Do the houses once lived in by famous writers tell us anything about their work? After the Great War, Virginia Woolf and her husband paid £700 for Monk's House in the Sussex village of Rodmell. It's a simple, weather-boarded cottage beside a country lane.
Behind it was a garden and an orchard of overgrown pear and apple trees, with views over the flats of the Ouse valley. When they bought it, Monk's House had no bath, no toilet, no hot water and just brick floors. Its previous owner had gone mad and starved himself to death. Virginia wrote: "We went to Rodmell, and the gale blew at us all day; off arctic fields; so we spent our time attending to the fire." One morning they had to get up at 4 am to chase mice out of their bed. Today, most people would be put off by such conditions. But not Virginia; she loved the cottage and her "soft grey walks" in the surrounding countryside.
Over twenty years ago (how time flies), my father and I researched the literary history of Sussex, where we lived. The attraction for writers was easy to see. The county is ideally situated between London and the south coast of England. The landscape varies from the low Weald, with its patchwork of fields and woods, to the sculptural Downs, the undulating chalk hills that demand to be walked. In the course of two years we visited the former homes of fifty or so writers. They ranged from William Blake's picturesque flint cottage in Felpham, to Rudyard Kipling's impressive stone manor house, Bateman's, at Burwash.
Out of this research came a book, Writers in Sussex (1985), written by my father and illustrated with my black and white photographs. The playwright Christopher Fry, who lived in Sussex, kindly agreed to write the foreword. Indeed, it turned out he had been friends with one of the Sussex writers whose home we had visited: poet Andrew Young.
It was clear from talking to Christopher Fry and from his foreword that he was delighted to discover a literary dimension to some of his favourite landscapes. In 1936 he and his wife had lived in an old millhouse at Coleman's Hatch. They knew that AA Milne and his family were nearby at Cotchford Farm. What they didn't know was that twenty-three years earlier WB Yeats and Ezra Pound had lived quite near to them: "Every time we had driven to Forest Row we had passed the end of the lane which would have led us to Stone Cottage."
It certainly adds something to our appreciation of a landscape to find out that those same walks and views were also loved by a writer or artist whose work you know well. But can we learn anything new about a writer's work from seeing where they lived? Of course, fiction and poetry create their own textual reality that does not depend on an external, empirical reality. But while visiting these houses and landscapes I found it intriguing to speculate about the ways geography and place may have informed literature.
For instance, it is fascinating to walk through the beautiful countryside near Mervyn Peake's two Sussex homes and to see the crenellated walls of Arundel Castle looming on the horizon. Did this view influence his idea of Gormenghast castle while writing Titus Groan in the valley of the River Arun?
The link between Tennyson's poetry and the view from his home on Black Down is undeniable. His study faced south over the Weald, a beautiful view described in these haunting lines:
"You came, and looked and loved the view
Long-known and loved by me,
Green Sussex fading into blue
With one gray glimpse of sea."
Some houses we visited seemed to be architectural extensions of the writer's character, in the same way as certain sea creatures build themselves protective shells from found materials. Hilaire Belloc's home - King's Land at Shipley - was originally a tithe barn built by monks. When we saw it early one sunny morning it looked as if it had evolved out of the Sussex landscape that Belloc loved so dearly. In the garden, I remember photographing an old brick wall which was encrusted with yellow and green lichens. At that time, the house was still owned by his family.
The location of other houses was often deeply suggestive of a writer's work. John Cowper Powys' Warre House (renamed by its modern literary owner Frith House) nestled against the side of an ancient earthwork in the village of Burpham. A beautiful old house, it was surrounded by high walls and trees, and was about as isolated as it is possible to get in Sussex. But not, apparently, isolated enough for Powys. He found the children playing on the earthwork outside his study window distracting and so he erected a large board labelled "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted". The villagers promptly threw it into the ditch and treated a second board in the same summary fashion. Anecdotes like this bring both house and writer alive in a very human way.
Certain terrains appealed to many different writers and we found several living within a stone's throw of each other. Powys, Peake and the novelist and bee-keeper Tickner Edwardes all lived near Burpham, in the shadow of Arundel Castle. Others lived in Sussex from necessity. Novelist and naturalist WH Hudson moved briefly to Worthing to care for his invalid wife. He disliked the sedate seaside town with a passion. "I hate the place and have never met anyone in it who has been of use to me. It is talk, talk, but never a gleam of an original or fresh remark or view of anything that does not come out of a book or newspaper." In another age, Harold Pinter would also live in Worthing.
Belloc and Tennyson fell in love with both the county and their homes, and stayed until their last breaths. A minority of writers, such as Conan Doyle, seemed utterly unaffected by the beauty of the landscape, or at least never remarked on it in their work.
These houses and the landscapes around them are part of the geography in which many creative works of art are rooted. After all, literary texts, like all cultural artefacts, belong to a time and a place. As I look through these photos today, I feel they do offer hints and echoes of the writings created there. At the very least they prompt me to re-read some of the works themselves which, of course, is what these Sussex writers would have wanted.