Hannah Garrard explores the ghosts of Victorian author Sir Rider Haggard – through the traces left by his home at Ditchingham House, Norfolk.
Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.
— W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
Ditchingham House: It is November and the creeping Wisteria branches are gnarled and clutch the outside walls like arthritic fingers. A thin grey mist hovers a few feet above the front lawn, which is studded with tree stumps. This ghostly vapour is an appropriate shroud for the house, because it is haunted.
Max Sebald’s narrator in The Rings of Saturn led me back to this house, which I used to visit as a child, “over the marshes of the Waveney Valley to the far side of Ditchingham”. Sebald’s walking tour through Suffolk is as provocative as his spectral prose. The dead return, roused from sleep and live again: Thomas Browne, Charlotte Ives, and Huang Ti – the Emperor of the Earth.
“It strikes me that if the dead were to write like themselves, they would write like Sebald,” remarked an ex-student of the German scholar; and the irony that Sebald has led me back to the front door of a haunted house is not lost.
I begin exploring Ditchingham House again, through archives and diaries, in search of artefacts and in pursuit of the dead.
Lady Haggard – Louie, to her family – has been dead two years; her husband, Sir Rider, two decades. Time to clear Ditchingham House of all the family possessions that are no longer in use.
The house feels empty since Louie passed away: a matriarch who always made sure her home was full of visiting relatives and friends of her husband. Rudyard Kipling often stayed here, and Andrew Lang – her husband’s long-time agent. She took her hostess duties seriously, but none of her three daughters are in a position to take up the role of materfamilias. With no male heir to the estate, the next generation of Haggard women are in charge of the Ditchingham properties.
The Ditchingham estate is in constant need of funds for repairs, and the sale will help keep the grounds and the greenhouses maintained. It has fallen to Angela, the eldest, to arrange an auction.
Over two thousand items – divided into exactly eight hundred lots – are listed in the auction catalogue, which bears the following inscription:
Bungay, 1 ½ miles on the Norwich bus route.
of the greater portions of the
Contents of the Residence
Including many choice Lots of
ORIENTAL and other DECORATIVE CHINA;
CHINA; BOOKS; LINEN and other Outdoor Effects.1
On the Saturday before the auction, a marquee is set up on the lawn for crowds of people to come and view items. News of the auction has spread across the two counties, and people have travelled far to take part. Valuable and exotic antiques will be coming out of Ditchingham House, and although interest in Rider Haggard’s fiction has waned since empire-building went out of fashion, his reputation for collecting museum-ready curios from foreign countries has maintained the interest of collectors.
I gorge on the list of decorative china in the catalogue: Japanese tea service, twenty-two items; elaborately coloured gourd-shaped vase; gilt and floral two-bottle inkstand; Ming dinner service. Two African carved figures will also leave the house, as well as seven sets of travelling bags and trunks. Two (empty) parrot cages and a beehive are also for sale.
I worry about what fate those parrots came to; their cages sit portentously vacant on the auction table. Rider was notoriously careless with exotic creatures, having once lost a giant turtle (a souvenir for his father) at London Docks on his return from Ascension Island.
“Personally I thought the occurrence fortunate,” recalls Rider in his autobiography, The Days of My Life. “Imagine the local butcher confronted with a turtle; imagine the domestic cook and the quantities of soup that would have resulted, if it ever got as far as soup!”
More fortunate for the turtle, no doubt, sculling his way to freedom along the Thames’ murky riverbed, the local butcher none the wiser.
The catalogue reads like a witness to the end of an era in paper form: 1945 is the year the Haggard women move out of the house for good. This peddling of the family silver happens the same year World War Two ends and Labour promises universal welfare. It is time to move into a modern Britain: there is no room for colonial artefacts and embarrassing specimens from a dwindling Empire. Britain celebrated too hastily in 1918, and Europe wants to forget.
Peacetime celebrations will chime through the village of Ditchingham in November. But Germany will rise again.
There is bitterness towards the Old Order. In his diary, Rider writes of betrayal by those who have exploited the Empire – “a place for sport and weekend parties” – and used its indigenous populations as canon fodder for the war:
I thank God that I have lived to see the downfall of the Victorian idea and ideal … the whole business was an elaborate show and sham … the real aims of life were not Patriotism and Duty … but pleasure and money.
Honour and duty in battle were hallmarks of what it meant to be English when the Empire was expanding – scenes of which Rider crystallised in his fiction.
He rebukes his critics who “proclaimed [him] a barbarian because I wrote of fighting – horrid, vulgar fighting”. The drilling of guns, rattling through Europe, remind Rider that it is the likes of patriots such as himself who have been central to the evolution of duty in Britain’s young men, and “the yoke of slavery and ultimate destruction.” He is maddened by the hypocrisy of his political counterparts.
The distant sound of guns on the Western Front rumble on through the year, and Death has its ubiquitous presence. “One is pursued by these voices of war and death,” he writes in May. And in July, the noise from Ypres can be heard in Norfolk: “The guns are going so heavily on the Western Front that the constant drumming of them interferes with my work here at Ditchingham.”
