John Sturgis

Why are writers obsessed with Tunbridge Wells?

The town is home to a certain idea of Englishness

  • From Spectator Life
A sign at the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells in Kent, England (iStock)

It’s just a moderately sized town in Kent, but Tunbridge Wells seems to have a literary status disproportionate to its size. And, perhaps as a corollary, it seems to occur in fiction much more frequently than considerably bigger towns of otherwise greater significance. Or certainly this has been my impression over a lifetime’s reading. 

I recall, for example, almost falling out of my chair when it suddenly featured in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

The town has numerous literary connections. Thackeray lived there and set part of his The Virginians in the town. Dickens visited, as did Jane Austen – her brother is buried there. And it’s surrounded by smaller towns and villages with extraordinarily rich literary connections. This satellite list includes Sir Philip Sidney in Penshurst, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Crowborough, Rudyard Kipling in Burwash, Siegfried Sassoon in Brenchley, Vita Sackville-West at Knole and then Sissinghurst and A.A. Milne at Ashdown Forest. 

Virginia Woolf lived a little further afield, in Rodmell, near Lewes, but regularly shopped in the town. The first book shop, and stationer, that I ever browsed as a child, Goulden and Curry on the High Street, had previously had Woolf as a regular customer; it’s conceivable the paper she wrote on came from that shop. E.M. Forster went to Tonbridge school and knew the town well – but loathed the sense of restriction he felt there. It is mentioned in Room With a View. Then, naturally, it appears in John Betjeman:

Tunbridge Wells on a Lord’s Day morning
Rung from rest by the gospel bells
Climbs to light through the mist adorning
Towers and steeples of Tunbridge Wells.

It gets further mentions in Oscar Wilde, Arnold Bennett, and H.G. Wells, who wrote: ‘Tunbridge Wells is Tunbridge Wells, and there is nothing really like it upon our planet’. And it is these book mentions which particularly intrigue me. 

I first encountered such a reference to Tunbridge Wells as a young teen in the 1980s, reading one of those then-popular grizzly but also slightly racy James Herbert horrors about deadly fog or rats or something – and it made me sit up and pay attention to have my home town play a sudden cameo.

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