Michelle Huneven

Webpage of Michelle Huneven, novelist.  Author of Round Rock, Jamesland, Blame, and Off Course.

Rye and Sissinghurst

On Monday, October 8, we checked out of the Nazi-memorializing hotel and sped for Rye to Lamb House, where Henry James so happily lived out his last years. En route, our trusty GPS took us down many tiny lanes and cart paths—apparently to get us around Hastings traffic, but challenging Jim the driver.

            We stepped into the George Hotel, which was relaxed and pretty, no Nazi memorabilia in sight. The woman at reception, a tall Estonian named Annaliese, was instantly concerned that we should visit Lamb House ASAP, as it was open only that afternoon, and would be closed all midweek. (We knew that, but were touched by her concern).  We dropped our luggage, parked the car down the hill, hiked back up past various enticing antique shops, to West Street, The Master’s mossy cobbled lane. 

Henry James was 55 years old when he leased Lamb House in 1897, and he would buy it outright two years later. Here, he wrote his great late masterpieces,The Wings of the Dove,The Golden Bowl, andThe Ambassadors. Elegant and charming, Lamb House is a one-person mansion, with high rooms, two of them (parlor and bedroom) with warm oak paneling.Most of the contents were sold off in 1949, the house was donated to the National Trust in 1950, but some prized items remain or have migrated back, including the portrait of James by Philip Burne-Jones, a gold watch given to Henry by his brother William, and the treasured bust of a young boy acquired from the sculptor, Henrik Anderson, one of the men James wrote to with such great outpourings of affection that his surviving family made such letters (to various young men) unavailable even to biographers until the early 2000’s.

            The dining room, with its bullseye window, is no doubt much as it was when James’s drunken servants discomfited guests by setting down plates with unseemly flourishes. 

            The garden room, on the other hand, was bombed in World War 2 and never rebuilt. It was a separate structure, built off the garden wall, and in warm weather it is where James would write—or rather, dictate—his books. (Apparently German fighter pilots dumped unused ammunition indiscriminately on Rye and the coast when heading back from targeted missions. One of those dumps hit the garden room but thankfully missed the rest of the house.) 

            And what a garden. A large grassy area is surrounded by beds of flowers and flowering trees.  Neighboring roofs are visible in each direction, yet one feels completely removed from the narrow cobblestone street just on the other side of the garden wall.

            Only recently has the National Trust opened the upstairs of Lamb House to visitors.  Yes, now (however intrusive it feels to enter the private quarters of such a private man) you can view HJ’s oak-lined bedroom, the bed situated as it was, with a view to Rye’s cathedral.  And here is the Green Room, where in cooler months he dictated novels to his amanuensis and corrected proofs at the very escritoire against the wall. In winter, though, he moved up to his club in London.

James had many friends nearby—H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, and Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford Madox Ford)—and also entertained visitors from afar, including Edith Wharton, who would motor right up to his door.

            And what a door, laden with brass locks and hasps and handles.  

            It made Michelle happy to see that James was so beautifully situated in the later years of his life. And that his home is so lovingly tended as a memorial to his work.

As a writer, it’s bittersweet and moving to see such attention taken to preserving writers’ homes: so much money and [mostly volunteer] time given to places because their occupants wrote novels, books that hang in our memories and seep into our lives, that made hours pass as if in enchantment, and that have evoked such devotion that certain readers feel compelled to keep the authors tangibly represented in the world by preserving their homes, and other readers feel compelled to visit. 

What comes of visiting the homes, seeing the bits and pieces of the writers’ lives, the views out of their windows, the desks where they wrote? 

A greater appreciation for the intangible—for the writers’ imaginations and ability to create whole worlds from this or that desk, at this or that view, using this or that kind of pen.

A sense of gratitude and wonder at the enormity of their labor—sitting at a desk or a low table or, in James’s case, pacing the floor, imagining scenes, forming sentences for hours on end. The intense, mental performance. Book after book.