A conversation with his remaining true friend, Rudyard Kipling, hangs heavy after conversation turns to their prospective ages (Rider is ten years Kipling’s senior). “You have the less time left in which to suffer,” says Kipling, with reference to the loss of their infant children.
Ditchingham House, with its encompassing, rural stillness, is the place from where Rider and Louie grieved in private for their son, Jock. Their bucolic home has been a sanctuary from which to write and take long walks. The countryside has an uncorrupted beauty: dawn mists glide across flat marshes in the still, open spaces of the Bath Hills. And in the evenings, a cerulean dusk moves in.
The year 1918 has seen disappointment and dashed ambition. With emphysema setting in, Rider has had to cancel his work on a project investigating the Agricultural Wages Board. Work for the Board would have helped satisfy his reformist ambitions and bolstered his name as a politician, rather than a mere writer of fiction – a fear he acknowledged in part in his autobiography.
“At the bottom of my heart I share the British contempt for the craft of story-writing,” he writes.
His novel, Moons of Israel, has barely been reviewed, and is not making any profit. Love Eternal received a “sympathetic” review in The Times, but confirmed his doubt that he is not “a literary artist”. Paper is in short supply and most of his works are now out of print due to the war-effort. Rider is in danger of being forgotten.
St Mary’s Church, Ditchingham: In one of the triptych of scenes in the stained glass window, the view of the Bath Hills is etched out in amber and yellow glass. Either side are the pyramids of Giza and Hilldrop, Rider’s farm in the Transvaal. Lilias, Rider’s youngest daughter, had the window installed after her father died, to commemorate the three distinct spheres of his life:
RURAL, CREATIVE, IMPERIAL
Sebald reappears momentarily, as I stand in the church examining the window. A ribbon of water and an oak tree set the sylvan scene. This view can be seen from Ditchingham Lodge, the second Haggard property – which sits a quarter of a mile from the House. The Lodge appears as a concluding milestone in Sebald’s journey in Rings, and the pleasing symbiosis of this brief union between Sebald, Haggard and I is satisfying.
St Mary’s church is full of the Haggard family, quite literally: a black marble slate marks the place where seven family members’ ashes are interred, including Rider’s. I locate it after some hunting. The slate is hidden beneath a rug “to save it from getting covered in bat poo,” the churchwarden tells me. I read down the names of the dead. An author of over seventy titles of fiction and non-fiction, no mention is made of Rider’s literary life:
HENRY RIDER HAGGARD
KNIGHT OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE
WHO WITH A HUMBLE HEART STROVE TO SERVE HIS COUNTRY
Ditchingham church is full of earnest requests to be remembered in death, as if the robustness of objects can in some way thwart life’s temporality. Louie and Rider donated the clock on the spire in 1892 in the name of their son, Jock. The laminated notice informs me, clinically, that Jock “Died in 1891 at the age of ten from a perforated ulcer, following a bout of measles”. A simple stone cross to the right of the chancel door marks his grave, and the whole congregation pass by it each Sunday as they arrive for worship.
In his autobiography, Rider broaches his son’s death with Lost World valour: “I touch the healing robes of Death. I refer to the death of my only son.” He expresses the sting of guilt – because he and Louie were in Mexico when Jock caught measles – and of a misinterpreted sense of dread that preceded the trip.
“When I went to Mexico I knew, almost without doubt, that in this world he and I would never see each other more. Only I thought it was I who was doomed to die.” [Rider’s italics.]
Something akin to prophecy forewarned Rider, and he chose not to act on it.
Rider dabbled in spiritualism as young man, and was a frequent visitor at the Hanover Square addresses in London where the Society for Psychical Research held their séances – until he was frightened off by the inexplicable movement of heavy furniture in the room.
“The whole business is mischievous and is to be discouraged,” he later remonstrates.
Rider’s fiction and non-fiction are peppered with musings and imagery of death incarnate inhabiting the earth. The hero of his Lost World series – Allan Quatermain – is convinced that spectral beings have their presence all around us: “Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but inextinguishable and immortal elements of life.”
I struggle to summon the eternal in the church, which weighs heavy with icons of the dead around me.
The dead are central to Rider’s narrative. Death brought Rider both fear of being forgotten and faith in the possibility of an afterlife, where he and Jock would be reunited. It is no coincidence that his autobiography opens with an anecdote about a telephone call – “an excited inquiry” – from a London press agency, asking if the famous author had died.
“Miss Hector, my secretary, answered that to the best of her knowledge and belief I was out walking on my farm and in average health.”
Ditchingham Lodge – the final place on my list – where Rider’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter, Nada and Dorothy Cheyne, are expecting me, is far more welcoming than Ditchingham House. The Lodge is Georgian and four storeys high, with blue-slatted shutters opening from its many windows like open palms.
“As I approached, I could see window panes glinting in the sunlight,” wrote Sebald, as his narrator spots the Lodge from across the Bath Hills.
