Literary Surrey: Lewis Carroll, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and other famous authors

PUBLISHED: 09:11 22 February 2017 | UPDATED: 09:32 08 March 2017


The Surrey countryside has provided inspiration to an amazing number of literary greats, with everyone from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens spending time here. MATTHEW WILLIAMS takes a tour of literary Surrey, novels in hand, to discover more

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2009


Aldous Huxley: Godalming

Born in Godalming, Aldous Huxley was the third son of the writer and Charterhouse schoolmaster Leonard Huxley and first wife Julia Arnold who founded Prior's Field School in the town. Huxley was a keen cyclist and used to visit the Surrey Hills regularly, especially around Hindhead and the Devil's Punch Bowl. Later in life, he taught French for a year at Eton, where Eric Blair (later known by the pen name George Orwell) was one of his students. Known for pushing the boundaries, Huxley is probably best remembered as the author of Brave New World, his chilling vision of the future, and The Doors of Perception, the book after which rock legend Jim Morrison named his band, The Doors. Huxley spent his latter years in California, where he died in 1963. In 1971, his ashes were returned to England and interred in the family grave at the Watts Cemetery in Compton.

George Bernard Shaw: Hindhead
In the early 20th century, George Bernard Shaw lived for a time at Maybury Knowle in Woking. The last letter he ever wrote from this address, dated April 5, 1904, was to fellow author HG Wells and many people have associated the house with The War of the Worlds (more on which later), believing it to be the home of the 'Narrator' - despite the fact that the house wasn't even built at the time that Wells was writing the story! Shaw also wrote about a visit to a friend, Henry Salt, who lived in the Surrey Hills. This visit appeared as an article in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1888. It must be said that he wasn't very complimentary of the country life at the time, saying: 'This was Tilford, uninhabited as far as I could see except by one man, whose surly looks asked me, more plainly than words could, what the devil I wanted there.' But, his flirtations with the county continued, despite the protestations, and Shaw wrote Caesar and Cleopatra while living at Blencathra in Hindhead, now better known as St Edmund's School.

William Cobbett: Farnham

Born in Farnham, William Cobbett's name became synonymous with fair play and social justice. His childhood home is now a pub, named in his honour. His story is a long one but the tale starts when, as a young man, Cobbett was on his way from Farnham to Guildford for a social function before, on a whim, he left his transport to board a coach bound for London instead. The rest, as they say, is history. As well as being a farmer, pamphleteer, radical and social commentator, Cobbett spent time in the army, before leaving, shocked at the level of corruption he found. He also founded the Parliamentary Debate, a publication that still appears today in the form of Hansard. It is for Rural Lives, however, his account of his travels around the country exposing the plight of the poor, for which Cobbett is probably best known. Later in life, he returned to his roots and from 1831 until his death, he farmed at the village of Normandy, near Guildford. He lies buried in the churchyard in Farnham.

Agatha Christie: Shere

Agatha Christie's connection with Surrey is a rather strange one, in that it was where she died for the first time. Er, sort of. In 1926, she disappeared, faking her own death at Newlands Corner, near Shere. And, although the reasons for this flirtation with a real life murder mystery remain unclear, her novels have also visited Surrey, bringing their own ambiguities with them. Black Coffee, for example, sees Poirot summoned to Surrey by England's most prominent physicist, Sir Claud Amory, when Amory fears attempts are afoot to steal his latest discovery. Strange how the hardest Agatha Christie mystery to solve has proved to be a work of real life rather than fiction (read our attempt to unravel what happened here).

Charles Dickens: Richmond

It is said that Charles Dickens wrote parts of The Pickwick Papers while staying at the White Horse Hotel in Dorking, and in fact Samuel Weller makes a pilgrimage to the town in the novel. His Surrey connections spread further, though, and he was one of the original trustees of Woking's Royal Dramatic College, which went on to become the Oriental Institute - one of the reasons Woking has northern Europe's oldest mosque. Dickens and his wife often stayed at the Star and Garter Hotel on Richmond Hill towards the end of March 1838. One particular visit was to allow him to get out of London on the day that the first episode of Nicholas Nickleby was published - a book that featured various mentions of the Hampton and Ham House area. Richmond is also mentioned in Great Expectations: 'I am going to Richmond,' says Estrella. 'Our lesson is that there are two Richmonds, one in Surrey and one in Yorkshire; and that mine is the Surrey Richmond.' In a more sinister connection, Hampton also featured briefly in Oliver Twist, where Bill Sikes and Oliver halt for a while on their way to the burglary at Chertsey.

Lewis Carroll: Guildford

Lewis Carroll (or the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson as he was really known) is buried at The Mount cemetery just outside Guildford. Best-known for the nonsense children's classics Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, he moved the Dodgson family to Guildford and into The Chestnuts, near the castle ruins, in 1868. That said, Lewis Carroll himself never actually lived in Guildford but would visit his family when his work as a don and mathematical lecturer at Christ Church Oxford allowed him. When in Guildford, he was a keen walker and thought nothing of a hike to Farnham across the Hog's Back. He died in 1898 and after a funeral service at St Mary's Church was buried in the cemetery on The Mount - where his grave and the memorial cross erected by his brothers and sisters can be seen. There are two pieces of public art dedicated to the author in the town: a statue of Alice and a rabbit disappearing down a hole by the river, and a metalwork of Alice going through the looking glass in the castle grounds. Surrey History Centre holds archives relating to the author, including papers connected to his childhood, letters and original photographs of his brothers, sisters and aunt.

PG Wodehouse: Croydon

Born in Guildford, author and playwright PG Wodehouse - or Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse if you want his full moniker - famously penned: 'Anyone wishing to write to the author should address all correspondence to: PG Wodehouse, c/o the 6th bunker, The Addington Golf Club.' A golf club couldn't really wish for a higher recommendation than a few words from the man who created Bertie Wooster and his faithful manservant Jeeves, whose stories provided a quintessential picture of English upper class society. His birthplace in Guildford, then 1 Vale Place, still stands. Today, the detached Victorian house has the address of 59 Epsom Road and has been divided into flats.

Lord Tennyson: Haslemere

Regarded as the chief representative of the Victorian age in poetry, Tennyson succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate in 1850, when he was appointed by Queen Victoria. He spent the last years of his life at Aldworth House, near Haslemere. During these later years, he is said to have produced some of his best poems. The house is currently on sale through Knight Frank. Tennyson often used to climb the nearby Blackdown on the Surrey/Sussex border to the Temple of the Wind at its summit to seek inspiration. There is a sculpture of Alfred Lord Tennyson and his dog at the Watts Gallery, Compton, although the gallery is currently closed and undergoing renovations. He died in Haslemere, in 1892, and was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Daniel Defoe: Dorking

Daniel Defoe, author of Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, was educated at a boarding school in Dorking. He mentions Surrey in his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain. In his own particular florid style, he claims that 'Epsome and Banstead' could not be 'matched in the world, on that account; at least, not in so little a space of ground'. Whatever that means... In the same work, he also speaks of Farnham - where the residents, it turns out, had been unkind to a bishop by plundering his deer - and makes observations on the River Mole, where 'the current of the river being much obstructed by the interposition of those hills, called Box-Hill'. Another of his works to feature Surrey references is the cheerily-titled A Journal of the Plague Year - a fictional work that mentions Dorking. Along with Samuel Richardson, Defoe is considered the founder of the English novel.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Hindhead

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the most famous Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, in 1902, at his home, Undershaw, in Hindhead. His short stories about Holmes' adventures were originally published in The Strand Magazine and featured the countryside around Haslemere and the Devil's Punch Bowl nearby. Undershaw has been the subject of great debate in recent years after the hotel that occupied it shut in 2004. Since then, Conan Doyle's former home has been left derelict, falling into an ever increasing state of disrepair and subject to vandalism. In 2006, the Victorian Society, the organisation responsible for the study and protection of Victorian and Edwardian architecture, fiercely opposed plans for the property to be turned into flats and argues that the home should be preserved for its literary history. On Friday September 9, 2016, the newly renovated Undershaw was opened as the second site of Stepping Stones School – the public were invited to visit for Heritage Open Days that same month. During his time in Hindhead, Sir Arthur became deputy lieutenant of Surrey and took an active role in the local golf club, of which he was a founding member, and in the Chiddingfold Hunt.

