The write stuff: Our literary luminaries

Charles Dickens, Dodie Smith, Beatrix Potter, PD James . . . the list of writers with links to Suffolk is long. With a new booklet honouring them, Steven Russell meets the woman putting authors in the spotlight.

Steven Russell

Charles Dickens, Dodie Smith, Beatrix Potter, PD James . . . the list of writers with links to Suffolk is long. With a new booklet honouring them, Steven Russell meets the woman putting authors in the spotlight

WHERE do all the writers come from, then? Hampstead and other leafy London enclaves, certainly. Some of the edgier authors choose to dwell south of the Thames. Folk like Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, whose stories have an integral sense of place, remain close to their source of inspiration. But Suffolk?

Oh yes.

A new A5 booklet showcasing Suffolk's literary heritage should help combat any lingering notion of a sleepy county. For we've had our fair share of wordsmiths: authors born here, writers who have moved east, and visiting creative types drawn by forest and heathland, crumbling coasts, rolling farmland, quiet villages and historic towns.

It's a cast of famous names - George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, PD James, even the shamed Jeffrey Archer, who came under duress - and those who are nowadays not so well known but whose work deserves to be remembered.

Most Read

Writers with Bury St Edmunds connections, for instance, include historical novelist Norah Lofts, who wrote more than 50 books and died in 1983. Westgate Street was home to Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867), who was the first war correspondent, reporting the Peninsular War for The Times.

Eliza Acton (1799-1859) moved to Ipswich as a baby when her brewer father became a partner with Trotman, Halliday Studd & Co in College Street.

According to a new booklet on Literary Suffolk, she “wrote what was probably the first basic cookbook aimed at the domestic reader rather than the professional chef with a full kitchen staff. Modern Cookery for Private Families, published in 1845, had recipes that were well written and easy to understand.

“She introduced the now universal practice of listing the ingredients and the cooking times separately in each recipe. She was clearly the model for Mrs Beeton, and Delia Smith (another Suffolk cookery writer) is quoted as having called her the best writer of ordinary recipes in the English language”.

The list goes on.

John Hadfield (1907-1999) lived at Barham Manor, near Ipswich. His sole novel, Love on a Branch Line, is based on the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway from Haughley Junction to Laxfield.

The parents of Marjorie Allingham (1904-1966), one of Britain's Queens of Crime, lived in Suffolk. She penned her first Albert Campion story at the Old Vicarage in Letheringham, near Wickham Market, and wrote two other novels at The Dairy House near Shelley.

Two great crime writers who have lived in Suffolk have based novels here. PD James's Unnatural Causes, for example, is set largely in Minsmere and Dunwich. Her famous detective, Adam Dalgliesh, stops off at Blythburgh church and experiences “the cold silvery whiteness of one of the loveliest church interiors in Suffolk”.

Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, “set Gallowglass in Sudbury, used Orford and Aldeburgh for part of No Night is Too Long, Polstead and Nayland for A Fatal Inversion and Bury St Edmunds and its surroundings for The Brimstone Wedding”.

Two contemporary writers with homes on the coast draw inspiration from the landscape. Esther Freud's The Sea House immortalises Walberswick - “a flat, slow river, crossed by a wooden bridge, and then the path struck upwards through white dunes …”

Julie Myerson's Something Might Happen is rooted in Southwold and captures the atmosphere of a town perched between land and sea. “If you walk along past Blackshore and the ferry to the marshes,” she writes, “something strange happens … despite the crackle of insects in the gorse, the cry of the bittern, the brown gleam of the saltings, the eerie mauve light that creeps in just before rain, you shiver.”

Quite frankly, more literary figures abound than could be included in this new guide, which means characters such as Henry Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) must be content with a place on the substitutes' bench. He's the Hintlesham sociologist and psychologist whose writings on sex caused a stir.

Literary Suffolk is based on a leaflet put together a decade ago by Anne Parry (then chairman of the Suffolk Book League), the late Peter Hardiman Scott (vice-chairman at the time) and Martin Crook (the then treasurer). It's now been updated and enlarged to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the league and is produced by the Suffolk Tourism Partnership.

“Whenever I go on holiday, I'm always looking: who lived here? Who wrote about this place?” says Anne, explaining the kind of thoughts that inspired the original leaflet.

“I used to make my children do it. It started when we went on holiday to France, to Saumur, and I'd just been reading Balzac's Eugénie Grandet. I bought them all a huge ice-cream and said 'I want to go round and get the atmosphere of this book.' I remember them licking happily away and saying 'Have you got the atmosphere of Ball-zac yet, Mum . . . ?!'”

Updating the project has been a labour of love for the former children's book editor at publisher Collins. “I've had the happiest few months. It's everything I enjoy doing: reading and finding out about writers. My husband's been very patient, driving me around Suffolk so I can check things.”

With that 1998 guide a bit basic, Anne set out to include more quotations and snippets about the writers and their works.

A general rule, waived a couple of times, was that privacy would be protected by not mentioning contemporary authors living in the county.

Some discoveries were plain serendipity.

“I was in Thelnetham church, on a tour for something, and I suddenly saw the plaque for John Middleton Murry. I had no idea he'd lived in Suffolk.” Murry lived in the county for many years until his death in the late 1950s and is known for one of the first biographies of D.H. Lawrence, which Aldous Huxley described as an “essay in destructive hagiography”.

