Love in Lindfield — Henry James and The Spoils of Poynton


“‘Now do you know how I feel?’ Mrs Gereth asked when in the wondrous hall, three minutes after their arrival, her pretty associate dropped on a seat with a soft gasp and a roll of dilated eyes.”

Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton

My third novel Love in Lindfield takes its structure from Henry James’ novel The Spoils of Poynton. There is a connection to Lindfield in that Henry James visited Charles Eamer Kempe at Old Place in Lindfield around the time the novel was published and there is a fair possibility that he based the character of the dowager Mrs Gereth on one of Kempe’s close female friends, Lady Louisa Wolseley:

“‘Wolseley, come to think of it, perhaps I do know that name,’ he replied. He looked at his notes. ‘Yes, I was looking online last night to see whether Henry James had ever visited Old Place. It turned out he did. I found a letter of his from March 1897 to a Lady Louisa Wolseley where he described such a visit. It sounded like she’d been trying to persuade him to come for some time. The letter’s very precise: he caught the 11.40 from Victoria arriving in Haywards Heath at 1.17 where he met up with Lady Wolseley coming from Brighton. The train was late!’

“‘Nothing’s changed, then!’ laughed Maggie. ‘But yes that would be Frances Wolseley’s mother, I’m sure.’

“Harry went on to read from the notes he’d made on his iPad. ‘James described Kempe as ‘very amiable’ and the house as a ‘phoenix’.

“‘The man himself made the place more wonderful and the place the man. I was greatly affected by his courtesy and charm.’”

NPG x96478; Louisa Wolseley (nÈe Holmes), Viscountess Wolseley by Alexander Bassano

The novel describes the struggle between Mrs. Gereth, a widow of impeccable taste and iron will, and her son Owen over a houseful of precious antique furniture. The story is largely told from the viewpoint of Fleda Vetch, a young woman in love with Owen but sympathetic to Mrs. Gereth’s anguish over losing the antiques she patiently collected.

Widow Adela Gereth tells the sensitive and tasteful Fleda Vetch that she’s afraid her son Owen will marry the coarse Mona Brigstock. Owen soon becomes engaged to Mona and wants to take over Poynton, the family home filled with Mrs. Gereth’s carefully collected furniture and other art objects. He would like Fleda to help get his mother to leave the house with a minimum of fuss.

Mrs. Gereth moves to Ricks, the smaller family house. Fleda visits the house and is unhappy that Mrs. Gereth has furnished it with the best pieces from Poynton. Owen says that Mona is angry with the “theft” of the valuable heirlooms. Meanwhile, Owen is becoming more attracted to Fleda instead of the crude Mona and eventually declares his love for her. Fleda insists that he honor his engagement to Mona unless she breaks it off.

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I’ve adapted the story and set it in Lindfield. Mrs Gereth is translated to Serena Ross, the widowed owner of Old Place, who is considering downsizing to a house on the common. However she is against giving Old Place to her son Ryan (Owen Gereth) because of his infatuation with the ‘unsuitable’ Monica Malling (Mona Brigstock) the local pub land lady. Our heroine Ellie (Fleda Vetch) is employed by Mrs Gereth to do an inventory of the house prior to Mrs Gereth’s move, but becomes sucked into the family dispute in a way that turns increasingly dangerous for all concerned.


In The Spoils of Poynton, Mrs. Gereth finally returns the fine furniture to Poynton. After a few days Owen and Mona are reported to be married, and they go abroad. Fleda gets a letter from Owen asking her to select any one piece from Poynton as hers to keep. Fleda goes to Poynton but finds it completely consumed by fire.


In my own novel Love in Lindfield… well I’m afraid you’ll have to read the ending for yourself, but it has some dramatic turns of its own!

Love in Lindfield


Letters to Strabo — James Joyce meets Clara Clemens in Zurich


By the time she arrived in Münich six months after her father’s death, Clara Clemens, Mark Twain’s surviving daughter, was no stranger to pain. She’d suffered almost twenty years of family tragedy, including two near fatal accidents, but was still remarkably hopeful:

At last if nothing happens to my husband I have really landed in a beautiful harbor & soon enough [can] worship every ripple in the delicious blue sun flecked water. Even father’s & Jean’s deaths cannot take from me this longed for happiness which is actually mine.

But the reference in her letter to what might happen to her husband was eerily fateful. By the summer of 1914, the pieces on the European chessboard were moving rapidly, perhaps more rapidly than they’d ever done before. She escaped with her husband, who as a Russian had been arrested, to Zurich with the help of a friend, the Prussian Ambassador. At the same time, James Joyce, stranded as an English teacher in Trieste, began work on Ulysses while plotting his flight to Switzerland. Four years later, in 2018, he was still there. He’d published Portrait of an Artist and was still slaving away at Ulysses. But Clara Clemens had returned back to the US with her husband.

