Rye, Sussex — In the winter of 1895, months after the bitter failure of his play, ''Guy Domville,'' the catcalls still jeered in Henry James's ears. As solace, the novelist visited his friend Edward Warren, an architect who distracted him with a watercolor sketch. It outlined a Georgian brick house whose bow windows overlooked a quiet cobblestone street. The house, Lamb House, Rye, was not for sale. Yet James sensed that in his hands he held the solution to his ''long-unassuaged desire for a calm retreat.''
On Sept. 16, 1897, James telegraphed Warren from the Sussex hill town of Rye. His persistently discreet inquiries the previous summer had paid off. Lamb House was up for sale. James petitioned Warren to join him immediately in ''the little old cobblestoned, grassgrown, red-roofed'' coastal town that he would later immortalize in ''English Hours.''
James's insistent bid for Lamb House proved timely. Its present owner, Arthur Bellingham, was emigrating to Canada to seek his fortune in the Klondike gold rush. James, with no less a gambler's instinct for victory, bargained hard for first offer. It worked. On Sept. 25, 1897, with Warren's nod, James took over Lamb House on ''terms quite deliciously moderate'': a 21-year lease at (STR)70 annually. Set on the summit of Rye's ''mildly pyramidal hill,'' the property consisted of the three-story house, an acre of garden, and a detached ''garden room,'' the bow-window structure he had seen in the sketch two years earlier. The property - which he would buy freehold in 1899 for (STR)2,000 - was the choicest in Rye. Perched on West Street, a curved cobblestone street rising from High Street, it had been the seat of Rye's mayors.
''It is really good enough to be a kind of . . . high-door'd, brass-knockered facade to one's life,'' James wrote of Lamb House. And, until his death in 1916, it was. The green door that opened to him in 1897, in turn over the years, welcomed Shaw, H. G. Wells, Kipling, Conrad, and Wharton. Like their host, they appreciated Rye's provincial charm, the hint of intrigue from its Elizabethan smuggling days. For Henry James, though, Rye offered impenetrable respectability; the perfect spot for the storyteller so often mistaken for a merchant banker.
In ''The Master,'' James's biographer, Leon Edel, writes: ''To an outsider it might have seemed that Rye had been for so urban a man a grave mistake; its simplified life could not meet the needs of so complex a being.'' But there was a logic behind James's excited bid for Lamb House. Since settling in London in 1876 at the age of 33, the American writer had led a life of glittery fragmentation. Weary of London, of incessant socializing, James, at 54, was weary of life. Worse, ''Guy Domville,'' condemned with polite reticence by literary London, precipitated a profound crisis of confidence in him. The years 1895-98 were for him ones of intense introspection.
The quiet pace of Rye, he sensed, would quicken that personal transfiguration. Cooling the sting of failure, it allowed time for internal repair and repose. Indeed, life at Lamb House conferred serenity and stability to James's middle years. In an irony he himself appreciated, the novelist, whose heroes were the orphan and the outsider, now had to root himself.
As in so many writers' lives, stability ignited high productivity. Here, in rapid succession, he wrote the late poetic novels, his final masterpieces: ''The Wings of the Dove'' (1902), ''The Ambassadors'' (1903), and ''The Golden Bowl'' (1904). In his tiny East Sussex town, Henry James released the world within him. Notes Edel: ''It was as if his years of ceaseless wandering and dwelling in cities had prepared him for this final communication with himself, a reforging out of memory and loneliness of his vision of the civilization absorbed and studied during forty years of cosmopolitan life.''
During these years at Lamb House, James garnered the epithet ''the master.'' It refers not only to the consummation of his craft, but, deeper, to the mastery over his imagination and his experience. It's not coincidental then that during these years he returned to his original theme: Americans at the mercy of world-weary Europeans. At Lamb House, James reconciled his rootless past. He had found in the home's ancient brick his claim to England's history as well as his own. In the house that for four nights in January 1726 sheltered George I, shipwrecked on his way to open Parliament, Henry James also found final shelter.
With the strategic determination with which his characters appropriate other people's lives, Henry James set to possess Lamb House. ''The house itself,'' he wrote, ''while modest and unelaborate, is full of a charming little stamp of its period within as well as without.'' While incorporating an earlier structure, notably an Elizabethan cellar, the house built in 1723 by James Lamb, 13 times mayor of Rye, bore all the hallmarks of Georgian architecture. The high-canopy entrance opened into a wide, white-panel foyer from which two oak-panel rooms splintered on either side. The staircase with its closely set balustrades curved elegantly to the first floor. Upstairs, James chose the ''king's bedroom'' for his own and the ''green room'' as his winter study.''The sweetness of this old house comes out,'' he wrote Edward Warren, ''in those quiet late hours . . . when the clock ticks loud in the hall.'' By the autumn of 1897, James's happiness was evident. His novel, ''The Awkward Age,'' is a thinly disguised tribute to Lamb House. Of Mr. Longdon's garden, the author writes: ''Everything on every side had dropped straight from heaven, with nowhere a bargaining thumbmark, a single sign of the shop.'' While declaring himself ''densely ignorant'' of horticulture, James delighted in his new garden. With its profusion of pears, plums, and figs, as well as the mulberry tree that had stood three centuries, the garden was a kind of literary Eden, where James presided over ''the angel of devastation,'' Edith Wharton, a constant guest after 1904.
