From Writers Who Lived in or Near Rye

The quotations here have been culled from Iain Finlayson’s excellent book Writers in Romney Marsh (London: Severn House 1986). The book’s chapters include Henry James at Lamb House, E.F. Benson at Lamb House, Radclyffe Hall in Rye, Conrad Aiken at Jeake’s House, as well as Joseph Conrad in Kent and Ford Madox Hueffer in Kent (both of whom also lived briefly in Winchelsea),  Stephen Crane at Brede and H.G. Wells at Sandgate. The last chapter contains smaller pieces on writers such as John Fletcher, Richard Harris Barham, Edith Nesbitt, Russell Thorndike, Noel Coward, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Patric Dickinson. An essential read for anyone interested in Rye and Romney Marsh in literature.

Writers On Rye

E.F. Benson, who lived in Lamb House after Henry James, claimed that

I had not come to Rye for any reason except to be there [but discovered] a stable and solidified sense of home. . . A few months sufficed to convince me that I was not in Rye, but of it. . . . To be there made me content: its cobbled ways and its marsh with its huge sjky, as at sea, and in particular the house and the garden-room and the garden were making a ferment of their own in my veins, not because they were associated with any cheristed and intimate experiences, but because they were themselves.

And once here it was not long before he had

outlined an elderly atrocious spinster and established her in Lamb House. She should be the centre of social life, abhorred and dominant, and she should sit like a great spider behind the curtains in the garden room, spying on her friends, and I knew that her name must be Elizabeth Mapp. Rye should furnish the topography, so that no one who knew Rye could possibly be in doubt where the scene was laid, and I would call it Tilling because Rye has its river the Tillingham . . .

There is more on E.F. Benson and Rye.

Radclyffe Hall’s novel about Rye, The Sixth Beatitude is set in Hucksteps Row (it is Crofts Lane in the book) . The main character, Hannah Bullen, saw Rye as it

stood peacefully dreaming, sleeping and dreaming above the Marsh. . . it would become something more than a town, especially on the warm July evenings when the dusk lay folded along its streets, and the ships lighted port and starboard lanterns, and the past. . . came wandering craftily into the present . . .

Praise has not been universal, however. The travel writer Paul Theroux wrote a rather grumpy book about his tour of the British coast and said of Rye that it was

the quaintest town in this corner of England, but so museum-like in its quaintness that I found myself walking along the cobblestone streets with my hands behind my back, treating the town in my monkish manner of subdued appreciation like a person in a gallery full of Do Not Touch signs. Rye was not a restful place. It had the atmosphere of a china shop. It urged you to remark on the pretty houses and the well-kept gardens and the self-conscious sign painting, and then it demanded that you move on.

Even Henry James, who did love Rye, could occasionally find some imperfections in its ‘whole pleasant little pathos’. He had visited and stayed in Rye, at Point Hill and then at the Old Vicarage in Rye where he could gaze wistfully each day at Lamb House which he ‘secretly and hopelessly coveted’ .

The peace and prettiness of the whole land here . . . has been good to me, and I stay on with unabated relish . . .

and when it unexpectedly became possible for him to sign a lease on the coveted house, ‘It is exactly what I want . . . ‘ , describing it to his sister-in-law, Mrs William James, as

the very calmest yet cheerfullest that I could have dreamed . . . in the little old, cobblestoned, grass-grown, red-roofed town, on the summit of its mildly pyramidal hill and close to its noble old church — the chimes of which will sound sweetly in my goodly old red-walled garden. The little place is so rural and tranquil and yet so discreetly animated, that its being within the town is, for convenience and immediate accessibility, purely to the good . . . .

It is later that his delight in Rye is occasionally tinged with nostalgia for Europe

The best hour is that at which the compact little pyramid of Rye, crowned with its big but stunted church and quite covered by the westering sun, gives out the full measure of its old browns that turn to red and its old reds that turn to purple. These tones of evening are now pretty much all that Rye has left to give, but there are truely, sometimes, conditions of atmosphere in which I have seen the effect as fantastic.

I sigh when I think, however, what it might have been if, perfectly placed as it is, the church tower — which in its more perverse moods only resembles a big central button, a knob on a pin cushion — had had the grace of a few more feet of stature [which, he says it would have had if the place were French or Italian!]

