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Review: Literary Putney and its Environs

It is difficult to live in Putney and not be at least vaguely aware of its literary heritage, if only because we have seen blue plaques to historian Edward Gibbon (Upper Richmond Road), writer/literary editor J R Ackerley (Star & Garter Mansions), poets Algernon Swinburne and Gavin Ewart (Putney Hill and Kenilworth Court resp.) and so on, but who knew what literary riches lay concealed in this gentle riparian London suburb? Well, Sue Rolfe did for one!

And now we all can, with the help of her entertaining, diligently researched and beautifully written booklet, published earlier this year and available at a mere £6-00 from local libraries or the Wandsworth Historical Society.

Diarist Samuel Pepys visited several times, notably on 28th April 1667, when he attended St Mary’s Church, fell asleep during the sermon, lost his hat through a hole under the pulpit, and noted uncharitably of the local schoolgirls ‘... very few of which were pretty’! Lewis Carroll used to visit his uncle, Hassard Hume Dodgson, at Park Lodge, which still stands (the frontage anyway) in Putney Bridge Road; Laurie Lee (Cider With Rosie) worked briefly in Putney in 1934, when he was 19, lodging in Lower Richmond Road; and Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of the future Mary Shelley) notoriously attempted suicide by jumping off Putney Bridge, though happily was rescued by local watermen.

Potteries-born author Arnold Bennett lived locally for a time in the late 19th century, setting his 1908 novel Buried Alive mostly in Putney, where reclusive artist Priam Farll hides away, posing as his dead servant; the book was adapted for the 1943 film Holy Matrimony, starring Monty Woolley and Gracie Fields. And turning the literary lamp down a notch, those who have read Jilly Cooper’s 1984 memoir The Common Years will be aware that the Common in question is Putney Lower Common, near which she lived from 1972-82!

Hilary Mantel’s planned trilogy, the first two of which (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies) have won the MAN Booker and other prizes, focuses on the controversial Thomas Cromwell, born in or near Brewhouse Lane c. 1485, and Ms Mantel will shortly unveil (or may already have unveiled) a Putney Society blue plaque to him.

This review of a highly entertaining booklet covers but a fraction of the material, which Sue Rolfe has woven into an absorbing and instructive tapestry and, having read it, those living in or near Putney will henceforth wander its streets with a new perspective.

Literary Putney and its Environs: 17th-21st Century by Sue Rolfe was reviewed by Philip Evison