Much of this period has been captured in Tom Stoppard’s work Travesties. But I too have been wondering, like Stoppard, what would have happened if the chronology had moved in slightly different ways? It’s given me an idea for my own take on Stoppard’s play, a sort of sequel. But in my version, Clara Clemens makes an, as yet historically unremarked, second appearance in Zürich.


“The atmosphere at the Pfauen was jubilant. The English Players’ first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest had been a triumph. James Joyce and Claud Sykes, a former actor in Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s company, had started up the acting troupe the previous year in an attempt to earn some ready cash. Joyce was holding court, reading from his latest manuscript, occasionally breaking into song while swilling down bottles of Erzherzogin Fendant de Sion.

“‘White wine is like electricity. Red-wine looks and tastes like liquefied beefsteak,’ he declared.”


“His black jacket, grey flannel trousers and little round black hat; his pale blue eyes; the small tuft of hair under his lower lip and smart moustache all gave him a slightly rakish appearance. His appearance was that of a friendly, very competent man of the theater rather than a figure that would eventually change the world. None of Joyce’s closest friends thought of him as a potential international celebrity.”


“The Joyces: James, Nora (still Miss Barnacle, as they married many years later), Giorgio (12) and Lucia (10), lived in an apartment on the first floor of Universitätstrasse 38. Lucia Joyce was a happy and hard-working schoolgirl but she hated the damp and crowded poverty they lived in, the struggle to obtain food, the all-consuming obsession of her father’s master work in progress. More seriously, of course, she was well aware of her father’s failing eyesight and increasing drunkenness and her mother’s slow descent towards a nervous breakdown.”


The previous year Joyce had suffered a recurrence of attacks of iritis and synechia, connected to severe toothaches. The pain made it impossible for him to work. He was also suffering attacks of glaucoma and his doctors advised an operation. But Joyce resisted, blaming the weather for his eye problems. He agreed finally, however, to leave Zürich for the Italian part of Switzerland over the winter, where the weather might aid his recovery.

But on that wet late-April evening, he was walking home from the Pfauen when he collapsed in the street with an acute attack of lumbar pain. The attack left him motionless for twenty minutes before he could move at all. There was nobody around to help him. Slowly, he began to crawl along the sidewalk. He was in total agony, already bitterly regretting his decision to ignore his medics’ advice.

“‘Can I help you, sir, are you all right?’ shouted a pretty young woman in evening dress from the window of her passing cab. Joyce looked up. The woman spoke oddly precise German. She must have seen him lying there on the pavement through the lights of her cab. Her husband was sitting beside her on the back seat. The night had turned cold; it was no weather to be out alone on the streets.

“Joyce was surprised but certainly relieved to hear the hint of an American accent. ‘Yes, I’d greatly value your help,’ he replied, in his calm but slurred Irish-German. ‘I’m in quite some pain as you can probably tell.’

‘Oh my Lord, but it’s Mr Joyce, isn’t it? Why, we were only at your play a few hours ago. Mein Herr, bitte helfen Sie ihm, so schnell wie möglich einzusteigen. Wir müssen ihn sofort nach Hause bringen. Ossip, don’t just set there, give the poor man a hand, won’t you?’


“Clara Clemens, her Russian- Jewish husband and their seven-year old daughter Nina, had recently arrived back in Zürich from the States. They’d made a long and arduous journey to fulfil a promise to fundraise for those that had helped them escape four years earlier. Before the outbreak of hostilities, Ossip had been conductor of the Munich Konzertverein. They’d fled following his arrest as a possible spy after the outbreak of the war. He’d only been freed following the personal intervention of Herr von Treutler, the Prussian Ambassador to Bavaria, an intimate friend of the German Emperor and great fan of Mark Twain.”

A week later they met up again with Joyce and his partner Nora Barnacle for dinner:

“‘So, Mr Joyce, are you working on a new book?’ Ossip asked changing the subject.

“‘Indeed, yes I am. I’m working on a novel. It’s a sort of reworking of Homer’s The Odyssey.’

“‘How very interesting, Mr Joyce. My father was familiar with Homer, you know,’ said Clara. ‘He was a great travel enthusiast. Of course, his first book Innocents Abroad was about his tour of the Mediterranean. He visited many of the sites mentioned in The Odyssey,’ she added.

