I leaned Raymond Blythe’s Milderhurst against my bent knees and ran my hand over the cover. It showed a series of black-and-white photos arranged at various angles, as if they’d dropped from someone’s hand and been photographed where they fell. Beautiful children in old-fashioned dresses, long-ago picnics by a shimmering pool, a line of swimmers posing by the moat; the earnest gazes of people for whom capturing images on photographic paper was a type of magic.

I turned to the first page and began to read.

CHAPTER ONE

MAN OF KENT

‘There were those who said the Mud Man had never been born, that he had always been, just as the wind and the trees and the earth; but they were wrong. All living things are born, all living things have a home, and the Mud Man was no different.’

There are some authors for whom the world of fiction presents an opportunity to scale unseen mountains and depict great realms of fantasy. For Raymond Blythe, however, as for few other novelists of his time, home was to prove a faithful, fertile and fundamental inspiration, in his life as in his work. Letters and articles written over the course of his seventy-five years contain a common theme: Raymond Blythe was unequivocally a homebody who found respite, refuge and ultimately religion in the plot of land that for centuries his forebears had called their own. Rarely has a writer’s home been turned so clearly to fictive purpose as in Blythe’s gothic tale for young people, The True History of the Mud Man. Yet even before this milestone work, the castle standing proud upon its fertile rise within the verdant weald of Kent, the arable farmlands, the dark and whispering woods, the pleasure gardens over which the castle gazes still, contrived to make of Raymond Blythe the man he would become.

Raymond Blythe was born in a room on the second floor of Milderhurst Castle on the hottest day of the summer of 1866. The first child of Robert and Athena Blythe, he was named for his paternal grandfather, whose fortune was made in the goldfields of Canada. Raymond was the eldest of four brothers, the youngest of whom, Timothy, died tragically during a violent storm in 1876. Athena Blythe, a poetess of some note, was heartbroken by her youngest son’s death and is said to have descended, soon after the boy was laid to rest, into a black depression from which there would be no return. She took her life in a leap from the Milderhurst tower, leaving her husband, her poetry and her three small sons behind.

On the adjoining page there was a photograph of a handsome woman with elaborately arranged dark hair, leaning from an open mullioned window to gaze upon the heads of four small boys arranged in order of height. It was dated 1875 and had the milky appearance of so many early amateur photographs. The smallest boy, Timothy, must have moved when the photo was being taken because his smiling face had blurred. Poor little fellow, with no idea he’d only months left to live.

I skimmed the next few paragraphs – withdrawn Victorian father, dispatch to Eton, a scholarship to Oxford – until Raymond Blythe reached adulthood.

After graduating from Oxford in 1887, Raymond Blythe moved to London where he began his literary life as a contributor to Punch magazine. Over the following decade he published twelve plays, two novels and a collection of children’s poetry; however, his letters indicate that despite his professional accomplishments he was unhappy living in London and longed for the rich countryside of his boyhood.

It might be supposed that city life was made more bearable for Raymond Blythe by his marriage in 1895 to Miss Muriel Palmerston, much admired and said to be ‘the most handsome of all the year’s debutantes’, and certainly his letters suggest a sharp elevation of spirit at this time. Raymond Blythe was introduced to Miss Palmerston by a mutual acquaintance and, by all reports, the match was a good one. The two shared a passion for outdoor activities, word games and photography, and made a handsome couple, gracing the social pages on numerous occasions.

After his father’s death in 1898, Raymond Blythe inherited Milderhurst Castle and returned with Muriel to set up home. Many accounts from the period suggest that the pair had long wished to begin a family and certainly, by the time they moved to Milderhurst, Raymond Blythe was quite open in expressing concern in his letters that he was not yet a father. This particular happiness, however, was to elude the couple for some years and as late as 1905 Muriel Blythe wrote to her mother confessing the agonizing fear that she and Raymond would be denied ‘the final blessing of children’. It must have been with tremendous joy, and perhaps some relief, that four months after her letter was sent she wrote again to her mother advising that she was now ‘with child’. With children, as it turned out: after a fraught pregnancy, including a lengthy period of enforced confinement, in January 1906 Muriel was delivered successfully of twin daughters. Raymond Blythe’s letters to his surviving brothers indicate that this was the happiest time of his life, and the family scrapbooks overflow with photographic evidence of his paternal pride.

The next double page held an assortment of photographs of two little girls. Though they were obviously very similar, one was smaller and finer than the other, and seemed to smile a little less certainly than her sister. In the last photo, a man with wavy hair and a kind face sat in an upholstered chair with a lace-clad baby on each knee.

There was something in his bearing – the light in his eyes, perhaps, or else the gentle press of his hands against each girl’s arm – that communicated his deep affection for the pair, and it occurred to me, as I looked more closely, how rare it was to find a photograph from the period in which a father was captured with his daughters in such a simple, domestic way. My heart warmed with affection for Raymond Blythe and I continued reading.

All was not to remain thus joyous, however. Muriel Blythe was killed on a winter’s evening in 1910 when a red-hot ember from the fireplace by which she sat escaped the bounds of the screen to land in her lap. The chiffon of her dress caught fire rapidly and she was aflame before aid could reach her; the blaze went on to consume the east turret of Milderhurst Castle and the vast Blythe family library. The burns to Mrs Blythe’s body were extensive and although she was wrapped in damp bandages and treated by the very best doctors, she succumbed within the month to her terrible injuries.

Raymond Blythe’s grief following his wife’s death was so profound that for some years after he failed to publish another word. Some sources claim that he suffered a crippling writer’s block, while others believe he sealed up his writing room and refused to work, opening it again only when he began his now famous novel, The True History of the Mud Man, born of a period of intense activity in 1917. Despite its widespread appeal to young readers, many critics see the story as an allegory for the Great War, in which so many lives were lost on the muddy fields of France; in particular, parallels are drawn between the titular Mud Man and the scores of displaced soldiers attempting to return home and reclaim their families after the appalling slaughter. Raymond Blythe himself was wounded at Flanders in 1916 and invalided home to Milderhurst, where he convalesced under the care of a team of private nurses. The Mud Man’s lack of identity and the narrator’s quest to learn the forgotten creature’s original name and his position and place in history are also seen as a homage to the many unknown soldiers of the Great War and the feelings of displacement that Raymond Blythe may have suffered on his return.

No matter the large volume of scholarship devoted to its discussion, the truth of the Mud Man ’s inspiration remains a mystery; Raymond Blythe was famously reticent about the novel’s composition, saying only that it had been ‘a gift’; that ‘the muse had attended’ and that the story had arrived whole. Perhaps as a result, The True History of the Mud Man is one of very few novels that has managed to capture and retain public interest, becoming almost mythic in its significance. Questions of its creation and influences are still vigorously debated by the literary scholars of many nations, but the inspiration behind the Mud Man remains one of the twentieth century’s most enduring literary mysteries.

A literary mystery. A shiver crept down my spine as I repeated the words beneath my breath. I loved the Mud Man for its story and the way its arrangement of words made me feel when I read them, but to know that mystery surrounded the novel’s composition made it just that much better.

Although Raymond Blythe had, to this point, been professionally well regarded, the enormous critical and commercial success of The True History of the Mud Man overshadowed his previous work and he would ever after be known as the creator of the nation’s favourite novel. The production in 1924 of the

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