‘Perhaps it is wrong to love a block of stone like this as one loves a person. It cannot endure. Perhaps it is the very insecurity of the love that makes the passion strong. Because she is not mine by right. The house is still entailed, and one day will belong to another.’ Daphne du Maurier’s fictional house – Manderley, is probably as famous as she is for her books, and will forever be associated with it. It provided the impetus and idea for her most famous book Rebecca, which brought her fame and fortune. Yet just like the rest of us, she had to accept that sometimes, a house which inspired a lifelong love – and in her case, success, could remain just out of reach.
Many of us have experienced a house which we loved and always wanted to own or live in. It might have been a childhood fancy, or an old family home. Authors and artists can be especially prone to attachments to houses, which may inspire their work, or even provide them with the ingredients for their success. Like us however, they sometimes have to realise that even money and fame cannot bring them the building they so want to own.
The young American author Henry James moved to Europe in 1868 and eventually settled in England. James was noted for his portrayal of innocent and straightforward Americans trying to copes with the wiles of sophisticated and cynical Europeans. Initially he moved to London, and had many invitations, including one to the fairytale Ightam Mote, which he possibly used as a backdrop to his complex story, The Turn of the Screw.
James also visited Rye, the pretty town overlooking the English Channel, and was delighted with its ancient streets and especially by the pretty Georgian Lamb House, at the top of Mermaid Street. So, when he received ‘note from the local ironmonger.. informing me.. that by the sudden death of its owner.. it might perhaps, drop into my life..’ he acted quickly. He took a 21-year lease on the house, and settled down there. He formed a strict routine, to write some of his most popular books, including Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl and The Ambassadors.
He had many visitors to Lamb House, including poet Rudyard Kipling. When ill health drove him to London, one of his friends, E.F. Bennett took over the lease in 1918, and remained there until 1940. He wrote the famous, and later televised Mapp and Lucia books here. Knife sharp social satires and comedy of manners, they also achieved TV fame – filmed, of course, at Lamb House.
In 1967 yet another author moved in to the now rundown house. Rumer Godden, author of Black Narcissus, moved in after her own home was burnt down. Intriguingly, both Bennett and Godden later said that they were aware of ghosts in the house. Bennett felt that the spirits of the doomed children in The Turn of the Screw joined him there, and both authors were aware of Henry James’s occasional presence.
Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester, but her impoverished family emigrated to the United States in 1865, where she became a famous and wealthy author. Burnett, who regularly visited England, was drawn to Great Maytham Hall, near Rolvenden in Kent. She lived there for ten years, and found peace after two troubled marriages. She also found inspiration for one of her most famous books – The Secret Garden. Burnett set up an outdoor study table, near to the Rose Garden. Accompanied by a robin, which perched on a nearby spade, she recalled her own early childhood in Manchester, and was inspired to start the story of Mary Lenox and her secret garden. She even discovered an ivied locked secret door. As she later wrote – ‘ it was our secret garden, as it would have been if locked up for years..’
‘Entering Madresfield was like entering an enchanted world – room upon room was filled with treasures’. For the young Evelyn Waugh, Madresfield was also a new world. The young Oxford graduate encountered the Lygon family, who had lived there for six centuries, and was enfolded into their world. Madresfield – and the Lygons, provided him with friendship and fun, and, of course, contacts and connections.
His most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited was inspired by the beautiful moated house, in the shadow of the Malverns. It had a powerful effect on him, and opened him up to a new world . An ancient sundial in the garden is inscribed – ‘The day upon which we have not laughed in a day wasted’. As Waugh and his alter ego, Charles, in Brideshead observed – ‘ Well, we haven’t wasted much time, have we?’
Anglo Irish author Elizabeth Bowen inherited the beautiful old Irish family house, Bowen’s Court, in 1930, and determinedly about restoring it. She lived in England for part of the year, and worked hard, visiting the United States to try to finance and preserve the old house she loved so much, and which influenced her work. It provided the setting for one of her best books – which ironically proved prophetic, The Last Summer. The house was sold in 1959, and demolished in 1960.
As a young child on Cornish holidays, Daphne Du Maurier was fascinated by glimpses of a secluded house. She never forgot it, and each summer explored more about its history and location. Menabilly was then in a neglected and partly ruined state, but that only added to its attraction for her. She later married and moved to Cornwall – and promptly set about contacting its owners, (since 1596), the Rashleigh family. Eventually, she persuaded them to give her a lease of 26 years with a requirement to repair the house. In 1943 she moved in with her family. Du Maurier set about enthusiastically restoring the house and gardens. Its beauty, surroundings and history, including a ghost, inspired her books Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek and The King’s General.
She lived there in great happiness until 1969 – when the lease ran out. The Rashleighs were immoveable in their determination to return, and at 89 she moved to nearby Kilmarth, which inspired The House on the Strand’. However, many said that she never recovered from the loss of Menabilly. In 1989, she asked to be driven there, for a last glimpse – and died in her sleep three nights later.
‘None of us uttered a word as we came under the vaulted ceiling and stood before a small compact house of lilac coloured brick. We inhaled sensually the strange, haunted atmosphere of the place.’.
Photographer, artist, designer, designer and personality Cecil Beaton felt that he had been ‘touched on the head by some magic wand’, when in 1930, he entered the empty Ashcombe House in Wiltshire. The right person had come to the right house at the right time. Beaton, then a 26-year flamboyant designer, leased Ashcombe for £50 a year, and lived his ideal life there. It was a sophisticated pre Second World War aristocratic lifestyle. There were masquerades and weekend society parties. His own decoration included murals painted by well-known contemporary names such as Oliver Messel. It was all grand, gilded and glamorous for the next fifteen years.
1945 brought the end of a World War, his lease – and his ideal world. It is said by some, that like Du Maurier and Menabilly, Beaton never recovered from his loss of Ashcombe. Ironically, in some senses, his spirit remains. Despite more recent inhabitants such as Madonna and Guy Ritchie, Beaton has entered folklore as Ashcombe’s most famous resident.
Lamb House, Rye is National Trust owned. www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Great Maytham Hall. Kent – National Gardens Trust. https//:ngs.org.uk
Madresfield, Malvern www.madresfieldestate.co.uk
Menabilly, Cornwall – privately owned, and not open to the public.
Ashcombe, Wiltshire – privately owned, but there are some public rights of way across part of the grounds.