Leaving Lamb House, Jim wandered into the nearby church, dedicated to St. Mary the virgin, a wonderful place. Though a small church, it is as tall as a cathedral and one immediately strives to take it all in. First built in the early Twelfth Century, the church was looted and burned by the French in the Fourteenth Century. The “men of Rye” sailed to France the next year to recover the church bells. The church’s ancient and timeless quality partly reflects the improvements to the church made over the centuries, but have been foreordained.  According to the justly proud caretaker, the initial construction took place during the transition from the Norman to early Gothic architecture, so that each of the arches forming the nave has a slightly different style. After a harrowing climb to the top of the tower, one is rewarded by spectacular views of Rye and of one’s wife who knew not what she missed   

We checked into the George and happily approved our view of the hotel garden, the fresh breeze through an open window, and our commodious red sofa, before setting out to explore Rye, finding view spots and a hidden stairway down to the strand, where antique stores cluster. According to guidebooks, Rye is known for its charm, restaurants, and shopping. Shopping. We’d been on such a literary quest, we’d forgotten all about shopping. In the antique shops, we found some small treasures for gifts, and a perfect length of old, coarse-weave, indigo-dyed polka dot linen for which Michelle made a lowball offer. (The fellow manning the store said he had to consult his wife before accepting it).

A very well-curated cooking store sold, among other items, a “tongue press” (£38). (“A Tongue Press is used for pressing cooked, skinned tongue into a tube shape. This lets tongue sliced for luncheon meat have a more uniform appearance to its slices. You put the tongue while still warm into the press, and when the tongue has cooled, it will retain the shape of the press.”---cooksinfo.com).  The affable owner allowed that he actually sold one or two a year. Michelle said she would buy one if she could think of one other good use for it.  She could not.

Rye rolled up its sidewalks around five o’clock, so we repaired to the George to read and work on the blog and eat a very good dinner of local steak and scallops. And chips.

We have never eaten so many chips in our life.  

We might well be chipped out.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden was our morning destination.  Poor Jim: this meant driving on more meandering lanes and green tunnels of kissing trees, more hair-raising right turns and more roundabouts.  After eight days, he was a lot more confident, although the roads are still narrow and the speed of other drivers harrowing. And shifting with his left hand never felt quite right.

Sissinghurst was built in the 1560’s as the grandiose home of a wealthy pig farmer. Over time, it became a prisoners of war camp (inmates wrecked the place), then in the 19thCentury, a poorhouse (inmates rebuilt some of it). By the time, writer Vida Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson bought the property in the early 1930’s, the estate had again become a privately-owned working farm, and was a colossal mess. They cleared out centuries of debris and set out the gardens, which were opened to the public in the late ‘30’s. 

We happened into a tour of the “South Cottage,” the few, very modest rooms that remain from Tudor times.  Here is where the famous couple stayed when they were in residence.  (The fancy library in another building was used only to entertain fancy guests). The wood paneling is just thick planks hammered to the wall joists—nothing like the oak boiserie of Lamb House. The rooms are of modest size and dim, the dark wallpaper and gloomy paintings evidence of what decades of smoking and wood fires can do to a house and its furnishings. Both Nicholson and Sackville-West had affairs—he with men, she with women (notably Virginia Woolf)--but they had children and stayed married and their descendants still come to live in the South Cottage in the summer—hence, to protect their privacy, we were not allowed to take any indoor pictures. Drat! We could (and did) climb the tower (another vestige of the long-demolished “castle”), and see Sackville-West’s writing room where she produced her many novels with a birdseye view of the garden and, in all directions, the weald of Kent.

The gardens are the main attraction. Nicholson did the lay-out (many “rooms” of rather strict geometrical design, which Sackville-West compared to a platform at a London train staiton) and Sackville-West did the plantings (profuse and unclipped): an ideal blend of talents and temperaments. A “white” garden has only all-white flowers. In October, the gardens were overgrown, gone to seed, the long-stemmed asters now tied up to keep them from flopping over entirely; leaves clogged the beds, the blooms were scant, and the all of it was raffishly appealing.(The National Trust actively works to maintain Sackville-West’s vision of wild beauty.)Michelle was gratified to see that the first thing Sackville West planted at Sissinghurst was a Madame Alfred Carriere rose, now 87 years old. Michelle loves that pink-tinged white climbing rose and has planted several of them in Altadena where they bloom ardently every few months, and (before the remodel) several times tried to swallow the garage.

Back in Rye, Michelle went shopping. She stopped first at the little cave of stuffed animals and bought an English-made teddy—who could resist?—and then returned to claim her antique polka dot linen (the wife said yes).