Homes and works

Gad’s Hill Place (rear view)

A sturdy walking distance from here is Higham, a village midway on the main road from Rochester to Gravesend, with commanding views over the Medway valley and Thames Estuary. Here it was that Charles Dickens in his prosperous later years purchased a house that he had dreamed of living in when a child. His father told him that if he “were to be very persevering and work very hard” then he might become possessor of such a place. It is the optimal story of dreams made reality through faith and industry, the ending to a Dickensian novel with Dickens himself as the hero.

The house is Gad’s Hill Place. These days it is a school, but occasionally it is opened to the public, and the other day I went on one of these tours. It’s an interesting place to visit, though they are limited in what you can see (garden and downstairs only), with interior photography forbidden (because it’s a school). Some artefacts remain from Dickens’s time (some mirrors, worn flooring, his faux wallpaper with jokey book titles, staircase designs by his daughter) but for the most part you have to use your imagination and let the volunteer guide fill in the gaps.

What is not mentioned, though I think it is a missed opportunity, is the name of the person from whom Dickens’s acquired Gad’s Hall Place. She was Eliza Lynn Linton (1822-1898), a spirited and enterprising character, originally from the Lake District, who has belatedly earned some reputation as the first professional female journalist in this country. The journals she wrote for included Dickens’s own Household Words, while her vehement attacks on feminist aspirations of the period have attracted some critical attention of late.

She also wrote novels – many novels. Among these were Azeth, The Egyptian (1947), Amymone: A Romance in the Days of Pericles (1848), Lizzie Norton of Greyrigg (1866), The True History of Joshua Davidson, Christian and Communist (1872), Patricia Kemball (1875), The Atonement of Leam Dundas (1877), The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland (1885), Grasp Your Nettle (1885), and Paston Carew, Millionaire and Miser (1886). Who reads these now? A passing academic or two, but while the tale of the communistic Christ-like Joshua Davidson sounds intriguing, and though The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland sounds brave for being an autobiographical account of herself as a man, no general reader is ever going to pick up an Eliza Lynn Linton novel again.

All that industry, all those years of writing, re-writing, the characters dreamt up, the plots constructed, the messages devised: all as dead as the audience for whom such works were intended. The second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are filled with such works, the moderately popular titles of past times who did not live for all time but merely served to pass the time. And what sadder fate can there be for an author than to be read no more? Only her railings against the ‘new woman’ provide her with a slender immortality.

Boughton Place

The following day I ventured elsewhere in Kent, to the fields and villages south of Lenham, a few miles out of Maidstone. My goal was the small village of Boughton Malherbe. It barely earns the name of village, being little more than a few houses, a church and some farm buildings. Positioned on a high ridge, the place offers grand views over the Low Weald, mid-Kent countryside at its most undisturbed.

One of those houses was the reason for the pilgrimage. Boughton Place, a 16th century manor house then called Bocton Hall, was the birthplace of Henry Wotton (1568-1639), renowned Jacobean diplomat, politician, poet and fisher (he was a good friend of Izaak Walton). Only part of the original courtyard house now remains, and it is in private hands. One can only stand outside, peering across its long garden, wondering at the smallness of the location that yet gave the country such a wise mind. It was Wotton who gave us the much-quoted words of realism, “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Ambassadors that are too honest, as we now know, may pay the price.

Wotton wrote only fifteen poems (that we know of), and never wrote a bad one. He had the gift of fixing words in the mind. Consider ‘Elizabeth of Bohemia’, a lyric worthy of Shakespeare, which begins:

You meaner beauties of the night,
That poorly satisfie our Eyes
More by your number than your light,
You Common people of the Skies;
What are you when the Sun shall rise?

Or the acute summary of fate which opens ‘Upon the sudden Restraint of the Earl of Somerset, then falling from favour’:

Dazled thus with height of place,
Whilst our Hopes our Wits Beguile,
No man marks the narrow space
‘Twixt a Prison and a Smile.

Finest, and most loved, are the two lines written on his half-nephew and his wife Elizabeth, ‘Upon the death Sir Albert Morton’s Wife’:

He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live with without him: liked it not, and died.

What more is needed to mark a life and a loss? It is there not only in the words but in the masterly use of punctuation. Perhaps the only mark of a writer is to compose words that defeat time. It is the same language, but while some toil away for a lifetime and say nothing, others set down two lines that understand for us all. They do not simply say that one died for the loss of the other, but that we must have some control over lives. She called time on her time. Hers was the poetic act, as his is the poetry.

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