It must be tough to compete for attention with people like Henry James and characters like EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia. I went to Rye today, specifically to visit the former home of James, Benson and others, but also to look for the house where Joan Aiken first lived. Signs direct one to Lamb House, the EF Benson Society offers a map of Tilling, but information about Joan Aiken’s beginnings is simply not there. A tiny reference to her father, Conrad Aiken, was all there was.
The town is currently a bit discombobulated by film crews and actors being carted around in mini-vans, all for a new production of Mapp and Lucia for the BBC. I saw a young woman in flip-flops, trousers and a psychedelic shirt hoisting a massive umbrella over Diva Plaistow (Felicity Montagu) to keep her costume dry as they walked 50 yards from the van to the church. Grips and camera-people and sound-engineers mingle with tourists just trying to make their way up the cobbled streets.
Like me, most tourists come for Lamb House. The famed Garden Room (if you’ve read Miss Mapp, you know what that is) was destroyed during WWII and not rebuilt. Normally, a wall plaque marks where it once commanded the top of West Street. For the current filming, however, a reproduction is in place — we can see how it might have been for James, Benson and the original occupants, the Thomas Lamb family in the 1700s. A lovely prospect from the house towards the church, and another from the Garden Room towards the town.
And just around the corner: Mermaid Street, one of the poorest areas of Rye in the 1800s but now upscale. I walked slowly down this street, looking carefully for a marker showing Joan Aiken’s house: and found it, a small white circle all but hidden by ivy and virginia creeper. Only her father’s name is listed.
I know there’s nothing particularly magical about authors’ birthplaces. And yet: I still want to see.
Standing outside Jeake’s House (now a pricey B&B with rooms named for Conrad Aiken, Malcolm Lowry and Radclyffe Hall), I looked up at the windows and imagined a young Joan looking out of them. Did she like the name of her street? Did she feel the 300 years of history within those walls? Did she imagine the lives of earlier occupants? Did she ever visit Lamb House and wonder about the authors who had lived there? She might have peered into the Garden Room windows, might have run into EF Benson walking his dog.
That, at any rate, is what I like to imagine.