In recent years, since the filming of Joseph Conrad's Amy Foster, under the title of Swept From The Sea in 1998, the true location for his rather neglected novella has been obscured behind the Hollywood version starring Rachel Weisz. The film was shot in Romantic Cornwall, and Amy herself is given a mysterious Celtic personality quite unlike the woman Conrad sets at the heart of his story. Presumably, the producers considered the Kent coast too tame and prosaic a backdrop for their film. As part of my research for Amy, a new opera for the Royal Swedish Opera for which I am supplying the libretto, I decided I would try to pinpoint where Conrad had actually set the original story. This research led me to the Kent coast, not far from Pent Farm, where Conrad was living in 1901, the year he wrote Amy Foster.
Conrad had been inspired to write the story after reading an anecdote in Ford Madox Ford's book The Cinque Ports, a historical and descriptive account of the favoured trading ports on the Kent and Sussex Coasts. Ford mentions a shipwrecked sailor from a German merchant ship who spoke no English being driven out by the local population and finding refuge in a pigsty. This unfortunate sailor was the model for Yanko Gooral, the ³migr³ husband of Amy Foster. If Conrad was using a real event as the basis of his story, I reasoned, wouldn't he use real locations too? There was of course the possibility that Conrad had used generic details from that costal region to create fictional locations - the Martello Towers, the coastguard cottages, for example. But might he not also have used the real models of places that he had visited and knew well from his wanderings around Pent?
In the novella, Conrad describes two coastal villages, one called Colebrook and one called Brenzett, visible to each other across the large bay in the Channel which Conrad calls Eastbay in the story. There is a real Brenzett, a hamlet some miles from the Kent Coast, with none of the topography from the story. Conrad, who claimed he never kept a notebook, but wrote from memory, has clearly borrowed the name and applied it to the rougher coastal village where Amy lives. Doctor Kennedy, one of the liberal influences in the story, lives in the more affluent Colebrook, just across the bay. The question I wanted to answer was: did Colebrook and Brenzett disguise two real places on the Kent Coast? So I set off to examine the coastal towns closest to the farmhouse.
There are two descriptive passages in the story about Colebrook:
1) "The high ground rising abruptly behind the red roofs of the little town crowds the quaint High Street against the wall which defends it from the sea. Beyond the sea-wall there curves for miles in a vast and regular sweep the barren beach of shingle, with the village of Brenzett standing out darkly across the water, a spire in a clump of trees; and still further out the perpendicular column of a lighthouse, looking in the distance no bigger than a lead pencil, marks the vanishing-point of the land."
2) "The brow of the upland overtops the square tower of the Colebrook Church. The slope is green and looped by a white road. Ascending along this road, you open a valley broad and shallow, a wide green trough of pastures and hedges merging inland into a vista of purple tints and flowing lines closing the view."
These are exact descriptions of the red-roofed coastal town of Hythe, the nearest conurbation to The Pent, the farmhouse where Conrad lived with his family between 1898-1908, and where he wrote many of his major books. Hythe was only three miles away. It has a sea wall, from where looking south east, along 'a vast and regular sweep' of shoreline, you can just pick out the new lighthouse at Dungeness, 'the vanishing-point of the land'. This is not the structure that Conrad would have seen, of course, which he describes as 'no bigger than a lead pencil'; he would have seen an earlier structure built in the eighteenth century, a mere 116ft tall. A new lighthouse, the precursor to the modern one, had been commissioned at Dungeness the year that Conrad published Amy Foster but would not yet have been visible.
Geographically, Hythe is situated below the final escarpment of the Kent Downs before they reach the sea. The old London Road from Hythe runs inland, ascending into the Kent Downs, just as Conrad describes in the story. Standing high above the still quaint High Street, the church of St Leonard dominates the town, but it is itself underneath the brow of the hill. Conrad had frequent business in the town. His son Borys was christened at Hythe Catholic Church. He frequently owed money to tradesmen in the town. It was a place he got to know well.
Having identified Hythe as Colebrook, I began to realize that Conrad had set Amy Foster very much in his own backyard. I then turned my attention to Brenzett.
In the curve of the coast between Hythe and Dungeness, the village of Dymchurch is visible, 'standing out darkly across the water'. Here is Conrad's description of the village onto which he transposed the name of Brenzett.
'The country at the back of Brenzett is low and flat, but the bay is fairly well sheltered from the seas, and occasionally a big ship, windbound or through stress of weather, makes use of the anchoring ground a mile and a half due north from you as you stand at the back door of the "Ship Inn" in Brenzett. A dilapidated windmill near by lifting its shattered arms from a mound no loftier than a rubbish heap, and a Martello tower squatting at the water's edge half a mile to the south of the Coastguard cottages, are familiar to the skippers of small craft. These are the official seamarks for the patch of trustworthy bottom represented on the Admiralty charts by an irregular oval of dots enclosing several figures six, with a tiny anchor engraved among them, and the legend "mud and shells" over all.'
I drove from Hythe along the coast road to Dymchurch. To my astonishment, just before arriving in the modern centre of the village, I came across The Ship Inn, still standing directly opposite the Norman church of St Peter and St Paul, located in what must have once been the heart of the village. Dymchurch rapidly expanded south as a day-tripper's resort in the 1930s, after the building of the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch railway. But the village Conrad would have seen was a thin straggle of houses along the road on either side of the church. It is now known as Church End. In 1908, less than a decade after Conrad must have visited from Pent, Walter Jerrold described the village as 'a quiet scattered village and a delightful place far from the madding crowd'. It had a bohemian reputation in the early years of the century, attracting writers and actors and artists including Paul Nash.
Although it is now buffered by a new housing estate, Ship Close, the beach, still with its sea-wall, is only a stone's throw away from the back entrance of The Ship Inn itself. In Conrad's day, there would have been a clear view of the sea, all the way to Hythe, to the north, and to Dungeness in the south. But the clinching piece of evidence is that Conrad retained the inn's real name which it still keeps today, advertising itself as a 'five hundred-year-old inn.'
The Church of St Peter and Paul, almost directly opposite the Inn stands amongst mature trees. It has a dumpy spire. It matches the description 'a spire in a clump of trees'. This part of the old village is a clear fit for Conrad's Brenzett.
But there are some details that can no longer be verified, or perhaps they are additions by Conrad transposed from elsewhere in the vicinity. There is no longer any evidence of a windmill in Dymchurch, though neighbouring New Romney once boasted seven, and it seems reasonable to assume that Dymchurch had windmills too, transitory structures at the best of times. I am also unable to pinpoint exactly which tower is referred to in the clause 'a Martello tower squatting at the water's edge half a mile to the south of the coastguard cottages'. But both Martello towers and the coastguard cottages are prevalent features of the locality.
Martello Tower 24 - The Old Coastguard Station
Martello Towers were built as coastal defences during the Napoleonic Wars. In the early nineteenth century, the coastline at Dymchurch had no fewer than eight of them, of which only three remain today, numbers 23,24,25. Already by the time of Conrad's visit some of Dymchurch's towers had fallen into disrepair, had been demolished or had been lost to the sea. Martello Tower 24 was used as the Old Coastguard Station during Conrad's day. Although there appear to be no longer any coastguard cottages standing in Dymchurch itself, they are very much a feature of the locality. The nearest coastguard cottages I could find still extant are at Littlestone, a little further south from Dymchurch.
Martello Tower 25 Dymchurch
Of course there is no reason that every detail of the description given in Amy Foster should map perfectly onto the real landscape, but it is remarkable how much of the real topographical detail Conrad has retained, leaving no doubt in my mind, having visited the real locations, with their Martello Towers, Coastguard Cottages, churches and lighthouse, that Conrad has set his story firmly in the Romney Marshes.
Perceptively, Bertrand Russell described the story of Amy Foster as the key to Conrad's own psychology. The author appears to have enjoyed the house at Pent, and the beauty of the surrounding landscape, but did he, as an ³migr³, experience hostility from the local inhabitants? Conrad never lost his accent or his 'foreignness', and even though he wrote superlative English prose, he never felt accepted by the English themselves. During his nine years in coastal Kent, did he suffer the same prejudice at the hands of the locals as his unfortunate protagonist Yanko? What we can now say is that Conrad's choice of the moody marshes, and their darkly begrudging inhabitants, was closely based on real geography.