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Jane Austen

Excursions from Great Bookham to nearby Box Hill had a most definite impact on Jane Austen's fifth novel, Emma, which was published in 1816. At a critical point in the narrative, the wooded hill with the striking views is the setting for a picnic organised by Mrs Eiton.

'Emma had never been to Box Hill ... she wished to see what everybody found so much worth seeing.' But the outing is not a success, being marred from the start by 'a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union, which could not be got over ... even Emma grew tired at last of flattery and merriment, and wished herself rather walking quietly about with any of the others, or sitting almost alone, and quite unattended to, in tranquil observation of the beautiful views beneath her.'

She makes the journey home in tears. It is not known whether Jane Austen ever met Fanny Burney, though it is just conceivable. Jane Austen, born in 1775, was several times a visitor to Great Bookham, where her cousin Cassandra was married to the rector Samuel Cooke. Whether or not they did meet, the younger woman seems to have been an admirer of the older, for Jane Austen's name appeared on the subscription list to Camilla. Possibly too the title of her best-known novel Pride and Prejudice was taken from the last paragraph of Camilla, where the words are repeated three times in capital letters.

Fanny Burney

'We are now removed to a very small house in the suburbs of a very small village called Bookham,' wrote Fanny Burney to a friend about four months after her marriage to Alexandre d'Arblay in 1793. 'Our views are not as beautiful as from Phenice Farm [on nearby Bagdon Hill, where the newlyweds had taken rooms for a time], but our situation is totally free from neighbours and intrusion. We are about a mile and a half from Norbury Park [home of her friend, William Lock], and two miles from Mickleham. I am become already so stout a walker, by use and with the help of a very able supporter, that I go to those places and return home on foot without fatigue, when the weather is kind.' Fanny Burney now returned to writing in earnest, starting work on her third novel, Camilla, in order to support herself and her husband, who had no income, being cut off from his property in France. Born in 1752, she had achieved fame at quite a young age with her first novel, Evelina, or a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, which in 1778 had taken London by storm.

Dr Johnson said that some passages might do honour to Samuel Richardson. Sir Joshua Reynolds took the book to the dinner table and was so absorbed that he had to be fed while reading, after which both he and Edmund Burke sat up over it all night. Her second novel, Cecilia (1782), enjoyed the same success and even greater sales, though the publisher did rather better from the profits than the author. Married existence in the sleepy little village of Great Bookham seems to have ; suited Fanny Burney. 'Here,' she wrote, 'we are tranquil, undisturbed, and undisturbing.

Men of Letters

I am every morning at the top of Box Hill - as its flower, its bird, its prophet. I drop down the moon on one side, I draw up the sun on t'other. I breathe fine air. I shout ha ha to the gates of the world. Then I descend and know myself a donkey for doing it.

George Meredith Of all the many literary figures associated with Box Hill, none had a better feel for the place than the novelist and poet George Meredith. From 1867 until his death at the age of 81 in 1909, he lived in a flint and brick house built off the Zig-Zag road at the bottom of the hill. Nine years after he moved into Flint Cottage Meredith added a small timber-boarded chalet high up in the steep garden behind the house where he did much of his writing and even sometimes slept. There was also a shed for Picnic, the donkey. 'Anything grander than the days and nights in my porch you will not find away from the Alps: for the dark line of my hill runs up to the stars, the valley below is a soundless gulf. There pace like a shipman before turning in.

In the day with the south west blowing I have a brilliant universe rolling up to me.' Meredith was a great lover of country things and an energetic walker who rambled many miles over the Surrey countryside. Even at the age of 61, he was fit enough to join the Order of Sunday Tramps, an early rambling club. He describes the downland vividly in one of his most popular novels, Diana of the Crossways (1885): Through an old gravel cutting a gateway led to the turf of the down, spring turf, bordered on a long line, clear as a racecourse, by golden gorse covers, and leftward over the gorse the dark ridge of the fir and heath country ran companionably to the south west, the valley between, with undulations of wood and meadow sunned or shaded, clumps and mounds, promontories, away to the broad spaces of tillage banked by wooded hills, and dimmer beyond and farther, the faintest shadowiness of heights, as a veil to the illimitable. Yews, junipers, radiant beeches, and gleams of service-tree or the whitebeam, spotted the semicircle of swelling green down black and silver.

After Meredith's death, J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) wrote a fanciful essay in which he imagined the old man sitting on the crest of the hill which rises in front of Flint Cottage, chuckling at the sight of his own funeral cortege solemnly accompanying an empty coffin to the cemetery at Dorking. Barrie himself is commemorated by Barrie's Bank, just outside Flint Cottage, where the playwright is said to have sat before daring to approach the great writer. Others who made the pilgrimage to Flint Cottage included George Gissing and Henry James; and the critic and caricaturist Max Beerbohm lived there for a time during the Second World War. In 1878 and 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson stayed at the Burford Bridge Hotel, at the foot of Box Hill beside the River Mole. On the second visit Meredith read him parts of his masterpiece The Egoist, and, when Stevenson exclaimed that the character of Sir Willoughby Patteme must have been modelled on himself, made his famous reply: 'I've taken him from all of us, but principally from myself.'


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