of H.G. (Herbert George) Wells too. He was born in Bromley, which appears as Bromstead in The New Machiavelli, and was a teacher before writing full time.
Also connected with Bromley and also a teacher was Richmal Crompton Lamburn, author of the Just William stories. Crompton was the Classics mistress at Bromley High School for Girls and lived at 9 Cherry Orchard Road, where she combined teaching with writing the first Just William books.
In 1923, aged 34, she contracted poliomyelitis and lost the use of her right leg which meant that she had to give up teaching. Taking up writing full time she was so successful that she had The Glebe built for herself and her mother in nearby Oakley Road, Bromley. She died in Chislehurst.
Chislehurst, most specifically Farringtons School, was where Wendy Cope was educated. Born in Erith, Cope became a teacher like Crompton and Wells. She spent 15 years teaching in a primary school in London before concentrating on her writing.
School had a great effect on E.M. (Edward Morgan) Forster too, but not in a happy way. He attended Tonbridge School where he was bullied by the other boys and deeply miserable. A great traveller, by the time he was 45 he had written the six novels for which he is famous (Maurice was published posthumously but written nearly sixty years earlier).
He didnt, however, consider writing novels to be very important and spent the last forty-six years of his life working on what he considered more worthwhile projects. A sentence from A Passage to India reads: Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence.
Most writers need a career either before or parallel with their writing work in order to support themselves. Malorie Blackman, writer of the noughts and crosses series, originally wanted to be an English teacher but says that she tripped and fell into computing instead. Based in Beckenham, Blackmans successful career in computing quickly gave way to full time writing as her books became hugely popular. To avoid misunderstandings, Blackman never uses people she knows in her books unlike Mervyn Peake. He went to school at Eltham E. Nesbit also lived at Eltham for a while and used his memories of people at school to create the characters in Titus Groan.
To some writers, where they are based becomes intricately connected with their work. William Blake, for example, is supposed to have been inspired to write the words to Jerusalem by the clouded hills around Shoreham.
Charles Darwins pioneering work on evolution may have begun during his voyages on HMS Beagle but was continued and cemented by his investigations at Down House, where many of his works, including On the Origin of Species were written.
For H.E. (Herbert Ernest) Bates too the Kentish countryside provided much of the inspiration for his work. Bates purchased a derelict old granary in Little Chart which he and his wife restored and lived in for more than 40 years.
Bates was a very keen gardener turning the acre of rough ground surrounding his home into a riot of colour and writing several gardening books while doing so. His most famous work was probably The Darling Buds of May, but he also wrote for the RAFs wartime public relations department under the pseudonym Flying Officer X.
Many writers use a nom de plume of course, and not only for reasons of disguise. Polish-born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniovski might not have found acceptance with nineteenth-century British readership had he not been published as Joseph Conrad. He lived at a number of places in Kent including Capel House, Orlestone, Pent Farm near Sandgate and Oswalds just opposite the church at Bishopsbourne.
At the other end of the social scale Victoria Mary Sackville-West, the Hon Lady Nicholson was always better known as Vita. Born at Knole the only child of the third Lord Sackville she loved her ancestral home and used it as the inspiration for several poems and the setting for her novel The Edwardians.
Later she became connected with an equally famous Kent beauty spot when she and her husband purchased Sissinghurst Castle. Together the couple created the castles now famous gardens.
Certain places evoke particular writers. For Shakespeare its Stratford-upon-Avon; for Wordsworth, the Lake District. Sandwiched between the metropolis and the channel, Kent with its beauties, variety, easy access to London, and many continental visitors give the county a cosmopolitan flavour unique in island Britain. Certainly the writers who make it their home seem to think so.
DID YOU KNOW?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti lived the last months of his life at Birchington
Samuel Butler, author of Erewhon, used to visit Charles Darwin at Down House
R.M. (Robert Michael) Ballantyne stayed at Ramsgate researching for his tale The Floating Light of the Goodwin Sands
Frances Hodgeson Burnett based the garden in The Secret Garden on Great Maytham Hall the house she rented at Rolvenden
Sir Philip Sidney, Elizabethan poet, lived at Penshurst Place
Baroness Orczy set Nest of the Sparrowhawk in Acol
Deryn Lake has set at least one book of her Georgian mystery series starring John Rawlings on Romney Marsh
George Orwell was living rough and joined the hop pickers in Paddock Wood
Frederick Forsyth was born in Ashford and went to Tonbridge School
Peter Ustinov lived in the old coastguard lookout at Dover
John Evelyn, Restoration diarist, lived at Sayes Court after his wife inherited it
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used Groombridge Place Gardens as the setting for his Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear