Yesterday, I wrote about my trip to the great little town of Whitstable. It was a few weekends ago, when summer was still with us here in the UK and I was on a weekend jaunt around the coast of Kent, the neighbouring county to my East Sussex. Even though I fell permanently in affection with Whitstable, I was intrigued to visit nearby Broadstairs too – that respectable Victorian “watering place” with its golden sands and literary connections.
As a town it has been preserved because it’s not on a fast road from anywhere else so, if you are going to Broadstairs, you really have to make an effort. All the better for Broadstairs which is marvellously well-preserved in its Victorian dress.
Last year, as most people must have seen, was Dickens bi-centenary year and the great man, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was in all the media. I avoided a lot of the Dickens-mania but used the anniversary as an excuse to make up for a shameful gap in my education. I decided to read David Copperfield, one of his very best novels. When poor orphaned David escapes from harsh and poverty-struck conditions in London, he walks all the way to Broadstairs where he remembers hearing that his formidable great-aunt lives. Betsey Trotwood is a classic Dickensian character famous even to those who haven’t read the book. Dickens based her on the real-life Mary Pearson Strong who had an equally strong personality as her literary sister. Dickens regularly holidayed in Broadstairs with his family stayed in Broadstairs when he too needed to get out of London and it was here that he not only met Miss Strong but where he also wrote David Copperfield.
Betsey Trotwood, ferocious, opinionated but kind-hearted is very much the ‘head’ of her own household and lives the life of a ‘man of the house’ ruling over an eccentric menage with the charming and mentally-handicapped Mr Dick and bringing David up as her adoptive son. We all remember her for her combative way with anyone who dared to graze their donkeys on her lawn. Like many characters in Dickens, she represents in a very human form, those people usually pushed to the side-lines by conventional society.
‘There was an inflexibility in her face, in her voice, in her gait and carriage . . . but her features were rather handsome than otherwise, though unbending and austere. . . . Her dress was of a lavender colour, and perfectly neat; but scantily made, as if she desired to be as little encumbered as possible. I remember that I thought it, in form, more like a riding-habit with the superfluous skirt cut off, than anything else. She wore at her side a gentleman’s gold watch, if I might judge from its size and make, with an appropriate chain and seals; she had some linen at her throat not unlike a shirt-collar, and things at her wrists like little shirt-wristbands.’ (David Copperfield)
This is the house where Miss Strong and, of course, Betsey Trotwood lived. It is now a Dickens Museum and a must visit for anyone who loved the book. Originally, Miss Strong/Trotwood had what would have looked like a field in front of her house going all the way to the cliffs but now it’s just a pleasant but urban garden railed off from the pavements.
Dickens stayed in Broadstairs many times between 1837 and 1859, sometimes at The Royal Albion Hotel, then known as Ballards Hotel, practically nextdoor to Miss Strong’s house.
Dickens Broadstairs holidays were more writing trips where he could get away from his London life as a famous author to meet those persistent deadlines demanded in the original magazine serialisations of his new works.
Another Dickens house is the so-called Bleak House up on the hill over-looking sea and town.
This was originally Fort House but later named after Dickens’ novel It has no literal connection to that work, Bleak House (1853) but it could certainly be pretty bleak up there, looking over the sea. The house is notable not for David Copperfield. he wrote it there in 1850.
As one of his letters shows, he found the place conducive and inspiring:
‘This is a little fishing-place; intensely quiet; built on a cliff whereon – in the centre of a tiny semicircular bay – our house stands; the sea rolling and dashing under the windows. Seven miles out are Goodwin Sands (you’ve heard of the Goodwin Sands!) whence floating lights perpectually wink after dark, as if they were carrying on intrigues with the servants. Also there is a big lighthouse called the North Foreland on a hill behind the village, a severe parsonic light, which reproves the young and giddy floaters, and stares grimly out upon the sea. Under the cliffs are rare good sands, where all the children assemble every morning and throw up impossible fortifications, which the sea throws down again at high water. Old gentlemen and ancient ladies flirt after their own manner in two reading rooms and on a great many scattered seats in the open air. Other old gentlemen look through telescopes and never see anything…’
A decade earlier he stayed in this humbler villa just down the hill from Bleak House. Archway House, then called Lawn House, is where, in 1841 he wrote both The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.
With all due humility, I’m getting into gear for the imminent publication (31st October 2013) of my novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.
You can already pre-order the book from the publishers, Ward Wood Publishing:
…or from Book Depository:
…or from Amazon: