A Literary History of Lamb House in Rye

Lamb House in Rye is a beautiful Georgian house and listed building. This in itself isn’t too remarkable – Rye, after all, is both beautiful and full of history – but Lamb House has played host to a remarkable list of visitors, providing both shelter and inspiration to writers for centuries.


Lamb House was built in 1722 by James Lamb, a wealthy politician and local wine merchant. The house first gained notice in 1726 when King George I, taking a sea voyage, suffered shipwreck when his ship ran aground at Camber. Lamb House was considered the most suitable place for the king to reside, so King George I took Lamb’s bed for the night – while Lamb presumably passed an uncomfortable night on the sofa.


One of the most famous owners of Lamb House arrived a century later when American novelist Henry James discovered the house while visiting a friend in the town. He was immediately taken by the house, first leasing and then buying the house in 1899, and wrote his novels The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl while living there. He also inserted the house into another novel, An Awkward Age, where it makes an appearance as one of the character’s homes. James loved the house, and buried his pet dogs in its beautiful walled garden; the graves are still there to this day.


Another author who lived there from 1919 until his death in 1940 was E.F. Benson. Benson is known for his Mapp and Lucia novels, which are humorous accounts of middle and upper class families in the 1920s and 1930s, but also for his atmospheric and inventive ghost stories.


The house has a Garden Room detached from the house, and both James and Benson used the Garden Room as a place to write. Unfortunately, the Garden Room was destroyed by a German bomb in 1940, but – fittingly enough for two writers who dabbled in horror fiction – the literary spirit of the place lives on. Famed children’s novelist Joan Aitken wrote a novel titled The Haunting of Lamb House, in which the house and the figures of James and Benson make an appearance as characters in the story. Rumer Godden, author of gothic classic Black Narcissus, lived at Lamb House from 1967 until 1974.


Nowadays Lamb House is a National Trust property, and the house and garden are both open to visits from the public.

by Alice Smales

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