Pevensey Castle

peven 2

In 1880 Jefferies visited Pevensey Castle in Sussex, where he had an experience that prompted him to write his spiritual autobiography The Story of My Heart (1883):

“It happened just afterwards that I went to Pevensey, and immediately the ancient wall swept my mind back seventeen hundred years to the eagle, the pilum, and the short sword. The grey stones, the thin red bricks laid by those whose eyes had seen Caesar’s Rome, lifted me out of the grasp of houselife, of modern civilization, of those minutiae which occupy the moment. The grey stone made me feel as if I had existed from then till now, so strongly did I enter into and see my own life as if reflected. My own existence was focussed back on me; I saw its joy, its unhappiness, its birth, its death, its possibilities among the infinite, above all its yearning Question. Why? Seeing it thus clearly, and lifted out of the moment by the force of seventeen centuries, I recognised the full mystery and the depth of things in the roots of the dry grass on the wall, in the green sea flowing near.”

In The Story of My Heart Jefferies dates this visit to Pevensey as 1880, and the location is noted by Miller and Matthews to be ‘symbolic’ in a similar way to London and the Wiltshire Downs. In his notes for The Story of My Heart Jefferies writes that he had burned all previous attempts ‘in anger or despair’, but in 1880, after visiting Pevensey Castle, he made notes which he kept and from which developed the finished manuscript. In the book he describes his thoughts and feelings on entering the site and being surrounded by the Roman wall:

“The mystery and the possibilities are not in the roots of the grass, nor is the depth of things in the sea; they are in my existence, in my soul. The marvel of existence, almost the terror of it, was flung on me with crushing force by the sea, the sun shining, the distant hills. With all their ponderous weight they made me feel myself: all the time, all the centuries made me feel myself this moment a hundred-fold. I determined that I would endeavour to write what I had so long thought of, and the same evening put down one sentence. There the sentence remained two years. I tried to carry it on; I hesitated because I could not express it: nor can I now, though in desperation I am throwing these rude stones of thought together, rude as those of the ancient wall.”

When Jefferies was conceiving the book in the 1870s, James Fergusson had just published Rude Stone Monuments (1872), which quickly became a popular book on megalithic culture. Ferguson calls for megalithic structures to be recognised as belonging to a ‘style of architecture […] like Gothic, Grecian, Egyptian, Buddhist, or any other’, and highlights their cultural and anthropological significance. The concept of prehistoric, or ‘rude stone’ monuments being ‘thrown up’ or ‘thrown’ together was frequently used in archaeological reports to describe the process of their construction, and is used by Thomas Hardy in his novel Two on a Tower (1882). The defensive purpose of the great walls of Roman Britain, which drew the attention of historians, artists, writers and others in the nineteenth century, appeared to have held a similar fascination for Jefferies. The wall at Pevensey was not just defensive, but clearly marked a territory from the time when Anderida (the Roman name for Pevensey) had once been a town. Throughout history, Pevensey was the site of struggle and capture. Knowledge of the long sieges, starving inhabitants for weeks at a time, caught the imagination of poets and authors. For Jefferies, who borrowed from the Romantic tradition of celebrating heroes and their conquering prowess, the historical fight for freedom translated into a fight for liberty in expression; a personal fight to free the mind from the oppression of engrained social, political and spiritual structures and discover new territory.

Taken from Rebecca Welshman, 2013. “Imagining Archaeology: Nature and Landscape in the late Nineteenth Century.” PhD diss., University of Exeter.


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