Essex: Inspiring writers for generations
PUBLISHED: 16:27 12 January 2016 | UPDATED: 16:55 12 January 2016
We found out what it is about Essex that has inspired writers such as HG Wells and many more.
‘The dullest and most stupid place on earth.’
So said a journalist, covering election meetings, of Chelmsford, in January 1835, (sorry Chelmsford). The journalist’s name? Charles Dickens. It seems his mood was dark having failed to acquire a Sunday newspaper. He was driving a hired gig with an unpredictable horse, which couldn’t have helped, and as for his opinion of Braintree and Colchester... that is best left unrepeated.
Fortunately, this is a rare blot on the landscape as far as the literary history of Essex is concerned. Far more have waxed lyrical about the arcane beauty of the county’s countryside, which has inspired many to put pen to paper.
It began long ago, in the 10th century in fact, when some unknown scribe gave us The Battle of Maldon, one of the most important surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon literature, a record of a battle fought against the Norwegians in 991AD. The aristocratic tone and soberness of 325 extant verses has raised speculation that the author knew place and men, and may even have been a participant.
‘Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener, mood the more, as our might lessens,’ is true Band of Brothers stuff, a classic declaration of the heroic faith – our numbers may thin, but we fight on.
So, Dickens was in Essex, but was Shakespeare? There is a local legend that the Bard wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream while at a guest house in Castle Hedingham in the 1590s. Evidence on the ground is slim, although there was once a local landmark, Puck’s Hill, by all account.
On to a gentleman who was definitely Essex based, the Thaxted-born Reverend Samuel Purchas (1577-1626). Compiler of travel books, Purchas rolled out seafaring tales from his Southend vicarage, which may have inspired none other than Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write Kubla Khan.
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) had a home in Tilbury and the heroine Moll Flanders (1722) spends some of the early years of her eventful life in Colchester. It is still one of the best tales of ‘low life’ we have. In the same year we know that Defoe went on a ‘southern progress’, taking in Malden, Colchester and Harwich.
Admiralty official and diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) visited and wrote of Essex. In February 1660 he stayed overnight in Epping, playing cards, ‘and after supper, and some merry talk with a plain bold maid of the house, we went to bed’.
Plain and bold. Is he being rude or complimentary? It was red herrings for breakfast, ‘while my boot-heel was a mending; by the same token the boy left the hole as big as it was before. Then to horse and for London through the forest’. In November 1665, Pepys was enjoying oysters, ‘though come from Colchester where the plague hath been so much’.
John Clare (1793-1864) was a peasant poet, the son of a labourer, who, almost without schooling, managed to cultivate verse, inspired by Epping Forest and the Essex woods. Sadly he was lodged in an asylum in the forest, from which he escaped, but finally ended his days penniless and insane.
The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) caused something of a sensation with Mehalah, a Victorian melodrama of smuggling and intrigue telling tales of the salt marshes, which used the Blackwater to the Stour as a setting. ‘The mouth of the Blackwater was a great centre of the smuggling trade...’ The versatile Baring-Gould embraced many genres, including hymns, of which Onward Christian Soldiers is the most famous.
Polish author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) settled in England in a Victorian cottage in Stanford le Hope, where he forged his distinctive writing style and began structuring Heart of Darkness, one of his three finest short stories, and took his first steps to becoming one of the greatest novelists in the English language. Meanwhile, HG Wells (1866-1946) wrote Mister Britling Sees It Through, a tale of English society during World War I, while at his country home at Little Easton.
Did we all grow up with Swallows and Amazons and Arthur Ransome’s idyll of English childhood? The eighth book in the series, Secret Water (1939), was based at Hamford Water, near Walton on the Naze, by which time the most interesting phase of Ransome’s life was over. From 1917-24 he was a newspaper correspondent in Russia, witness to the revolution’s early days, a man falling in love with Leon Trotsky’s secretary, who maintained close links with MI6 and has been named as a possible double-agent. I think I should read those books again.
Margery Allingham (1904-66), set her first novel, the murderous smuggling tale of Blackkerchief Dick, chief of all the Eastern coast and captain of the Coldlight in the year 1663 around Mersea Island and its surrounding area. The smuggling background is authentic with two local pubs (the Dog and Pheasant and Peldon Rose) once happy to conceal the smugglers’ stock-in-trade. Allingham lived in Tolleshunt D’Arcy, where her former house, D’Arcy House, has a plaque.
Ilford born Denise Levertov (1923-97) was a poet, who claimed to have decided she would write when aged just five. At age 12 she sent poetry to TS Eliot, who encouraged her, and she was first published aged 17. She went on to publish more than 20 volumes of poetry and emigrated to America in 1948.
JA (John Alec) Baker (1926-87), onetime pupil of King Edward VI Grammar in Chelmsford, got one back on Dickens by making his city (town at the time) the starting-point for perhaps the most celebrated and influential examples of British nature writing from the 20th century, The Peregrine. It was probably October to April 1962-63 when Baker recorded diary entries for a pair of wintering peregrine falcons, highlighting some of the most atmospheric estuaries and rivers in Britain.
And the show goes on. Martin Newell is a poet as well as a singer/songwriter and the self-styled Wild Man of Wivenhoe who has written several volumes of poetry, plus, in 2007, his volume of reminiscences, anecdotes and historical information about his beloved town, A Prospect of Wivenhoe: Snapshots of an English Town.
So this timeless feel of a placid landscape has inspired many to write over the centuries, and continues to do so today. Mr Dickens, kindly take note...