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Literary History of Kent

Submitted by KAS on 2 July 2019

Kent and Literature: The Stories of our Story

A talk delivered by Kerry Brown at the Kent Archaeological Society Annual General Meeting at the University of Kent.

Sat, 18 May 2019

First a word of clarification and justification. For those who might have looked at my CV, beyond being a council member and trustee of the KAS, and a member for almost three decades now, and despite having been born and brought up in this county, it’s apparent there is little clear connection between what I intend to talk about today, and my professional life. Since 1990 in one way or another I have dealt with China, as a diplomat, in business, and then as an academic. What qualifies me to speak about the literary history of this county? Well, nothing – beyond perhaps the most important thing, which is a deep personal interest in this subject. The fact therefore that I am not paid, or rewarded in any tangible way for what I am going to speak about today shows I really do care about it and am interested in it.

There is however also another reason. In fact, it was through the insights of a friend from Taiwan that I started to think much more about what this county’s literary history is, and how to make sense of it. Before that, like many other people, I had been vaguely aware of there having been a lot of prominent writers who lived or worked in this place, and specific locations which were sometimes associated with them. Dicken’s Rochester, for instance, springs to mind as the very obvious example, or Marlowe’s Canterbury. It was only when showing this Taiwanese friend the memorial to Ian Fleming on the coast at Dover that they pointed out something that has stayed with me since. Fleming after all created a character who really does have global reach. `007’ is a phenomenon well known in China, Japan and throughout Asia. Yes, this is mostly to do with the hugely popular and successful film franchise. But with no books by Fleming, these films would have never been made. And while there are scenes in his work that clearly occur in places like the Sandwich golf club, where the evil Goldfinger plays a high stakes round of golf with James Bond, in fact in the whole set of films only one scene was actually ever filmed here – in the docks at Dover in the 1971 `Diamonds are Forever’. Fleming, however, clearly lived in Kent – for two years for instance at the Bishop’s Palace in Bekesbourne - and, ever more clearly he died here. And yet, as my Taiwanese friend pointed out, why wasn’t there a much more solid commemoration of him than the very underwhelming slightly hidden iron figure at the tiny Dover beach sea front and a couple of plaques on pub and house walls?

There are a set of questions about why it should matter where a writer lived or how places which really exist figure in their work. Writers of fiction deal with empires of the mind. So this talk could be about the reimagination of Kent as a place with characteristics, history and idiosyncrasies as they exist in fictional works – Kent as an imagined place, and how it contrasts with the real one we all live in. Even here, we will start to need to make a few intellectual strategic decisions. Chaucer is world famous as the author of the Canterbury Tales. One would assume there could not be a more direct link between a work of fiction and a place than the naming of it in its title. Even so, for those who read through the immense unfinished `fragment’ that Chaucer left, Kent as a place does not figure much. It occurs purely as background, an assumed location where these varied characters happen to be when telling their stories about other places and other worlds. The Knight’s Tale, the infamous Miller’s Tale, the Tale of the Wife of Bath have no link to Kent. In the early 1970s, the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini before his brutal murder in 1975 rendered some of these stories into a film – part of his `Trilogy of Life’. Tellingly, his choice of locations ranged from Wells in Somerset, to the streets of London. Kent only really figured when the beautiful small church on Romney Marsh at Fairfield appeared - a stark priestly figure walking across the grass away from the church. The Pilgrims Way, the road on which these imaginary speakers told their imaginary tale is arguably as much a work of fiction as Chaucer’s – not a place at all, more a creation of Victorian Ordinance Survey mapmakers and the poet Hilaire Belloc.

On the other extreme Dicken’s Kent seems to be a place with great solidity and tangibility. You can visit it, spend time in it, and find commemoration plaques on buildings in places like Rochester where you are informed that these were the locations where events that never actually happened occurred! The power of Dickens to have influenced and in some cases remoulded the physical world he lived in is remarkable. In effect he created a myth of Kent, just as he is often accused of creating the myth of Christmas. And yet here too there are other questions about his link to the physical space of Kent we can ponder. The place where he did most of the writing for the final years of his life, Gad’s Hill, in Higham, is now a private school, and sporadically open. The chalet he apparently most liked writing in is now stuck in a public garden, looking adrift and forlorn in Rochester High Street. Did it matter that he was physically here when he wrote the final books of his life? Would those books have been different if they had been written elsewhere? Is there some meaning we can draw from his being in this place, rather than any other? I don’t think these questions ever get asked much – but they should be. Instead, we seem to be invited to perpetually celebrate Dicken’s Kent, without any clear idea of what this really means, and whether this place bears any relationship to the one we all happen to be living in.

My core argument will be that just as archaeologists at a new site are almost always confronted with disparate and varied bits of evidences, seldom very coherent, and never very complete, and have to come up with some kind of interpretative narrative, in a very different context, but in a very similar way, the vestiges, material and otherwise, that writers have left on the landscape and in the memory traces of Kent are lying around us, and yet so far haven’t been rewarded with a proper analytic and synthesising framework to make sense of them. We can certainly tour in these places, and see them as sightseeing resources, and give them sporadic attention. But my submission is that the utterly remarkable literary history of this county deserves far more than that. The story of it and its literature is no less than the story of the English language and its literature. Some of the earliest written documents, as the magnificent exhibition of Anglo Saxon books at the British Library earlier this year showed, came from the centre of learning that was Canterbury after Augustine’s mission here. The earliest laws were written down here. This is therefore the longest literary tradition in the English speaking world. How odd therefore that Kent is so silent about the words and the world of words that it has been such a central location to.

Working out clear parameters for what we are looking at when we speak of literature and links with people and places is not easy, I understand. Someone just having been born here – as the Tudor poets Philip Sydney from Penshurst and Thomas Wyatt from Allington Castle were, means little. Their works are indifferent to or silent about Kent, and focus on placeless emotions and courtly love themes. Ben Jonson, their near contemporary, had no particular link to Kent, but wrote one of the great poetic celebrations of hospitality `On Penshurst,’ which is extremely specific in its celebration of the joys and honour of being a guest at that great Medieval house. With his inimitable elusiveness, Shakespeare haunts our landscape as he does so many other places. He may as a member of the King’s Players have come to Chilham to act in the castle gardens under the patronage of the Digges family who owned it then. He may have had a hand in the play about the infamous murder in `Arden of Faversham’ – the 2016 Oxford edition claims not Thomas Kyd but he wrote most of the work. The nature of his links to Kent is speculative, however well informed, with little solid documentary evidence. The most we can say is that the county figures in his work, with the epic scene between Edgar and a blinded Duke of Gloucester on Dover beach in King Lear and Falstaff’s encounter with robbers on the road close by to where Dickens lived in Higham in Henry the Fourth Part One being two of the most celebrated examples. These from quite early on became engrained in the collective unconscious of this region. Generation after generation learned them at school, to the point where we came to think they almost happened. There is even a Shakespeare Cliff on our coast, proving Oscar Wilde’s saying that more often than not life imitates art, rather than the other way around. In this way, they became part of our identity.

There are two writers who occupy a very unique place in any attempt to make sense of the literary history of this county. For both of them, ironically, English was not their native language. One of them is buried close to here. Joseph Conrad’s journeys, as a recent study had made clear, means that he is a figure who left traces around the South Asian region and the world, and in his native Poland/Ukraine. His works are located in venues running from Australia to Latin America, to Indonesia and the Malayan Peninsula. The most celebrated of them, `The Heart of Darkness’, while mostly occurring in the Belgian Congo, begins in Kent – though in the estuary waters by Gravesend where Marlow the storyteller, perhaps Conrad’s alter ego, announces the famous lines: `This too has been one of the dark places of the earth.’ He is referring to the conquest by Caesar, and how it occurs as part of a history of subjugation and enslavement, in Britain. The line haunts the rest of the book. Conrad’s own life in Kent occurred after his retirement from being a seaman, and some years based in London. Addington, Pent Farm and then finally Oswalds in the village near Canterbury of Bishopsbourne were all places he and his family rented. They seem utterly unimportant in his work, for sure. The account of his son Borys Conrad, who was accused of fraudulently using his father’s memory to make financial gain after his death, implies these locations were simply ones that Conrad lived in and which he had no deep connection to. And yet despite this, for anyone effected by the haunting quality of Conrad’s prose, a language which happened to be his third after Polish and French, standing by the buildings that he actually produced these works in is an oddly unsettling experience. Pent Farm (see below – photo on the left) is the place he wrote Heart of Darkness. It is not an easy place to find, hidden in the lanes as one drives down from Canterbury to Folkestone. One of the truly great visionary works of modernity was produced here, and yet the site itself is eerily silent and unmarked. On a still day, as it was when I visited, it seems fitting and appropriate that a work like this was produced here, though I have no easy way of explaining why – beyond the fact that the quietness of this place must have allowed Conrad the peace to concentrate on producing his great work, and that atmosphere has lasted to today. This, indeed, is one of the dark places of the earth, not so much because of what happened here, but because of what someone imagined while here!

The other writer wrote not in English but in German, and his story is even more puzzling. Uwe Johnson died aged 49 in 1984. At the time of his death, in a sea facing house in Sheerness, he was so little known and isolated that his body lay undiscovered for a fortnight. And yet, with the publication of his `Anniversaries’ in a stupendous English translation for the first time in New York last year, he is being rediscovered. His work even more than Conrad’s has no tangible link with Kent at all. It is set in New York, the city in which Johnson had lived before coming in 1975 to the small Sheppey town, and then in pre-war Germany. No one knows quite why a writer called by figures like Heinrich Boll and Gunther Grass in his own life time one of the greatest German writers of the modern era did move to provincial Kent. What is clear is that alongside Joyce’s `Ulysses,’ Proust’s `Remembrance of Things Past’ and Musil’s `The Man of No Qualities’, `Anniversaries’ ranks as one of the great works of 20th century modernism, shifting between pre-war German history and then the remaking of the protagonist’s life in New York from 1967 to 1968. And while Joyce’s work is very much set in Dublin, Proust’s in Paris and Combray, and Musil’s in Vienna, the difference is that Johnson’s works shifts between multiple locations and territories. It is itinerant and peripatetic. That is part of its power. And once more, on a winter’s day coming to the house in which he wrote this tremendous work, in this most unexpected of places, itself has a huge emotional power. His was one of the great heroic lives of the modern era. It is commemorated by the smallest of plaques.

Kent was a place of centrality to Conrad and Johnson through living here. But there is a Kent literary history which is more about marginality – a place on the edges or away from the great all-demanding centre of London. Somewhere to come to to get away. For the poet T S Eliot, his trace on the local landscape is through one line, in the Wasteland, and one place – Margate: `On Margate sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing.’ His stay in the town recuperating from what sounds like a nervous breakdown and the emerging marital problems with his troubled first wife Vivian is particularly ghostly. He was there perhaps a month in the early 1920s. At that time Margate was still a favoured resort for those seeking the fresh sea air and its medicinal and therapeutic qualities. He stayed in the Albermarle Hotel. That is now long gone, its site occupied by flats. But there is one place that he was physically in which still exists– the sea shelter now on the northern edge of the beach. There, according to records, he sat covered in a blanket in the morning meditating. The hut stands today, largely unchanged. Efforts to commemorate it and make more of it have been limited, though it has been listed. At the wrong time of the year or the day, the enjoyment of going there is impacted on by the distress of seeing the plight of homeless people huddle under the shelter. Sometimes needles from drug usage are spread across the floor. A poet of a different genre and nature, Tracy Emin, herself a native of this town, has celebrated its harder edged qualities in her art. The tragic local writer David Seagrove wrote movingly in the 2000s of what these seaside towns with their experience of highs and lows now mean – before his own sudden demise in an apartment opposite Canterbury West station in 2009. When we stand in Margate in the places where we think Eliot stood and reflect on the immense impact of `The Wasteland’, a poem that starts appropriately for our purposes today with a quote from Joseph Conrad, it is not so much connecting nothing with nothing, but connecting this place with any proper understanding of its true role in inspiring the words that Eliot put on the page that is so difficult.

Eliot’s connexions with Kent do not end there. The premier of his verse play, `Murder in the Cathedral’ was held in the Chapter House in Canterbury – again an event unmarked today. M R James, the great Victorian writer of haunted tales, was born in Kent before moving for most of his career to Cambridge. His tales were tighter, more fraught and impactful than the now less well remembered `Ingoldsby Legends’ by the Reverend Richard Harris Barham. But the stories of both have a high incidence of landscapes and places where hauntings and the atmosphere left by the memory traces of past trauma are strong. For them, it is indeed manifestly the case that `this too has been one of the dark places of the earth.’ But perhaps the most powerful rendition of this spectral, haunting quality of the Kent city and rural landscape can be found not in a work about the past, but in Russel Hoban’s dystopian masterpiece from 1980 of the future - `Riddley Walker’ – a work which, much like that of the more orthodox, Canterbury educated W Somerset Maugham, or even of the great Dickens, tests the reader by renaming places. Canterbury for Hoban is Cambry, a place devastated a millennium or so in the future by a nuclear attack. Kent is a ruined place, tribes drifting across it attacking each other. The sole remnant of the great civilisation of the past is a Punch and Judy kit and a scratchy image of the myth of St Eunice which becomes the centre of a new religion. As Hoban has his protagonist declare, `every thing is about every thing’ – an antidote to the sentiments of Eliot quoted just a moment ago where nothing connects. The challenge in this devasted world is finding the link but the link somehow can, and must be found.

The finding of the link is what we have to do when we look at this truly remarkable literary history – one of the most powerful not just in Britain, but in the whole world. There are many more fragments we could attend to: the life of Christopher Marlow, schoolboy in this city, and whether his great invention of iambic pentameters really were the making of Shakespeare who came after him; the slow jaunts through Kent by figures like Daniel Defoe, who certainly critically wrote of the place in one of his many, many works, but much less certainly may have lived and written Robinson Crusoe in a small village here – either the Hartley in West Kent, of the same place in the East. William Hazlitt, great essayist and contemporary of Coleridge and Wordsworth, was the son of a unitarian minister in Maidstone, and spent his first decade or so there. But even in the work of figures like the damaged but massively influential American poet of the mid twentieth century, Robert Lowell, we find explicit mentions in some of his sequences while he was based here in the late 1960s and early 1970s of the disintegration of his own relationship at the time both with himself, and his wife. Perhaps the most striking of all these forays into our county was a car tour that Samuel Beckett, the Irish writer, took around the western part of the county in the 1930s, where the greatest absurdist writer of the last century was struck by the absurdness of names like Snodland and the difference between the spelling of Trotiscliffe and the way the word was said.

The most haunting of all links, however, are the visits here by Jane Austen, as a published but largely marginal writer in the early 19th century. Austen, as the bicentenary of her death only two years ago attested to, is a truly global figure. Her work is known in Japan, America, Australia, and in China. There are vibrant appreciation societies of her in all these places. And while she is linked with her native Hampshire, spent much time in Bath, and is buried in Winchester, Kent was of major importance in her work. Largely itinerant while alive, her situation meant that she often came to Kent to stay with her elder brother, a man who had been adopted by a wealthy family in Godmersham near Ashford and changed his name from Austen to Knight by act of parliament in order to inherit the estates of the noble house here. Austen is a truly global figure, and yet the very real traces of her life in this county, something commemorated every time one looks at the back of the ten pound note and sees her face, and the sketched outline of Godmersham Place, is only accessible to those that really look. Goodnestone Park, near Canterbury, was another of her haunts, and she most probably was here when she wrote `Pride and Prejudice.’ But Rowling’s, the house in which she may have done this, the one she stayed at near Goodnestone, is now a private residence. Beyond worthy occasional openings of its gardens to the public, the great manor of Godmersham, in the library of which she must have written Mansfield Park, is off limits except to optometrists who are members of the society that now owns the place and who hold training courses there. Austen stayed in coaching inns in Dartford, and probably in Sittingbourne – and attended functions which she rated as somewhat dreary in Ashford. Of course, the issue is that in her writings, because of their focus on manners and human behaviour, any sense of an external, physical landscape is minimal to non-existent.

Kent has mattered not just to adult fiction, but in the writing for children. This is the city where Mary Tourtel created Rupert Bear; E Nesbit lived and worked throughout Kent and holidayed in Yalding, producing a short children’s novel, `The Wouldbegoods’ which is clearly physically based in the area. She is buried here, on Romney Marsh. Clive King set his massively popular 1960s tale about a prehistoric man being discovered by children at the bottom of the garden, `Stig of the Dump’, in a Bromley house he had lived in near the end of the war and seen the impact of bombing on. Even H G Wells, as much a writer for children as adults, spent almost a decade in Folkestone, on the hills looking over the Channel just a stone’s throw from where Agatha Christie, a few years later in the 1920s, would spend time in the Grand Hotel penning `Murder on the Orient Express.’ Well’s home is marked, but is now a retirement house. It was here where `The War of the Worlds’ was produced – a work that also has had global impact.

Forgotten for many years, but now making a significant comeback, the poet David Jones, who fought in the first world war alongside other natives of Kent, Siegfried Sassoon (who schooled in Sevenoaks), Edmund Blunden (from Yalding) and Sidney Keynes (an old boy at Dartford Grammar School) produced work which associated him with the Wales of his father. He himself was born in Bromley, then part of the Kent county area before the borders were redrawn in the latter part of the century. For Jones, the hybrid nature of British identity and history, reaching back to the Roman occupation and even before, into the deep history of British native religions and oral traditions, produced a truly remarkable fragmented quality in his work – work which is best read aloud to capture the amazing richness of its texture and sound. In much of his poetry, and in particular his complex masterpiece `The Anathemata’, the British landscape inscribed with so many marks of human intervention and invention, and with the traces of different kinds of comings and goings, is the true protagonist, and humans simply supporting actors on it. This landscape deserves to be attended to, read, understood, on its own terms – a landscape which in Kent is so densely marked and so immensely difficult, and yet rewarding, to interrogate and make sense of. At some points, in for instance the wonderful work from the late 1960s, `The Sleeping Lord’, Jones simply produced questions – asking perpetually but not producing anything like a culminating statement. Kent as a question, prompting, stimulating, almost mystical in its elusive qualities, is perhaps not a bad way to see the interface between lived experiences of writers in this space and the physical remnants that they have left and their writings.

It is just strange that there is no specific place that can commemorate this and give us the chance to think more about what this history means. Dublin and Edinburgh have splendid museums of literature, celebrating and making clear their heritage in this space. Kent’s efforts are almost half hearted and sporadic. With tourism so important to our economy, how very odd that we are not branded as a place with such a massive literary heritage. Even when we leave this place, in Dover, the location which I started with my story of Ian Fleming and the underwhelming statue there, we still leave not just a physical territory, but one entwined with words, where the words almost bid us goodbye. The Victorian critic and poet, Matthew Arnold, not remotely connected to this county, set his great declaration of the loss of faith at the dawn of high modernity not in the streets of London, or the other grand metropolitan centres of central, or northern Britain, nor the places of learning like Cambridge and Oxford, but on Dover Beach:


The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Kent Archaeology Society