“‘I know of the work, although I confess I haven’t read it. I’m afraid that although Homer was a master of poetry, he was a pretty unreliable travel writer; most of the sites he mentions are almost impossible to identify nowadays. Interestingly, I’ve recently come across an amusing epigram written by Eratosthenes that Strabo quotes in The Geography: ““You will find the scene of Odysseus’s wanderings when you find the cobbler who sewed up the bag of winds.”’

“They all laughed.

“‘In fact, my interest in Ulysses is not that of a traveller, nor even a warrior; it’s in his humanity. I believe his story is not only one of the earliest but also one of the most human in literature. He didn’t want to go to Troy; he viewed the war, rightly, as a pretext for Greek mercantilism. You may recall that when the recruiting officers arrived on Ithaca to take him with them, he pretended at first to be ploughing, then pretended to be mad. That was, of course, till they pushed his two-year-old son Telemachus into the furrow in front of his plough. His decision to go to war was purely that of a father and husband. It was a simple choice really, a matter of parental love, of flesh and blood. He had no choice.’

“‘My father would have loved to hear this; he hated the stupidity of war, you know!’ added Clara.

“‘Indeed, I’d have loved to discuss this with him. You know one day I have it in my mind to do my own Huck Finn story. I’ll name it in his honour of course. Finnegan’s “fin” or “wake”. It’s a play on words; my own homage to one of your father’s finer wisecracks! If I can ever get around to reading the original properly, that is!’

Letters to Strabo


Death in Leamington — when Peter met Alice


‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax –
Of cabbages – and kings –
And why the sea is boiling hot –
And whether pigs have wings.’

Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking-Glass

The final chapter of my second novel Death In Leamington is set as a party at which a lot of loose-ends get sorted out, some in unexpected ways. The party, given by Eddie for his wife Alice’s 40th birthday, turns out to be quite a surprise:

“‘For heaven’s sake, Eddie Peterson, can’t I trust you for a minute?’ Alice demanded loudly as she entered the kitchen. She turned down the volume on the CD player and surveyed the mess covering the kitchen table. Carrie and Eddie had been making jam tarts while dancing wildly round the kitchen to the latest release from a well-known Swedish pop duo. She wished Eddie would not encourage Carrie like this; she was growing up quickly enough as it was. Alice was however relieved that he, for once, was dressed reasonably smartly in a tweed Burberry jacket, twill shirt, rolled-up green cavalry trousers and Converse trainers and had remarkably thought to wear an apron over his best clothes while preparing the tarts. She wasn’t sure but she could swear that he was wearing eyeliner too. Carrie, on the other hand, was wearing a scruffy T-shirt and jeans and was almost completely covered in flour; there was pastry, jam and orange marmalade all over the table and more flour on the floor. There was also the distinct smell of burning sugar from the oven. Alice opened the oven door, cursed and then quickly opened a window to allow the smoke to escape.”


Alice is dressed in a little blue and white flowered dress that she’s found waiting for her, but she still has no idea what Eddie has planned for her 40th birthday party. As he leads her up the steps out of their basement flat onto the road, she imagines the restaurant that she hopes he’s booked for her and she’d seen ringed in the phone book the other evening.

“‘So where would you actually like to go?’ he asked, somewhat vaguely, staring up at the evening stars as if he had not quite made up his mind where to take her yet. The air was slightly chilled after the warm autumn day, so that their breath escaped into the darkness in quietly swirling coils of moisture. Alice was shivering slightly, either from excitement or from the change of temperature; the goose bumps raised on the skin of her forearm. The scent of late jasmine from the window boxes on Lady Mary’s windowsills above them was slightly intoxicating in the night air.

“‘I’ll go wherever you are planning to take me, handsome sir,’ she replied, enjoying the game but also getting slightly frustrated with his obvious tactics to confuse her. She suspected he knew exactly where he was taking her. 

“‘Well then, if it’s really going to be up to me, then it has to be ‘second star to the right, and straight on ’til morning,’ he said, laughing.”


I got the idea for this scene from a play “Peter and Alice” based on a meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the woman who inspired Alice, and Peter Llewellyn Davies, one of the boys who inspired Peter Pan, at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. The play sees enchantment and reality collide as this brief encounter lays bare the lives of these two characters. The play starred Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw.


But as it turns out, Eddie has other plans and instead of the hoped for restaurant, leads her instead into the main house above their flat, where a series of surprise guests are waiting for her.

“Alice was now very confused. This was not at all what she was expecting. The hall was strangely quiet, only disturbed by the patient ticking of a long case clock, but she was suddenly aware of a white fluffy shape pushing to get past her in the doorway. The white shape (actually a rabbit called Carrie) deposited a little glass box under the ornate Empire console table and ran off into the room at the end of the corridor. Alice, intrigued, stooped to pick the box up and opened it to find a small cake, on which the words EAT ME had been beautifully marked out in currants.”

