Sheila Kaye-Smith (1887-1956)

Sheila Kaye-Smith was a prolific novelist known as 'the Sussex writer' because her stories were nearly all set in rural East Sussex.

Where Kaye-Smith lived

Emily Sheila Kaye-Smith was born in 1887, the daughter of a doctor in St Leonards. She loved the Sussex countryside and spent summers with her younger sister Selina staying at local farms, which later inspired her book 'The Children's Summer'.

Sheila began writing stories while at Hastings and St Leonards Ladies' College, and published her first novel 'The Tramping Methodist' when she was just 21 years old. She became famous when 'Sussex Gorse' was published in 1916, telling the story of an ambitious farmer struggling to make a living from the land. Like many of her books it has a strong sense of place and shows her knowledge of farming and dialect.

Religion was a frequent theme in Sheila's novels, and in 1924 she married Anglican curate Theodore Penrose Fry and moved to London. Returning to Sussex a few years later in 1929, they settled near Northiam at a farm called Little Doucegrove. They both converted to Roman Catholicism and built the small church of St Therese of Lisieux in the grounds of their home, where Sheila was buried after her death in 1956.

Sussex in Kaye-Smith's books

As a regional novelist, Sheila was usually very specific about the locations in Sussex she wrote about. Her home, Little Doucegrove, first appeared in the novel 'Spell Land' in 1910, and was also mentioned in 'The End of the House of Alard' and 'The Village Doctor'. Bodingmares Farm in 'Green Apple Harvest' is between Robertsbridge and Bodiam.

'Sussex Gorse' is the story of Reuben Backfield who inherits his father's farm in Peasmarsh parish near Rye. Reuben wants to expand his land and spends the next sixty years acquiring and cultivating the gorse-covered heathland of Boarzell Moor. He rejoices in his success and has no regrets, even though his obsession led to family tragedy leaving him alone and unloved.

Sheila's most successful novel 'The End of the House of Alard' was based on a real family in Winchelsea. The story is set at Conster Manor and features an aristocratic family trying to cling to its traditions after World War One.

Sheila sometimes invented place names, or used real names for places she created. For example, 'Little England' is set in the countryside between Dallington and Hailsham, and features a dilapidated cottage called Horselunges. This is the real name of a large timber-framed house in Hellingly.

The Sussex settings of these books were explored by R Thurston Hopkins in 'Sheila Kaye-Smith and the Weald'. Sheila herself wrote non-fiction about the county in 'Weald of Kent and Sussex' and her autobiography 'Three Ways Home'.

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