A woman in a white apron – what an unusual sight, I thought – came out underneath the portico roof which was supported by two columns, calling a black dog that was running about in the garden. Apart from her there was not a soul in sight.
It’s the woman in the apron that I ask Nada Cheyne about, as a literary opener to our meeting.
“That must have been the housekeeper, Mrs Bud,” she tells me. “Because I certainly never wore a white apron!”
Although Nada is in her eighties, she is neither frail nor showing any signs of losing her memory. I ask her if Sebald stopped to talk or introduce himself as he came loping across those fields. But he just walked on, making a dutiful wave to the housekeeper, on his way to the church from where I had just come from.
The Cheyne women have met with most of Rider’s biographers, and were least impressed by D. S. Higgins (“Who made everything sexual,” tuts Nada). I tell them that I’ve visited the church, and that I too grew up overlooking the Bath Hills. Nada gestures to the large bay window behind me and it is the same view as Lilias’ stained glass; my hometown of Bungay nestled into the horizon.
“He [Rider] loved the Hills,” Nada says. “He wished he’d lived here, and not in Ditchingham House. It’s always been a drain financially.”
Born in 1925, the same year her grandfather died, Nada had lived in Ditchingham House since she was a child with her mother Sybil, her aunt Lilias, and her grandmother, Louie.
“It was a very feminine house” recalls Nada, “Because it was just us women living there.”
Nada’s aunt, Lilias Haggard, wrote of them both wishing on a cuticle moon in 1936, when Nada would have been a girl of ten.
“Last night a thin new moon lay in the western sky, among the stars … Nada and I duly bowed three times and wished!”
It is Isis, the ancient Egyptian lunar goddess, whom the Haggard women include in their feminine enclave. This small act of otherworldly worship Rider also vindicates through his recollections of his time in Egypt; a tender ritual passed down from father to daughter to granddaughter.
“With … the old Egyptians I am at home,” he writes. “I venerate Isis, and always feel inclined to bow to the moon!”
Rider’s visits to the Pyramids with the Egyptologist, Dr Budge, were the catalyst for his curiosity in reincarnation and the idea of Ka, or body-double – the possibility of which he and Kipling often discussed. Although he cites the phenomenon as “quite insusceptible of proof”, Rider revered the Egyptians, and letters written from Ditchingham House are often marked in the top left corner with a handmade hieroglyphic stamp: a salute to the ancient Egyptian credence that the dead will surely live again.
Dorothy tells me with pride that three generations of naval officers have lived at Ditchingham Lodge, including her father. She paces to and fro with her hands clasped behind her back as she recalls the seafaring lineage of her family home. She is in her fifties, stout, with short bobbed hair and is still wearing the windbreaker she arrived in. I think that she too would have made excellent Navy personnel. After excusing myself to use the bathroom, Dorothy is waiting outside for me, holding up a portrait of her great grandmother, Louie. It covers Dorothy’s face, because she is short, and beneath the picture of a woman at ease in her middle years, with a string of pearls and shawl about her shoulders, are Dorothy’s legs in sensible trousers. It makes me jump when Dorothy speaks from behind the painting in portraiture-ventriloquism.
On the walls of the staircase are some original illustration plates from one of Rider’s Lost World novels. Giant Zulus with piercing eyes and bared teeth tower over Quatermain and his allies, brandishing spears. Nada points out “Old Wrinkly”– a painting of Rider in his sixties that hangs above the banisters. His nose is strong and fine, his face lined. His eyes pensive and blue as he sits in his chair with a book open on his lap.
There is a portrait that hangs at the very top of the stairs. The painting is of Jock, aged about nine, wearing a brown knitted tank top and cropped trousers. He stands to the side as he prepares to take a swing with a golf club. His eyes have the same blue intensity as his father’s and a small, tight smile crosses his face.
Beneath Jock’s portrait, on two small hooks, hangs his golf club – about three quarters the size of an adult’s. Nada tells me the painting was removed from Ditchingham House a few years ago “to keep him safe”.
And I remember now – the portrait of the little boy that I always had to look at when I visited Ditchingham House. He played golf on the lawn; his club was his favourite plaything. My father once lifted me up to take a closer look at Jock playing on the lawn. I touched the canvas, and could feel the fine ridges of the brush strokes beneath my fingers.
Sebald turns and walks back across the Bath Hills, Rider closes the book on his lap, and my ghosts now have nobody to haunt.
1 The Ditchingham House auction catalogue can be accessed in the archives kept at the Norfolk Record Office (reference: MC 180/145).
Hannah Garrard is a creative non-fiction MA student at the University of East Anglia, England. She is interested in exploring the narratives of place: the texts and the lives they conjure. She is currently working on her first book-length project about a West African refugee camp. Follow her on Twitter.
Stories from the Ivory Tower is an online series of creative non-fiction essays that draw their inspiration from academia. These commissions are made possible through the University of Melbourne’s Cultural and Community Relations Advisory Group (CCRAG).
Painting of Sir (Henry) Rider Haggard, by John Pettie (1839-1893).