Yet most of the time it was well-nigh perfect, a dream fulfilled, as he tells his sister-in-law in another letter:

All the good that I hoped of the place has, in fine, profusely bloomed and flourished here. It was really about the end of September, when the various summer supernumeraries had quite faded away, that the special note of Rye, the feeling of the little hilltop community bound together like a very modest, obscure and impecunious, but virtuous and amiable famly, began more unmistakesably to come out . . . But the great charm is simply being here, and in particular the beginning of day no longer with the London blackness and foulness . . . but with the pleasant, sunny garden outlook, the grass all haunted with starlings and chaffinches, and the in-and-out relation with it that in a manner gilds and refreshes the day. This indeed — with work and a few, a very few people –is the all.

The poet Patric Dickinson (1914-1994) lived in Rye from 1947 and published and broadcast poetry for over 30 years. He called Rye a place ‘between past and future’, a ‘beautifully jewelled brooch/Worn at South England’s throat’. These poems come from his collection Poems of Rye (Martello Bookshop 1979).

Rye

It seems solid enough as you come through the Landgate
And the streets climb up to the church
That, like a stranded ark,
Straddles the hilltop.

But Time is different here,
The streets are full of beggars
You cannot see, who speak
The tongues of centuries
To the deat tourists.

‘We have always been perverse
And unprofessional beggars,
Fort we want to give, not take,
To offer you this town’s
Particular nature.

‘It is not what you see
As you trip on the cobbles
And say the houses are quaint,
Nor was it ever like that,
It is our presence.’

The town keeps whispering
Its history–fishermen, merchants–
Lifetimes that have been built
From unimportant scraps
To construct a clement

Enclave and sanctuary,
Once you have understood this,
You will feel Rye within,
And be disposed to come back,
If you ever leave it.

Topographical

Van Dyck drew it from the South
From the river, seeing a plateau,
The great church riding eastward
In its tideless ocean of faith.

From the East, coming over the marsh
Or from the golf-club it’s a pyramid
With the church tower at the top.
A black silhouette in the twilight.

Turner halfway from Winchelsea,
From the West, romantically stationed
Upon some dangerous sea-stropped
Causeway of his imagination.

Drew Camber Castle floated away
Almost hull-down to the east
And Rye in a spotlight, half Italian,
And half as it were a volcano.

With smoke and fire belching
From the church, it is always the church
That crowns the unique town.

From the North you come down hill
From the mainland then climb again,
Up this rocky hillock like a moraine heap:
Rye is an island, St Mary’s Mount.

Is also a castle, should have a drawbridge,
There are aeons of life in this pyramid,
Fire in this volcano.

Is also like a beautifully jewelled broach
Worn at South England’s throat,
As land gives way to channel:
The Tillingham mates with the Brede
And both mix in the Rother
The sweet and the salt waters,
Below Watchbell Street and under
The eyes of the Ypres Tower,
Last dry land or first island,

A place between past and future,
A historic present to speak of
In a language of salty silence
That is sweet on every tongue.

The next poem is a most unflattering one of some tourists (just a few?); it is probably safe to say that none of them will be looking at this website:

Tourists of a Sort

Through our streets the morons shamble
Asking for Woolworths,
Waiting for the Quarter Boys
To strike at the hour.

They pile our streets with little fag-ends,
Too-fat adults and kids
Slurping ice-cream as they lurch on the cobbles,
Gawping and peering.

Poor flatulent boobs, they’re only doing
What the God Teev bids.
If they should see the date on the exquisite
Queen Anne weathercock,

They might have heard she’s dead, but precious
Little else. I have been asked
About equally for the way to the Catholic
Church and to Woolworths.

But once, an ace-moron, a master-shambler,
Stopped me and angrily
Snarled ‘Where’s the town?’ And once overhead,
Crossing the churchyard,

‘We’ve half an hour to spare, whatever shall we
Do? ‘We had better
Go back to Woolworths, dear.’ Oh indeed yes
They better had.

The weathercock glints in the moonlight
The winds blow through its date,
And in the moonlight river and sea
Perpetually meet.

