Christopher Scoble, Letters
from Bishopsbourne: Three Writers in an English Village.
Cheltenham: BMM 2010. 354 pp. £17.99.
This volume celebrates one tiny English
village on the outskirts of Canterbury and three distinguished writers
who were domiciled at some stage of their careers within its precincts.
The village of Bishopsbourne witnessed much of the life of Kentish-born
Jocelyn Brooke, the waning years of Joseph Conrad, born on the other
side of Europe, and the priest Richard Hooker, originally a man
Three contrasting writers with contrasting
lives, all of whom sought some measure of sanctuary in this peaceful
part of England. There is a tranquillity about the very appearance
and feel of the book, if not of the lives it commemorates. Three
earnest faces stare out from its cover; three rural residences adorn
its rear. Its author adopts a lucid, languid and literary style
in keeping with its subject. Here is an early sample:
But in 1939 the Elham Valley railway had
been handed over to the military, so it is only in imagination
that our soldier from Canterbury in 1943 can alight at the little
sunken station (where Churchill had visited two years before to
inspect the massive rail-mounted howitzer secreted in Bourne tunnel
to give the Germans a fright), climb the path to the road, and
then descend the long winding hill to pass on his right the ancient
rectory where nearly four hundred years earlier a judiciously
literary clergyman had sat at his open study window, gazing out
over his newly planted yew hedge, as he fought for the precise
mellifluous word to add to the latest chapter of his great work
aimed at sweetening with honeyed allurements the recalcitrant
drones who opposed the new Anglican dispensation. (6)
This is a long sentence of Conradian, even
Jamesian proportions, but it flows without apparent effort from
the hostilities of wartime to a seemingly tranquil past, though
the final line hints at implied conflict there too. We see, Conrad
would be pleased to note, two contrasting scenes four hundred years
apart merged seamlessly together so that we end the sentence in
a different world and a different atmosphere from those we entered
at its beginning.
After a brief survey of the village's history
(Bishopsbourne because of the manor there owned by the Archbishop
from the eleventh century) and its historian, Kenneth Witney, Scoble
settles down to the writers. Of Hooker I have heard; of Conrad I
have written; but the name of Brooke (1908-66) is new to me. Chapter
Two is entitled 'An Orchidaceous Pyrotechnician' in homage to Jocelyn
Brooke's twin delights, plants and fireworks, both of which find
expression in his works.
This may also be reflected in the way Brooke
loved both the peaceful village and the army. He did not love public
school though, running away from what he regarded as its horrors,
and was sent down from Oxford, having written a long poem on the
examination paper instead of answering the questions. Besides begonias
and bangers, he took inspiration for his writing from Aldous Huxley
and particularly Proust, but the early extracts from his work, especially
The Image, which Scoble considers 'reeks of Kafka', reveal
the impact of war and the employment of 'nightmare prose', the quiet
idyllic village transformed into post-atrocity horror and closely
From this, Scoble reveals, he was saved by
his love of flowers. If the menace and reality of war pervade The
Scapegoat and The Image, neither of which sailed into
publication, the quieter atmosphere of botany brought forth The
Wild Orchids of Britain and then the beginnings of a trilogy based
on his life. The Military Orchid, A Mine of Serpents
and The Dog at Clambercrown are cited as examples of autobiografiction
(a Stephen Reynolds term) – a genre to which Conrad's "Youth"
These made Brooke successful and the village
appears in all of them; indeed Scoble reports that the writer could
never truly settle away from it and the company of his mother and
his faithful nanny, Emily Fagg (known as Ninnie). He rejoined the
army in post-war Britain only to leave it again two years later.
Scoble weaves a deft passage around the man and his work and reveals
enough of the latter to suggest that Brooke was a significant and
unjustly neglected author.
An "Interlude" chapter separates
Brooke and Conrad and celebrates "A reluctant oculist,"
A. E. Waite, a writer on the occult and mysticism, and "A looming
youth," Alec Waugh (brother of Evelyn) who had a brief sojourn
at Oswalds ten years after Conrad's time. Two lengthy chapters are
devoted to Conrad.
