As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, August 1946|
by Louise Boit
WHEN Henry James decided in the summer of 1904 to revisit his native land, and to stay for six months or a year, he was much concerned to find responsible tenants for Lamb house, his beloved Georgian house in the little once walled town of Rye, on England's southern coast. And when my sister and I, two young American women with a golfing brother, spending the summer in a cottage at Laleham on the Thames, and thinking of passing the winter in England, were put in touch with him by an English friend, the matter was soon clinched.
We journeyed down to Rye with that friend, a charming, elderly AIiss Allen, for lunch at Lamb House. At the railway-carriage door we were met by the portly, kindly figure of Mr. James, who, with one lightning look from his gray-blue, slightly prominent eyes, seemed to know one's past and present -- and future too. As we proceeded slowly up the cobbled street, Mr. James explained to us the various points of interest of his much loved Rye and its surroundings: Rye was not one of the Cinque Ports-they were Dover and Hastings and Hythe and Romney and Sandwich. Rye was one of the ancient towns, Rye and Winchelsea, which were also very important in the early days of the English Navy and of ship-building. Indeed, the first English Admiral was born and buried in Winchelsea. At Rye the Ypres Tower, of heavy early Norman construction, once on the sea, but now looking out a mile or so on green marshland, was full of memories of those midnight forays in the twelve and thirteen hundreds, When the waves and the Frenchmen rushed in.
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And there was Lamb House itself, built in the early seventeen hundreds by a member of the Lamb family who was then Mayor of Rye, and whose country house was just outside the walls. It stood on the right hand, at the top of a little cobbled street just wide enough for one motor to reach the front door. There the street made a ninety-degree turn to the left, past the garden house, past a part of the high brick wall of the garden, past three or four half-timbered cottages (two belonging to Lamb House) and on to thc large old cruciform church of St. Mary's with its churchyard, less than a hundred yards away. From the elbow of this little street, the door of Lamb House looked along its leftward vista to the church. The bay window of the garden house looked down the slope which we ascended to the front door.
The delightful garden room where Mr. James did much of his writing -- which has been, I am told, damaged or destroyed by a bomb -- gave on the lovely English garden with its velvet grass and old trees. The house itself, filled with old English furniture and having a charming paneled bedroom in which George II was given refuge when once on a stormy night he was forced to land at Rye, had an air of quiet and distinction and apartness. And when at luncheon it was discovered that I was marrying someone a member of whose family Mr. James knew intimately, everyone was, I think, quite content.
All of this is a preamble to some old letters I came across recently -- letters which show Mr. .James in the role of Landlord, and such a very kind and considerate and charming landlord that I want to tell of it.
. . . Don't think that I have forgotten that I promised a week ago to give you by letter, for the sake of distinctness, the principle heads of our little understanding about this house.
I came back from Ascot & from London to rather a complication of calls upon my time, but have been meaning to make you a proper sign.
I give you up the house then on Saturday, September 3rd, as it will be all ready for you on that date, & you can send things on, which will bc duly taken care of, even if you should not yourselves arrive immediately.
And I understand that you take the house for six months from the said Saturday, September 3rd -- that is, say, as the best estimate, to the first Saturday in March -- with option to you certainly, of taking it on at the same rate for two or three months longer if you should feel so disposed. You pay me Five Pounds a week for the same, & as I suggested the other day at Laleham, you make three payments of two months each: the first on taking possession; the second at the each of two months; the third at the end of two months more. This includes everything, I paying the Servants' wages, & you being liable, naturally, for no rates or taxes: except always the Gas-bill contracted during your stay, as is customary in such cases.
I make the house over to you, practically, just as I have been living in it, & you will find it, I make bold to say, in very good & tidy condition. I leave all the Servants, who amount to five in number, including the Gardener & the Houseboy. The latter has his meals in the house, but doesn't sleep, & the Gardener of course does neither, having his cottage close by the garden gate. You will find this functionary, George Gammon, an excellent, quiet, trustworthy fellow in all respects -- a very good carpenter into the bargain & thoroughly handy at mending anything that gets broken in the house. I have endowed him with a small hand-cart, which is kept in the vault beneath the Garden-room, highly convenient to the House door, & which I find quite sufficient for the conveyance of my luggage, or that of visitors, to & from the Station for all comings & goings. The distance is so short that it means, save in some extraordinary rain, the complete suppression of flies -- which is a great simplification.
The Cook-Housekeeper, Mrs. Paddington, is really, to my sense, a pearl of price; being an extremely good cook, an absolutely brilliant economist, a person of the greatest order, method & respectability, & a very nice woman generally. If you will, when you let her see you each morning, in the dining-room after breakfast, just also suffer her to take you into the confidence, a little, of her triumphs of thrift & her masterstrokes of management, you will get on with her boautifully -- all the more that she gets on beautifully with her fellowservants, a thing that all "good" cooks don't do. She puts before me each week, with the Tradesmen's books, her own weekly book, by the existence of which the others are distinctly, I think, kept down. But these are matters that you will of course know all about.