CS Lewis: Leatherhead

Clive Staples Lewis - CS Lewis to readers and Jack to his friends - studied privately with William Kirkpatrick in Great Bookham. Kirkpatrick, a former headmaster of Lurgan College, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, had already successfully prepared Lewis' brother Warnie for admission to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. Under the tutorship, Lewis was able to quench what was seemingly an insatiable thirst for literature with books of all kinds at his fingertips and gentle prodding from Kirkpatrick. In fact, as told in Shadowlands, it was a book Jack picked up at Leatherhead station, Phantastes by George MacDonald, which opened new creative doors and from that point on, in his own words, his 'imagination was, in a certain sense, baptised'.

EM Forster: Weybridge

Writing from his home at Monument Green, in Weybridge, EM Forster was the author of several highly successful novels, including such classics as A Passage to India, Howard's End and A Room with a View. The second half of the latter is based in Surrey, as Forster contrasts the Surrey stockbroker belt with the magic of Florence. Forster had visited Surrey on a number of occasions during his childhood but moved to the county, together with his ailing mother, whom he felt bound to care for, when he was 25. They first lived in Weybridge and then moved on to Abinger Hammer - the Surrey Hills figured heavily in his work. His 1936 collection of essays, Abinger Harvest, is named after the village he spent many years living in.

Jane Austen: Box Hill

While she may have lived just over the Hampshire border in Chawton, Jane Austen's later books contain many references to Surrey attractions and towns. Box Hill, in particular, proved to be the inspiration for a picnic outing in Emma. Meanwhile her unfinished novel, The Watsons, featured a family living in the village of Stanton, Surrey, which was said to be three miles from the town of Dorking, where much of the action took place. Austen would often visit her cousins in Great Bookham, which is said to have the best case to be recognised as the model for the fictional Highbury in Emma, though others believe it was Cobham.

HG Wells: Woking
(1866 -1946)

In The War of the Worlds, it is more a case of where isn't mentioned in Surrey than where is... The Martians' landing at Horsell Common is followed by an alien's guide to Surrey, as the tripods manage to ramble their way around the countryside - burning and pillaging - and taking in such sites as (breathe in): Painshill Park, Byfleet, Pyrford, Ripley, Weybridge, Sunbury, Staines, Ditton and Esher, among others. In fact, this literary heritage is celebrated in Woking by a giant Martian sculpture monument in the town centre. HG came to Woking in 1895 - at the start of his writing career - and in that time wrote not only The War of the Worlds but also The Invisible Man. At the time, Wells had recently married for the second time and had borrowed £100 from his mother-in-law to help furnish a small, semi-detached villa in Maybury Road. A year later, he and his wife decided to move to a larger house at Worcester Park, with room to look after his ailing mother-in-law. In his autobiography, Wells recalls how he had learnt to ride a bicycle in Woking.

JM Barrie: Tilford

The boy who never grew up, Peter Pan was a vision stirred by days spent in Tilford, where JM Barrie entertained the Llewellyn Davies boys. Barrie had originally met George, Jack and baby Peter, with their nurse Mary, in Kensington Gardens before the Llewellyn Davies family moved to a cottage a short walk away from Black Lake Cottage, where the Barries had taken up residence for the summer. It was here that he introduced the boys to a world of pirates, Indians and bloodthirsty sagas. The Black Lake Pond became a South Sea lagoon and inspired Barrie to write The Boy Castaways. Occasionally, he would step aside from the adventures, photographing the boys in action or jotting down observations for use in The Little White Bird in which Peter Pan first appeared in 1901.



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