Sussex Life July 2015 Poetry + solution
PUBLISHED: 15:54 26 June 2015 | UPDATED: 10:05 29 June 2015
Solution for the ‘A House of Fiction’ piece by Tony Ward in the Sussex Life July issue
Where is it? A House of Fiction
Cinque Port sanctuary
for a shipwrecked King,
for a master writer
making sheep’s eyes at his ‘Great Good Place’.
A refuge, mild, sane, true,
an Eden found, life writ anew.
The garden room, the writers’ room,
echoes of characters peopling the page,
conceived, drafted, dictated,
haunting the stage.
The Portrait of a Lady on the bookshelf,
the portrait of the author looking down,
curious intruders, strangers replace
the fellowship of friends.
Summer afternoon – summer afternoon.
The warmth of the creeper clothing the wall,
the shade of the Mulberry,
scents of roses and lilies.
Tea on an English lawn.
Mallards – the house re-cast,
Tilling – the town re-cast,
Mapp and Lucia – the cast re-cast
casting social grenades –
‘Just a few little titbits’.
A small town war before a world at war.
The garden room bombed,
the end of summer.
Lambs to the slaughter,
Solution - Lamb House, Rye - Home to writers Henry James (from 1897 to 1916) and E.F.Benson (from 1918 to 1940).
Explanation of embedded clues
The poem title quotes Henry James, who referred to the novel as a ‘house of fiction’. Lamb House was certainly that, home to a number of writers over the years.
The house was named after the family for whom it was built. The Lambs were brewers, wine merchants and hereditary mayors of Rye in the 18th Century. James Lamb rebuilt what had been an older house on the brewery site in 1722 in the Early Georgian style.
The first words of the poem set Rye in its historical context. The Cinque Ports of Kent and Sussex were probably first associated in the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066). After the Norman Conquest in 1066 their importance grew as successive Royal Charters granted the ports legal and financial privileges in return for providing ships and men to the English Crown. Their importance peaked under the Plantagenet Kings of the 12th and 13th Centuries. The Cinque Ports are sometimes referred to as the Cradle of the Royal Navy as it was not until Tudor times that a standing navy was formed.
Rye was not in fact one of the original “five ports”, these were Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. They were later supplemented by the ‘Antient Towns’ of Rye and Winchelsea. Rye was added when New Romney suffered storm damage and silted up. In the medieval period the confederation further expanded, eventually encompassing 42 towns and villages.
‘Sanctuary for a shipwrecked King’ refers to an event just a few years into the life of the remodelled Lamb House. A ship bringing King George I from Hanover had foundered on Camber Sands and so James Lamb, as Town Mayor, gave up his bedroom to the King. During the King’s short stay, James Lamb’s wife gave birth to their son – as if the King’s unexpected arrival had not been enough to cope with. The boy was naturally named George, with King George I graciously consenting to be his godfather! The panelled bedroom upstairs is that in which the King spent his first three nights on British soil (1726).
Much later, the ‘master writer’ seeking sanctuary was Henry James (1843-1916) who had seen the house while visiting an architect friend in 1896. He had “made sheep’s eyes at it, the more so that it is called Lamb House”. After leasing it for two years, he bought it in 1899 for £2,000. The following year he wrote a story called ‘The Great Good Place’ which described an idyllic retreat, plainly based on Lamb House. The house also appears in one of the four full-length novels that he wrote there, ‘The Awkward Age’, in which it appears as Mr Longdon’s home. As indicated in the poem, James’ later years were somewhat emotionally turbulent, “Only Lamb House is mild, only Lamb House is sane, only Lamb House is true”. ‘Life writ anew’ also refers to his change in writing style at this time. It has been compared to impressionist painting, a vivid evocation of an overall scene. During the composition of ‘What Maisie Knew’ he switched from writing to dictating to his secretary in ‘the garden room, the writers’ room’. There is some debate as to whether this was a contributing factor to his change of style. The second verse of the poem reflects this phase.
‘Ghosts”, introducing the third verse, provides multiple clues. ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ refers to James’ perhaps best-known novel. ‘The portrait of the author looking down’ is that of James regarding the current National Trust visitors to the house, ‘curious intruders, strangers’. On the walls there are in fact two portraits of James as well as those of other ’ghosts’ – William Phillips Lamb, The Rev. George Augustus Lamb, King George I, and the original Garden Room. Other ghosts were the ‘fellowship of friends’. Regular visitors in James’ time included H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Max Beerbohm, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Compton Mackenzie and Ford Maddox Ford. James was regarded as the consummate observer rather than the leader of conversations – indeed if such a gathering ever assembled together it may have been difficult to get a word in edgeways!