The first – "An Ancient Mariner"
– follows a leisurely reminiscence of how Scoble was first
struck by the Conrad plaque at the village hall with a survey of
Conrad's life and achievements. He particularly highlights and discusses
Nostromo during the course of this, paying close attention
to the process of composition. The chapter is also a tale of the
road to Oswalds, a kind of literary tour of Conrad's dwellings up
till then. Conrad's connections with Oswalds and Bishopsbourne feature
in the second of the chapters – "Joseph Conrad"
– which notes the routines of the household in some detail,
especially in relation to their weekly trips to Canterbury, and
how, unlike Brooke, Conrad showed no desire to involve himself fully
in the life of the village and, indeed, was planning to leave it
at his death. The village river, however, was rather too eager to
become involved with him:
Most dramatic of all was the occasion when
Conrad one day stamped his foot in temper in the front hall and
went straight through the rotting floorboards. Further investigation
showed that the Nailbourne, which back in the eighteenth century
had been diverted to a north-easterly path round the house, had
still retained part of its original flow under Conrad's front
Conrad's struggles with Suspense (the novel
which remained unfinished at his death) are noted, and there is
an interesting contrast at one stage with Nostromo, much to the
earlier novel's advantage:
The prose is clear and simple, abandoning
the rich tapestries of Conrad's stylistic past, and the narrative
builds slowly, yet still holding the reader in its grip. But overall
the book lacks the bite of his old masterpieces, the scepticism
and the all-pervading irony: the major themes are slow-moving
and self-consciously introduced where in Nostromo they
would emerge naturally from a single scene or punchy piece of
dialogue. Set-piece descriptive scenes scarcely reach below the
surface of things: the evening reception given by Adèle cannot
approach the power and symbolism of Nostromo with the
meetings in the Casa Gould. (174)
This is a thoughtful assessment, rather more
relevant than the glib comment in the blurb that Conrad was "struggling
to produce even sub-standard work." "Sub" by whose
A second interlude introduces us to the Revd
Joseph Bancroft Reade, who resided in Bishopsbourne from 1863 and
combined his religious duties with an enthusiasm for nineteenth-century
optical developments. Photography and the microscope were his especial
delights. A century earlier, Horatio Mann initiated and presided
over a brief eighteenth-century cricket boom in the village, preceding
Canterbury as a major venue for the sport. Visitors to the area
in his time included the Mozart family from Austria, and so the
village once hosted the nine-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus playing his
The final major figure is Richard Hooker, born
near Exeter in 1554 "in the first year of Mary’s reign
when altars were rebuilt, chalices brought out and dusted off and
the mass celebrated once more openly and in earnest" (197).
By the time he was four, though, Elizabeth was on the throne and
the Reformation resumed. Scoble here is anxious to produce a faithful
portrait of his subject and is wary of Izaak Walton’s idealized
version the following century which, he feels, continues to hold
sway in some quarters.
He still extols Hooker’s approach to his writing, summarizing
it as ‘his patient exposition of complex issues, his faith
in the tools of rational inquiry and logical demonstration, his
charity and forbearance, his wide reading and keen sense of history,
and above all his deep devotion to his church’ (208).
Nevertheless he also notes the strange irony
that a crucial work in the history of the Anglican Church (Laws
of Ecclesiastical Polity) should be so little read by those
who owe so much to it, claiming: "Many are the retired clergymen,
reposing in the quietude of their country retreats, who hold the
book on their shelves but have never dared venture within its covers.
It is one of those rare works that is pre-eminently alive in its
historical and literary contexts, but no longer active in the world
of today" (217).
Hooker arrived in Bishopsbourne as its clergyman
in 1595, appointed partly, it seems, because his writing was seen
to be of great importance by the church hierarchy and this rural
retreat would afford him more time to achieve this. The final four
books of his Polity were completed here, the last three
being the most contentious. Scoble laments the fact that, despite
its literary and historical associations with the early Anglican
Church, the rectory where he lived and wrote was torn down in 1955
(ironically an anagram of the year Hooker arrived in the village).
Hooker’s works were regarded so highly that even the Pope,
Clement VIII, admired them.
Book V is seen as being of especial importance and Scoble is generous
with the extracts he gives to show the intellect of Hooker’s
arguments and the effectiveness of his style. Hooker emerges as
a moderate, tolerant theologian, negotiating his passage with care
between the Scylla of Papal splendour and the Charybdis of Puritan
austerity and attracting criticism from extremists because of this.
He appears also as a caring pastor to his village flock, longing
to live this life only but compelled always to struggle to complete
his great work.
Not surprisingly the final chapter records the final days of the
three writers. Hooker dies in 1600, the last three volumes completed
but still unpublished; Conrad departs in 1924, his Napoleonic novel
unfinished and perhaps unfinishable; Brooke breathes his last in
1966, predeceased by his faithful nanny and his mother, his final
works rejected and his sense of failure acute – frustration
These strange bookfellows are brought together
by their common dwelling-place and their chronicler’s sympathetic
pen. This interesting and unusual volume is generously illustrated,
and Christopher Scoble merits our gratitude for bringing it about.
© 2011 John Lester