The Parlour-maid, Alice Skinner, has lived with me for six years -- that is with an interval of no great length, & is a thoroughly respectable, well-disposed, & duly competent young woman. And the Housemaid is very pretty & gentle -- & not a very, very bad one. The House-boy, Burgess Noakes, isn't very pretty, but is on the other hand very gentle, punctual & desirous to please -- & has been with me three years. He helps the Parlour-maid, cleans shoes, knives, doorsteps, windows etc. & makes himself generally useful. Also takes letters to the Post-Office & does any errands. Naturally he brushes clothes & "calls," in the morning, those of his own sex who may repose beneath the roof. Lastly, though of such diminutive stature, he is, I believe, nineteen vears old.
The Servants will of course tell you just what tradesmen I employ, & I should be glad if you could go on with the same. They are in fact the inevitable ones of the place, & are all very decent, zealous, reasonable folk. I Ieave almost everything "out " save some books, of a certain rarity & value, which I lock up; & there is, I think, a full sufficency of forks & spoons etc, as well as of all household linen.
Lastly, I take the liberty of confiding to your charity & humanity the precious little person of my Dachshund Max, who is the best & gentlest & most reasonable & well-mannered as well as most beautiful small animal of his kind to be easily come across -- so that I think you will speedily find yourselves loving him for his own sweet sake. The Servants, who are very fond of him & good to him, know what he "has", & when he has it, & I shall take it kindly if he be not too often gratified with tid-bits between meals. Of course what he most intensely dreams of is being taken out on walks, & the more you are able so to indulge him the more he will adore you & the more allthe latent beauty of his nature will come out. He is, I am happy to say, & has been from the first (he is about a year & a half old) in very good, plain, straightforward health, & if he is not overfed, & is sufficiently exercised, & adequately brushed (his brush being always in one of the bowls on the hall-table -- a convenient little currycomb) & Burgess is allowed occasionally to wash him. I have no doubt he will remain very fit. In the event, however, of his having anything at all troublesome the matter with him, kindly remember that there is an excellent "Vet" a dozen miles away, who already knows hirn, & would come by to see him for a moderate fee on any sign made. This person is " Mr. Percy Woodroffe Hill,"Canine Specialist, St. Leonard's-On-Sea" -- a telegram would promptly reach him.
You may find it pleasant to belong to the little golf club out at Camber Links -- to which a small & innocent steam tram jogs forth a number of times a day. I don't know that a six month's membership is worth a year's fee, moderate though the latter be; but it is sometimes a resource to have tea there of a Sunday afternoon, & if you will mention my name to the Secretary, Captain Dacre Vincent, he will gladly inscribe you on the easiest terms possible. There are lots of pretty late summer & early autumn walks -- over field paths etc.; I wish I might both carry out my American destiny & be at hand to put you up to my own rambles. Perhaps, however, you are not like me, crimson ramblers -- in which case you will walk about the garden!
Such is my simple showing -- but I shan't scruple to add a postscript to this, later on, if any illuminating remark; occurs to yours, your sister's, & John Boit's most truly
DEAR MISS HORSTMANN,
I am greatly obliged to you for your letter of Wednesday & the handsome, the noble, promptness of your cheque for forty-five pounds for which sum please take this as a receipt in full, representing nine (9) weeks of your tenancy of Lamb House, from September 3rd at. five pounds a week. In respect to which kindly make the other payments to my account at Lloyd's Bank, Rye, the local institution at the foot (the right) of my little cobbled street as you go up to L.H. from the High Street.
I left L. H. yesterday looking so dreadfully sorry to part with me & so easy & pleasant to stay in withal, that I took refuge in burying my nose in Max's little gold-coloured back & wetting it. (the back) with my tears. But it will all be dry & right for you when you come. A word to Mrs. Paddington will cause roses to be strewn in your path.
I dined with Paul B. [Paul Bourget] laxt night alone, Minnie being laid up with sciatica. They presently return to Paris after so oddly limited a British experience to have come for! Her mother is rallying better.
I am at 105 Pall Mall till Tuesday night. With hearty good wishes & invocations,
Yours, your Sister's, & our Friend's
The Howard S. referred to in the next letter was Howard Sturgis, an English cousin of my husband, visiting the United States when Henry James was there. They had been together at Mrs. [Edith] Wharton's in Lenox.
DEAR MRS. BOIT,
Very kind your letter of October 28th with its mention of your having paid forty-five pounds on behalf of your further (current) tenancy of Lamb House into LIoyd's Bank, Rye. Ilve. For this proceeding I am greatly obliged, & the Bank will have testified to you the receipt.
