Visiting ghosts with Henry James and E.F. Benson in Rye

It is possible, like I did at the weekend,  to see ghosts in the superlatively well-preserved ancient town of Rye, in East Sussex, England. I was there for a desultory wander between a good lunch helped by an even better claret and an excellent afternoon tea with incomparable toasted teacakes. This little town was once a thriving port but the river silted up and it got left behind in a part of Sussex where you have to make a real effort to visit. It is all the better for that as it has retained not just its architecture but its character. The past, in Rye, never left.

The two principal ghosts of Rye are both distinguished writers of ghosts stories, the American Henry James (1843-1916) who also, of course wrote some of the great social realism novels of the turn of the 19th. and 20th. Centuries, some of them including The Wings Of A Dove (1902) and The Ambassadors (1903) were written here in Rye as was his chillingly vivid short ghost story The Turn Of The Screw (1898).

The other ghost story writer was E.F. Benson (1867 – 1940) who, apart from his creepy spooky tales, is famous for his hilariously funny Mapp and Lucia novels which are set in the fictional town of Tilling which is, in fact, a barely disguised portrait of Rye itself. If you haven’t read them, what are you waiting for?

Both men found inspiration here in this beautiful but somehow melancholy little town and it is easy to imagine them walking through the graveyard and down same cobbled streets thinking of ghosts but also smiling to themselves about the social pretensions of people in any society and, I suspect, roaring with laughter too. It is strange, somehow, that they both found inspiration in ghosts and socialites.

Neither of them married, both were the sons of wealthy clergymen (Benson’s father was the Archbishop of Canterbury), both were the younger brothers of writers whom they both, in the end, overtook, and both enjoyed the extrovert company of weekend guests whilst relishing their personal introversion when they were in writing mode.

Rye was the perfect place for both of them and I felt that I could feel their pleasure in this place as I wandered through its streets on a hot April day redolent with wisteria perfume and the occasional, overheard, conversations of impressed American visitors. Henry James, a New Yorker, like them, must have enjoyed the quintessentially English look of this hypnotic place. His novels often describe the “special relationship” between Americans and the English.

Benson, had weekended in Henry James’ Rye home, Lamb House (the one with the tall chimney at the end of the street above) and, when the older man died in 1916, Benson leased the place for the rest of his life giving the place a literary legacy difficult to equal. You can visit three of the main reception rooms and wander around the large gardens on certain restricted times but, the ghosts of James and Benson, and their memorable creations, haunt your steps throughout the town.

Whilst waiting for my train back to Lewes, shrewdly observed by hungry rooks, even the old signal box spoke of another time.

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