What is it about writers and graveyards? I kept bumping into them, and their gravestones, as I made my way round Britain’s cemeteries for my book Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die.
I found it particularly hard to avoid Dickens, who seems to have friends and interests all over the place. I also couldn’t help but noticing how many writers end up buried in either the wrong place or a very odd place.
Here, then, is my ghostly tour of those who made their living by their pens:
Jane Austen (d.1817): It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that no one really knows how Jane Austen managed to secure a burial in Winchester Cathedral, so grand, so beautiful, so full of the great and the good. But here she lies, at the time of her death an obscure spinster from a nearby village whose grave-slab does not mention the word “writer”. I think I know her secret though. It seems that her brother had links to a man who could. As Austen knew, it’s all down to who you know.
Charles Dickens (d.1870): Of course the man who wrote so much about funerals in his novels tried to micro-manage his own: “I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious and strictly private manner…” And so he was, at 9.30am with only 12 people in attendance in – oops! – Westminster Abbey. In the end, they left Dickens' grave open and thousands paid their respects. Strictly private indeed.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (d. 1930): The man who created Sherlock Holmes spent the end of his life engrossed in spiritualism and was buried, standing up, in his back garden in Crowborough in East Sussex in 1930. Crisis, then, when the estate was sold in 1955. What to do with his body? The church in tiny Minstead in the New Forest (he’d had a séance summer house nearby) agreed to take him, as long as he was buried as far from the church as possible. The grave, by the way, is adorned by a pipe. (All Saints Church, Minstead, Hampshire, SO43 7EX)
Ian Fleming (d. 1964): I had rather expected Ian Fleming’s grave to be in Jamaica, near his estate Goldeneye, named after the codeword for an intelligence operation he had masterminded during the Second World War. But the creator of 007 is, instead, in deepest England, in the small village of Sevenhampton in Wiltshire. His epitaph, in Latin, means: “I’ve had a good life and now I’m rotting away”. Perfect. (St James Church, Sevenhampton, Wiltshire SN6 7QA)
Thomas Hardy (d. 1928): Hardy had wanted to be buried in his beloved Stinsford in Dorset, the mythical “Mellstock” of his writings. But when he died, aged 87, the great and the good decided he must instead be in Westminster Abbey, as close to Dickens as possible. Hardy’s family were outraged. A compromise was reached: his heart was buried in Stinsford (in a tiny coffin) and the rest of his ashes went to the abbey. (The heart is in St Michael’s Churchyard, Stinsford, Dorset DT2 9QP)
Laurie Lee (d 1997): Lee's is the perfect grave, in the churchyard on a steep hill overlooking the beautiful Slad Valley. The stone is embellished with a scattering of stone flowers and says “He lies in the valley he loved”. On the other side is a verse from his poem, April Rise. So many writers end up in the wrong place: Laurie Lee is one of the exceptions. (Holy Trinity Churchyard, Slad Road, Slad, Gloucs GL6 7QA)
Sylvia Plath (d. 1963): It’s hard to imagine now but when Sylvia Plath died, having committed suicide after becoming estranged from husband Ted Hughes, she was hardly known. Her novel The Bell Jar had only been out a month and her poetry collection Ariel was only a manuscript. Only eight people attended Plath's funeral. These days, more Plath pilgrims than that visit her grave every day. (St Thomas the Apostle graveyard, Church Street, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, HX7 7NT).
Marguerite Radclyffe Hall (d.1943): Radclyffe Hall preferred to be called “John” and is buried with her first serious lover, Mabel Batten and, for her life was always complicated, Mabel’s husband too. Outside the vault at Highgate, there is a poem by another lover (and Mabel’s cousin!) Una Troubridge. This grave, in a prime position, is often bedecked with flowers from her many fans. (Highgate Cemetery, west side, Swains Lane, London, N6 6PJ)
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (d 1851): The author of Frankenstein is buried in Bournemouth between her parents, though she hardly knew her mother and was often estranged from her father. For this to happen, she had to move their bodies from Old St Pancras churchyard in London. Bizarrely, it was at this tombstone (then occupied only by her mother) that she had been courted by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose heart is also in her grave. (St Peter’s Churchyard, Bournemouth, Dorset BH1 2EE)
Virginia Woolf (d. 1941): Woolf's was a traumatic death. She drowned herself in the River Ouse, putting stones in her pockets, in fear that she was about to plunge into another bout of depression. Her ashes now live in the beautiful garden at her house in Rodmell where her bedroom – her very own room of her own – is preserved as she left it. (Monk’s House Garden, The Street, Rodmell, Nr Lewes, East Sussex, BN7 3HF).
Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die by Ann Treneman is published by The Robson Press at £12.99.