The good words (''charm & comfort'') that you apply to the aged structure cause me greatly to rejoice, & I am glad your life goes so smoothly on there.
Yes, I am homesick & I even yearn at times a little for curtseying Mrs. P. -- no one curtseys to me here! But the heartbreak is nearest when I think of poor sweetly-pawing little Max for all of your patience with whom I effusively thank you. I hope he isn't too constant a burden.
I have at any rate, however, my mitigations here as well as my pangs. My native land is interesting to me & I am seeing much -- & many! All thanks for the Florida tip, for which, later on, I may have blessed use.
Howard S. is still here, & we have just spent ten days together at Lenox. I cling to him as a sort of sign & token that there be an alternative world.
I send a greeting to your sister, to Boit, & am yours most truly
DEAR MRS. BOIT,
I have been too long thanking you for your letter of Jan. 4th, telling me you had just deposited 40 pounds for Lamb House, at Lloyd's Bank, a proceeding of which I must not delay another hour to express my deepest appreciation.
I am engaged in the formidable business of "seeing," in some detail, my "native land," & my general sense of this business has now for some time been that it may serve, while direfully it goes on, as an excuse for any irregularities, aberrations, desperations, of practical conduct.
I am on my way to Florida. I have lately come from Washington, & the genial but bewidlering Philadelphia, & I have been living in a whirlwind of conversation which has caused me to neglect everything but the effort to keep up with it.
My wits are still sufficiently about me, however, to enable me to request you, lucidly, to regard this as an acceptance of your discharge in full of your last pecuniary obligation in respect to L.H. If it's of the least convenience to you to stay on there, at the last, day by day, don't stand on the letter of your date, but take your time to wind up comfortably. I willingly " throw that in" !
If the English country winter has tried you, console yourselves -- all this southern land is under snow, -- it has been a dismal season. But I wish you a happy time abroad, & am, with all greetings to your husband & your sister,
Yours, dear Mrs. Boit, most truly
After leaving England that spring of 1905, we sailed from Genoa for Yokohama -- on the way, playing hide & seek with the Russian Fleet, which was hurrying to its destruction. During the summer we sent Mr. James some old Imari plates to replace several of his which had been broken, and this, his last "landlord" letter, reached me in Washington, the " District," which had found favor in his eyes. The "Miss Lane" mentioned was Miss Marion Lane, a bookbinder, pupil of Sangorsky, with whom my sister and husband worked that winter, in the " studio, a little old chapel overlooking the garden, which Mr. James had bought to protect himself. She has been in Washington ever since.
DEAR MRS. BOIT,
The beautiful pink-green plates announced from afar by the cunning Yokohama forwarding agent, & then again by his correspondent here) arrived in due course, after, I must also add, your own kind letter.
They ought sooner to have been very gratefully acknowledged, but the mountain of arrears into which Lamb House seemed to convert itself for my return, has loomed like a perfect Fujiama above me till this hour, & I have only "got round" to you, so to speak, tonight.
But please don't take my delay as a measure of my appreciation. The plates are divinely fair, & I delight in them & I am greatly touched by the graceful benevolence of your so thinking of me. I never thought to have affixed a plate to a "parlour- wall" again (I flattered myself that it was a deep-lying human need that I had outlived;) yet I have clapped on three of the pink ones to the paroi of my diningroom, as trophies of the Japanese year; where they are a sweet match to the ruddy cheek of the paper & the green light of the garden.
I hope that by this time your nomadic life is over & your tent struck for good & all in the large Washington oasis. I say this from a combined inaptitude to wander myself (the inaptitude of weight of years & infirmities) & friendliness of memory in respect to the District of Columbia. If I hadn't settled at Lamb House l should certainly settle in the District.
As I write the light of the studio window shines large into the nocturnal garden & I have to correct myself as I instinctively take it for a sign of Miss Lane rioting in midnight labour (ere departing for the District). It is really only the curate larking with the leisurely youth of Rye. I hope Miss Lane has caught up with you by now, & I send her a kind remembrance. OnIy, she is not, please, to like the District better than she liked what Mrs. Ralph had left her of the studio.
Great things are going on here now, great & terrible. I have been moving the greenhouse from the front garden to the back, & the unearthly beauty of the old wall uncovered & laid bare by the process is almost not to be borne.
Also, Mrs. Paddington is on a month's round of country visits. I bear that better strange to say, for Alice of Peasemarsh has come back to cook for me, very well indeed.
But the small hours draw on, & I am, with kind regards to your husband & your sister, yours, dear Mrs. Boit,
Copyright © 1946 by Louise Boit. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1946; Henry James as Landlord; Volume 178, No. 2; pages 118-121.