And then Anne's daughter - post-Balzac period and now grown up! - emailed about a review she'd read of a British Museum exhibition on Hindu art. The article praised a book by Edward Moor, who lived in Suffolk and was responsible for the county's own pyramid - albeit a modest one. Some of this was news to mum.

Moor (1771-1848) was a young soldier and scholar was invalided home to Suffolk from India in 1805. “A keen observer and recorder of the deities and images of Hinduism, he built the pyramid in the grounds of his home, Great Bealings House . . . to which he attached some of the Hindu statues he brought back with him.

“He published The Hindu Pantheon in 1810, described recently by William Dalrymple as 'the first serious analysis in English of the everyday rites and practices of ordinary Hindus'.”

Some of the paintings Moor collected are in the British Museum and Ipswich Museum.

“One of the stories I didn't have space for was the Bealings Bells,” says Anne. “For about six months all the internal bells in his house” - a wire-strung system used to summon servants - “used to ring very loudly for no apparent reason. I met a man in Great Bealings who said it was probably to do with the wiring, and the metal used for the wiring, because it happened all over the country at that time.”

Compared with the rest of the country, how does Suffolk fare in terms of producing memorable writers?

“Difficult question! I think we're probably up there doing very well, is all I can say. Obviously we're not in with the greats, like the Lake District or down with Hardy in Wessex; but then Hardy, that's only one person, and we've got a whole swathe of people.

“Sadly, a lot of our greatest poets and writers are not so well read now, like George Crabbe, but I still think we should promote them, because they are great writers and do deserve a place in our literary canon.”

Crabbe (1754-1832) is lauded as Suffolk's greatest poet. In his poems The Village and The Borough he drew on the experiences of his hard early life in and around Aldeburgh - featuring the depression and brutality of a poor fishing settlement - to become one of the first landscape poets to write realistically about humble people, says Anne. “His story of Peter Grimes, included in The Borough, inspired a later son of Suffolk, Benjamin Britten, to compose his opera based on it.”

So, who's her favourite Suffolk writer?

“I knew you were going to ask me that! I think one of my favourites is MR James, the ghost-story writer.” James (1862-1936) was born and brought up at Great Livermere Hall, near Bury St Edmunds, and became provost of King's College, Cambridge.

“I think Whistle and I'll Come to You” - set in Felixstowe - “is the most frightening story in the English language. It's more frightening than any horror film, because it's based on those fears we all have that you're walking along on a dark night and someone's behind you.”

Literary Suffolk has been produced by the Suffolk Tourism Partnership with sponsorship from Gotelee & Goldsmith solicitors, Norman Scarfe Trust, Suffolk Book League and Suffolk County Council. This article gives only a glimpse of the writers mentioned. Further details - of folk such as Adrian Bell, Sir Henry Rider Haggard (King Solomon's Mines) and Edward FitzGerald (best known work a literary translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) - can be found in the booklet.

It can be bought for £1 from Suffolk tourist information centres and libraries, and through the Paypal system (£2, inclusive of post and packing) via Suffolk Tourism Partnership (0844 980 8510).

It's also available as an e-book:

What they said and thought about Suffolk . . .

Visitor Daniel Defoe (1661-1731) found Ipswich “one of the most agreeable places in England”, although he was dismayed at the decaying dockyards.

French visitor Francois de la Rouchefoucauld spent a year in Suffolk in 1784. “His impressions are translated and edited by Norman Scarfe in A Frenchman's Year in Suffolk in which he records, for example, the English custom of tea-drinking, the elegant country houses and parks, the poor standards of ballroom dancing, the boring Sundays, and the flourishing agriculture. '. . . the ordinary farmers are not looked on, as they are in France, as an inferior class created solely to feed the rich'.”

William Cobbett, the radical reformer, undertook his Rural Rides on horseback between 1822 and 1826. He thought Bury St Edmunds “the nicest town in the world”.

In the summer of 1873, young Robert Louis Stevenson came to stay at Cockfield Rectory, near Lavenham, with his cousin, Maud, and her husband, Churchill Babington, the rector. He wrote to his mother: “Yesterday we were away to Melford and Lavenham, both exceptionally placid, beautiful English towns.”

Virginia Woolf and sister Vanessa Bell stayed at Blo' Norton Hall, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, in 1906. Virginia wrote The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn based on Blo' Norton Hall and its history. In 1916, the author and her husband came to Wissett Lodge, near Halesworth, to visit painter Duncan Grant and his partner David Garnett.

She wrote to biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey, Grant's cousin: “Wissett seems to lull asleep all ambition - don't you think they have discovered the secret of life?”

The poet John Betjeman (1906-1984) thought the gardens of the Spa Pavilion in Felixstowe “a sunlit kingdom touched by butterflies”.

“The Irish writer Brendan Behan was less enamoured with the area when he came as a guest of Her Majesty to Hollesley Bay Colony, then a boy's borstal. In Borstal Boy (1958) he describes a swimming trip to Shingle Street, where the hard stone pebbles reminded him of 'the people of the place' and the dancing waves has 'no limit but the rim of the world'.”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter