Houses of the Literati

 

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In East Sussex, in a medieval town called Rye, is a Georgian-style manor known as the Lamb House. According to Kenneth Clark in his pamphlet, Murder By Mistake, the Lamb House was built in 1722 by James Lamb, who was the mayor of Rye. Twenty or so years later, his brother-in-law, Allen Grebell, was murdered in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, just down the road from Lamb’s house; the intended target, however, was actually Mayor Lamb. The local butcher turned murderer, John Breads, had held a deep-seated grudge against him for many years. It’s a fascinating story with even more twists and turns, but the house’s real claim to fame is that from 1898-1916, American author Henry James lived there.

By the time Henry James bought the house, the spectre of that awful murder had eased somewhat. We toured the house for 5 pounds on a sunny Wednesday in July. We had access to three tiny rooms: the telephone room, the oak room, and the dining room. James artifacts were somewhat sparse; however, in the telephone room, under glass, is a great letter from James to a woman that waxes poetic on having had shingles. I loved that the room was specifically called the telephone room, as James was one of the first in Rye to own a telephone. What was such a novelty then (so much so as to have its own room) is so painfully ubiquitous today. From the dining room, we stepped out into a large, sprawling garden he must have enjoyed, and for an additional cost of 7 pounds 50, we could enjoy too, along with a cream tea. The garden is not visible from the front of the house, and, seemed, in fact, like a separate world.

In the end, my companions were disappointed in the limited rooms available to tour, and that the house provided no historical references to James Lamb, who, as mayor, was clearly an important political figure in the town’s development. Still worth a visit. Check out Rye Museum for more information about the Lamb House.

 

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Following a week in Rye, we headed by train to London to stay in Camden for a few days. On a day in which grey clouds hid the sun but not the humidity, we ventured out to Hampstead Heath to try and find John Keats’ house, the signs deceiving us along the way.

Eventually, after a long walk, and various direction changes, we came to Keats Grove, and there, nestled in a garden, was the house where Keats lived for the last two years of his life, and where he composed, among other famous poems, “Ode to a Nightingale.” For a low cost, we toured the entire house, which was quite empty of tourists, and admired the cheerful rooms full of period furniture and various portraits of Keats. Upstairs, in one tiny bedroom, was Keats’ death mask, kept behind a climate-controlled box of glass. In the stillness of the house, the mask revealed a surprisingly peaceful face.

Visiting the houses of the literary dead is its own form of worship. The idea is novel: Step back in time and walk in a literary great’s surroundings. For a spell, encounter the author’s historical and social context while examining the everyday minutiae of that life. Imagine the author lounging in the garden, right where you stand, taking afternoon tea. Hold the handrail the author held while ascending the stairs to take a much needed nap. Be where that author was over a hundred years ago. There is the hope of a connection, an expectation that the author’s presence is somehow also be preserved among the portraits and trinkets and letters of correspondence. There is the hope that he/she might be otherworldly, hovering amid the flowers in the garden or in a tucked away room downstairs. And of course, you look, and the author never appears. No ghost wafts down from the attic to reveal itself to you. And then you see it’s just a house — albeit a beautiful one where interesting lives were lived — frozen in time.

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