The other connection with ghosts is with the other outputs of writers either residing at Lamb House or using it as their subject. Both Henry James and E.F. Benson wrote ghost stories and the children’s author Joan Aiken, born in Mermaid Street, best known for ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’, also wrote ‘The Haunting of Lamb House’ (1993) comprising three ghost stories about the past residents of the house. Other writer-residents include the late Margaret Rumer Godden OBE (tenant between 1968 and 1973).
“Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language” (Henry James). ‘The Portrait of a Lady” (1881) opens on what was for James the most Edenic experience in this fallen world: tea on an English lawn in high summer (John Sutherland). The setting is an old English country manor, ‘Gardencourt’, built during the reign of Edward VI and owned by an old American banker. Henry James, himself born and raised in America, was to find his own ‘Gardencourt’ in the shape of Lamb House, his own Eden, some 16 years later. Most of James writing career, from the age of 26, was based in Britain. He was granted British Citizenship in 1915, the year before he died.
The one acre garden of Lamb House still contains plants from James’ time there, as well as the graves of his dogs. The ‘creeper clothing the wall’ is a Campsis, grown for its drooping clusters of trumpet-shaped, deep orange or red flowers. The deciduous Mulberry tree is grown for its foliage and edible fruits. Simon Jenkins, author of ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’, and his wife remember spending the first night of their honeymoon in the attic bedroom at Lamb House and “descending to breakfast under the famous mulberry tree”.
The penultimate verse moves us on to the next resident of Lamb House, the writer E. F. Benson (1867-1940). Benson is best known for his social comedies written during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The ‘Queen bees’ of the earlier books, Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas, were brought together in 1931 in ‘Mapp and Lucia’, the first of four novels about their battles for social supremacy in small- town Tilling (Rye). Mapp’s house, ‘Mallards’, leased to Lucia for the summer, is based on Lamb House. Their verbal warfare is vividly described in Michael Pilgrim’s Daily Telegraph review of the latest BBC1 3-part television adaptation (‘the cast recast’):
“They are camp, sly, poisonous, piquant, clever and as delightful as a glass of sweet sherry taken on a sun-dappled lawn. They are about people in Thirties floral prints with nothing to do but cast social grenades at their rivals”. In the novel, at one point Diva begs for ‘Just a few little titbits’ (barbed comments aimed at Lucia) from Miss Elizabeth Mapp.
The final verse focuses on ‘the end of the summer’, the outbreak of World War II. The Garden Room, which both James and Benson liked to use for their writing in the summer months, was bombed in 1940. It was however temporarily re-created in the summer of 2014 for the filming of the BBC1 TV series (screened between Christmas and New Year 2014). The National Trust hopes that funds will be forthcoming to reunite Lamb House with a Garden Room once more.
Rye was a heavily defended area during the second world war, but still suffered several fatal bomb attacks. These included ‘Hit and Run’ raids in 1943 and Flying Bombs (‘Doodle Bugs’) in 1944. In total some 88 bombs and 200 incendiaries were dropped on the town and surrounding area. ‘Lambs to the slaughter’, provides a final rather grim clue to the name of the house.
The parting phrase ‘Au reservoir’ belongs to Lucia.
Acknowledgement of sources:
• ‘A Visitor’s Guide to Rye Bay & The ancient Cinque Port town of Rye’ (Art & Literature pages)
• ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’, Simon Jenkins, Allen Lane, 2003 (pages 783-784)
• ‘How to be Well Read’, John Sutherland, Random House, 2014
• ‘A little history of Literature’, John Sutherland, Yale University Press, 2013
• The RHS New Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers’, Christopher Brickell (Ed.), Dorling Kindersley, 1999
• “Mapp and Lucia”, 3-part adaptation by Steve Pemberton of E. F. Benson’s sequence of novels set in Rye, first broadcast on BBC1, 29/30/31 Dec 2014
Newspaper previews and reviews of “Mapp and Lucia” (2014 BBC1 adaptation), in particular: ‘Queen Bees & wannabees’, Jenny Mark-Bell, Sussex Life feature, December 2014 | ‘It’s all about wanting to belong’, Ben Lawrence, Daily Telegraph, Sat. Dec 20th 2014 | ‘Last night on television’, review by Michael Pilgrim, Daily Telegraph, Tues. Dec 30th 2014
• Relevant websites found by searches for ‘Lamb House’, ‘Henry James’, ‘E.F. Benson’, ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, ‘Mapp and Lucia’, ‘Cinque Ports’, ‘Rye and World War 2’.