But it is only fair to show that Dickinson was not against all visitors and newcomers

Telegrams brought it: this somewhat impecunious
Cosmopolitan genius from fashionable London
Saw veritable home, and came and put his roots in
This exquisite backwater.

And what came up was exotic and yet naive,
An American — almost Ryer, a curious
Equation, but he was. The first tourist to settle,
Also the greatest.

Writers on Romney Marsh

Richard Harris Barham:

In Mrs Botherby’s Story: The Leech of Folkstone, a tale in The Ingoldsby Legends, Barham remarks::

The World, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh.’

Rudyard Kipling echoes this in the character of Tom Shoesmith in The Dymchurch Flit from Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill):

Won’erful odd-gates place — Romney Marsh . . . I’ve heard say the world’s divided like into Europe, Asahy, Afriky, Ameriky,, Australy, an’ Romney Marsh. Tom goes on to say: The Marsh is just about riddled with diks an’sluices, an’tide -gates an’ water-lets. You can hear ‘em bubblin’ and grummelin’when the tide works in ‘em, an’ then you hear the sea rangin’ left and right-handed all up along the Wall. You’ve seen how flat she is — the Marsh? You’d think nothin’ easier than to walk end-on acrost her? Ah, but the diks an’ the water-lets;, they twists the roads about as revelly as witch-yarn on the spindles. So ye get all turned round in broad daylight.

Ford Madox Hueffner (later known as Ford Madox Ford) thought Romney Marsh

an infectious and holding neighbourhood. Once you go there you are apt to stay.

He refers to inducements to come to Rye and Winchelsea:

An historic patina covers their buildings more deeply than any others, in England at least. Indeed, I know of no place save for Paris, where memories seem to think on every stone. The climate, too, is very mild. There is practically no day throughout the year on which a proper man cannot eat his meals under a south wall out of doors.

H.G. Wells, in Kipps, has the eponymous character remember joys of the Marsh:

. . . glorious days of ‘mucking about’, along the beach, the siege of unresisting Martello towers, the incessant interest of the mystery and motion of windmills, the windy excursions with boarded feet over the yielding shingle to Dungeness lighthouse . . . wanderings in the hedgeless, reedy marsh, long excursions reaching even to Hythe, where the machine guns of the Empire are forever whirring and tapping, and old Rye and Winchelsea perched like dream-cities on their little hills. The sky in these memories was the blazing hemisphere of the marsh heaven in summer, or its wintry tumult of sky and sea, and there were wrecks, real wrecks, in it (near Dymchurch pitched high and blackened and rotting were were ribs of a fishing smack, flung aside like an empty basket when the sea had devoured its crew) and there was bathing all naked in the sea, bathing to one’s armpits, and even trying to swim in the warm sea-water (spite aunt’s prohibition) and (with her indulgence) the rare eating of dinner from a paper parcel miles away from home.

Coventry Patmore, who disliked mountains, claimed that year after year he looked upon the Marsh from the walls of Rye ‘always with new delight’, discovering there

. . . the peaceful and touching charms which render the plain more than a rival to the mountain in the eyes of all who find in human associations, more or less remote, the ground of the truest beauty in landscape.

He declared it

very Dutch in its peculiar beauties’ but that it surpasses in truly artistic beauty, the scenery alike of Holland, Switzerland. . . . The plain, in each case [of the Sussex Marshes], is great enough to expand and satisfy the eye. It is, in each case, set off by the immediate neighbourhood of hills not less than eight hundred feet high — an altitude which, in our atmosphere, is quite as good as three thousand in Italy or the South of France

and he praised

the sight of masts and sails at more or less remote distances, impressing us with the presence of the sea even more powerfully than the actual sight of it would.

And J.M.W. Turner, foremost British landscape painter, having been introduced to Rye, Winchelsea, and the Camber, Pett and Brede Levels said, according to Patmore:

that he had seen there, in our one day’s visit, more subjects for pictures than he had ever met with in any other part of Europe in a week.

For more quotations about Rye from Patmore and other visitors, go to Said about Rye.

First posted July 2010.

First posted in Literary and Artistic Rye, Said About Rye on 7th July 2010
Last updated: 24th March 2013
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