I was pondering local literary connections and people’s need to find them the other day. Some places seem steeped in literature – the west of Surrey seems to have had a lot of well-known writers living there, whereas the area of Surrey I live in doesn’t. The only author of note (that I am aware of) that ever lived in Ashtead was Beverly Nichols, and his Merry Hall trilogy is a fictionalised account of his time here.
This doesn’t stop people finding as many tenuous connections as they can. For example:
Daniel Defoe : went to school in Dorking.
George Eliot : used to enjoy walking near Dorking.
Charles Dickens : stayed at a hotel in Dorking and the town is mentioned in The Pickwick Papers.
Jane Austen : set The Watsons in Dorking (Austen almost certainly would have visited the town as she lived for a while in Bookham, which is only a few miles away), and, the most famous Dorking literary connection of all: eponymous Emma has a picnic on Box Hill.
George MacDonald : he did actually live in Ashtead, although only for a few months - he came here to die and had his funeral here. I don’t think he ever put pen to paper while he was here, unless it was to sign his will.
The writer mentioned most often, and the one most local people seem to have heard of, in connection with Ashtead, is Samuel Pepys. He has a small cul-de-sac named after him. Now, Pepys lived in London and Brampton in Huntingdonshire, but his cousin had lived in Ashtead (it is speculated that Park Farm was his house) and the young Samuel visited his family there. He came to Ashtead at least twice during the period he was writing his diary, but didn’t seem to think much of it.
25th July 1663 [He had come to take the waters at Epsom but there was no room available so] “I went towards Ashsted, and there we got a lodging in a little hole we could not stand upright in. While supper was getting I walked up and down behind my cosen Pepys’s house that was, which I find comes little short of what I took it to be when I was a little boy.” The other visit mentioned in his diary, in 1667, involves Samuel bringing some friends to show them his old haunts, but he was unable to find the footpaths through the woods he remembered from his childhood, and he sprained his ankle badly as well. That’s about the sum of Pepys’ Ashtead connection. And for Ashtead, that’s it really.
However, there are a couple of local literary heavyweights with stronger connections. Jane Austen’s writing was influenced by that of Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840), who lived for some time at Westhumble near Dorking. She was a friend of Samuel Johnson (Hester Thrale introduced them), and she wrote of their meetings in her Diary. She spent five years of her life (1786-1890) “her talents wasted in the folding of muslins” as Horace Walpole put it, as Second Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. And then, while staying with her sister Susanna Phillips near Westhumble, she visited the French émigrés living at Juniper Hall at Mickleham – refugees from the French Revolution – and met a General Alexandre D'Arblay, who she married in 1793 at St Michael’s Church, Mickleham.
Fanny wrote a number of plays (mostly unperformed), four novels (Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer), but is probably best known for her Diary which was published posthumously in 1841.
Not far at all from Fanny Burney’s Camilla Cottage is Flint Cottage. Here, one of my favourite Victorian novelists lived and worked: George Meredith (1828-1909). He married Thomas Love Peacock’s daughter, a widow, who ran off with a Pre-Raphaelite painter nine years later. She died in 1861 and Meredith later married again, moving to Surrey.
Flint Cottage sits in a hollow at the foot of the dip slope of Box Hill, and a Swiss-style chalet in the garden still exists; here Meredith used to write and entertain his friends (including Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and J M Barrie). William Sharp described it as
“a little brown wooden house of the simplest, but to many friends richer in ardent memories than any palace in treasures … with its outlook down grassy terraces and pansied garden-rows across to the green thorn-stunted slope of Box Hill, and its glimpse leftward up that valley where still in nightingale-weather may be seen in a snow of bloom the wild white cherry which inspired the lines:
Fairer than the lily, than the wild white cherry / Fair as an image my seraph love appears …”
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Diana of the Crossways, and The Egoist are among his more famous novels; Richard Feverel was his earliest, and it caused him problems for some years because of its sexual frankness – “I am tabooed from all decent drawing-room tables” he said. Later in life he advised Thomas Hardy not to publish a book as he felt it would jeopardise his career as a novelist – advice from the heart. My favourite title of all his novels is ‘The Shaving of Shagpat’, but the book itself is written in the episodic style of a humorous Arabian Nights and is, in my mind, his least enjoyable book.
The two things about his writing that stand out for me are the strong female characters in his novels, and in both his poetry and prose the intimate descriptions of the countryside settings – often Surrey or the Thames, but various other parts of England and on the European mainland also.
George Meredith left Flint Cottage to the National Trust, presumably expecting them to keep it in trust in perpetuity. However, last year the 99-year lease was for sale for £1.35 million.
But all this begs my original question, which was why people need to find literary (and televisual, for that matter) connections? I presume 'Shakespeare's Country' was the original, but now as well as Hardy's Wessex we have Cookson, Heartbeat, and Emmerdale Countries, Ian Rankin's Edinburgh, and so on. It's understandable that people would like to know or visit the country that a particular novel is set in - Antony House, the Cornish National Trust property which was the location for the Tim Burton Alice film, has seen visitor numbers swell tenfold. Notwithstanding whether this is a Good Thing, why are people so desperate to find some famous association (however slight) with their home town?