My own version continues with various details and characters taken from both books including Captain Hook, Mr Smee and Tinkerbell and a very blue Caterpillar called Hugh:

“There was a big sign hung above the entrance – The Blue Caterpillar’s Hookah Palace.

In the corner of the gazebo, sitting on a cushion shaped like a mushroom, was a very blue-looking caterpillar, smoking the advertised hookah. He puffed three times and then took the pipe out of his mouth and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

‘So, who are you, little girl?’

‘Alice,’ she said, flirting just a little bit with her hands and eyelashes.

‘Well come and sit beside me, little Alice,’ said the caterpillar, smoothing off the cushion for her to sit on. ‘May I offer you a drink?’ he asked, pouring her a huge glass of champagne.”


I hope this all makes sense, but if not I’m afraid you will have to read it to understand how the story finally unravels!

Death in Leamington

Letters to Strabo — Meeting Gwendoline in Cambridge


BRITAIN is triangular in form; its longest side lies parallel to Keltica […] The greatest portion of the island is level and woody, although many tracts are hilly. Their atmosphere is more subject to rain than to snow; even in their clear days the mist continues for a considerable time, in so much that throughout the whole day the sun is only visible for three or four hours about noon.

Strabo, Geography Book IV, Chapter V

Finn, despairing of his hot and cold relationship with his french art gallery friend Francoise, crosses over to England from Paris to meet up with Gwendoline Bryon, a scholar and Strabo expert in Milton College Cambridge. Right from the start she poses a challenge to Finn, she’s not at all the dusty archivist he expected:

“In the flesh she was quite different from what I’d imagined. Small, even waif-like, with short reddish hair and a plaited fringe threaded with beads. Her cherubic dimples, bitten down nails and slightly whimsical smile made her look like a schoolgirl rather than a woman in her late twenties.”

In fact she takes charge from the beginning, showing him around Cambridge and putting him right on the basic facts about Strabo in the depths of the college library. But her mischievous smile and no-nonsense enthusiasm quickly begin to get under Finn’s skin:

“To her credit, she didn’t flinch at all when I opened the door wearing only my shorts. She asked if I wanted to join her for lunch. I nodded and went to close the door, but before I knew it she’d barged into the room and was opening up the drapes to let in the bright sunshine. She was clearly intent on taking charge. 

‘Nice legs,’ she said, hardly looking up from her book.”


Over the weekend, Finn falls somewhat in awe of her, so when she invites him to supper in the college hall he goes along and then joins her for an evening punt trip along the Backs that runs past the main colleges:

“Someone once said about girls that: “They are either very pretty or very clever or very sweet but never all three.” In Gwen’s case that was a load of malarkey. She absolutely nailed all three at once, but not in any classic mixture. She wasn’t pretty in a girlie sense and you couldn’t have described her blue-stocking confidence as merely sweet, but she was fearsomely clever. There was something inherently appealing about the way her passion for her subject shone through. What’s more, her slightly croaky voice was hellishly sexy.”

Fortunately sense prevails and despite a couple of awkward encounters, they settle instead for a brother-sister relationship which progresses throughout the novel. She giving him tips for where he should go on his travels, he seeking her advice. It’s a sweet relationship that develops ultimately into a deeper friendship.

“‘Why are we holding hands?’ she asked.

‘Sorry, it just seemed…dark.’

‘Ah, my knight in shining armour,’ she joked and pulled me closer.”

At the end of their long weekend they take a trip to London to see the sights. after a day touring sites and galleries, Gwen is keen to take Finn to a London play and they are lucky enough to see two future giants on the English stage, Judie Dench and Ian McKellen in an Ibsen play called Pillars of the Community.


It proves quite a eye-opener to Finn, with its anti-capitalist and feminist messages. Right up Gwen’s street though he thinks. Then, during the interval they are drinking in the bar where they both spot a poster for a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. Finn is struck by some lines on the poster. His next destination has been determined.

“During the interval, we went to the bar and stood drinking rancid warm white wine, while admiring a display of film posters from the previous season’s performances. Gwen pointed out the one for Stoppard’s Travesties. She’d been to the performance herself. That was quite a coincidence because I’d seen the same play before I left the States. I read out a great passage written on the poster:

I learned three things in Zürich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly you’re either a revolutionary or you’re not, and if you’re not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can’t be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary… I forget the third thing.”

So next stop Zurich, via Heidelberg and Basel and an encounter with James Joyce.