''This indeed - with work and a few, a very few people - is the all,'' he confided to his sister-in-law, Alice, in 1897. An unrepentant cosmopolitan, James couldn't resist entertaining. To H.G. Wells he later owned he ''had not been quite the anchorite as I had planned . . . the bump of luggage has been frequent on my stair.'' While furnished with a staff of four, Lamb House was supervised by James himself.
Days at Lamb House were planned as intricately as his fine-tuned plots. Meeting his guests at the station, James whisked them away for sightseeing in nearby Winchelsea. H.G. Wells pinpointed the most telling detail. In the foyer at Lamb House stood a round table upon which were piled hats, gloves, scarfs, and walking sticks for every possible scenario: golf, walks, rides. Costumes for characters as yet uninvented.Remarkably, guests didn't impede James's work schedule. Starting at 10 a.m. and working for three to four hours, he wrote in the summer in the garden room, a glass-front pavilion that had served as a banqueting hall for Rye's mayors. (The room, unfortunately, was destroyed by direct hit in a 1944 air raid.) In winter, James retreated to the green room, so-called for its colored panels. Festooned with photos of his friends, the room boasted a tile-rim fireplace with fine west and southern exposures. In either locale, James would dictate his novels to his secretary, Theodora Bosanquet. James advised his secretary to read or knit while he was ''evolving sentences.''
In Rye, James struck the right balance between work and leisure. At 3 p.m., he walked its streets. As one guest recalled, James had ''the air of a curate making the rounds of his village.'' On first-name terms with the butcher boy and the postman, he also indulged in gossip with Rye society, who welcomed his presence. One dowager objected to his not playing bridge. ''For he really has a very clear mind,'' she lamented. He was saving it for the late afternoons, when he returned home to read and revise the morning's work. ''Taking a flying leap over the heads of Art and Industry'' - the watercolorists perched on his doorstep - James shot inside, hoping to avoid ''my devastating countrymen'' hounding him for autographs.
Today, the brass-knockered door opens and one is greeted by Lamb House's present tenant, Sir Brian Batsford. The house, bequeathed to the National Trust in 1948 by James's nephew, was ''to be preserved as an enduring symbol of the ties that unite the British and American peoples.'' For this Sir Brian seems preeminently well qualified. Born into the Batsford publishing family, publishers of quality art books, Sir Brian is a former member of Parliament, cabinet minister, writer, and, presently, lecturer on Henry James.
Sir Brian, fortunately, possesses all the elaborate politeness of his subject , but none of James's tortuous sentence construction. Escorting me into the white-paneled foyer, he led me through the ground-floor rooms, all of which are open to the public. To the left of the foyer is a fine oak-panel drawing room with a portrait of George I suspended over the mantle. Across the hall is another oak-panel room, the so-called telephone room, as James installed a phone here. Lined with first-edition books by James's friends, this is where they worked during their visits here. Past the staircase on the left is the Lamb House dining room, an elegant salmon-colored room, one wall of which is graced with sketches of Conrad, Kipling, and the young Shaw. Overlooking the garden (open to the public in the summer), the French-doored room provided the scene model for James's chilling 1898 novella, ''The Turn of the Screw.''
To understand Henry James's life at Lamb House, argues Sir Brian, one must press out into Rye. And so we did. Little has changed since James's tenure here. Celebrated for its Elizabethan timber-frame, tile-hung houses, its cobbled streets, and its trellised gardens, Rye is one of England's most beautiful towns. In Sir Brian I couldn't have had a better guide. As chairman of the Rye Preservation Society, he traced a tour that's easily duplicated by visitors.
Our first stop was the Rye Town Model Sound and Light Show, a splendid dramatic recreation of Rye's history. Its narrative is straightforward. Poised on the rim of East Sussex, the sandstone town of Rye rises out of the surrounding fens. One of the ''antient'' Cinque Ports, it was part of the federation formed in the 11th century to provide the king with ships. From 1278, Rye and other Cinque Port towns harbored the nucleus of the royal fleet. Whipped by tides, the coastline has shifted dramatically since then. Rye Harbor, still an active boat and fishing industry, is now a separate village two miles south of town.
Sixty-two miles southeast of London, Rye is an hour and a half train journey from Charing Cross. To understand the town that so enchanted James, start your walk from the station, turning left on Cinque Port Street, continuing on Tower Street until you arrive at the Landgate. A 14th-century arched gateway, it's the only remaining gate of those that studded the once-moated town walls.
Passing under its vaulted archway, proceed up to Turkey Cock Lane, turning left onto Conduit Hill. Stop at the Augustinian Friary - now one of Rye's numerous potteries - before preceding to East Street. At the intersection of East and High Streets, is the 18th-century apothecary shop. With its expansive bow windows and ''mathematical'' tiles hung over its timber frame, it's one of the best examples of how builders simulated brickwork while avoiding the tax levied on it.
Turning on to Market Street, one sees Rye's Town Hall, a sublime example of Georgian architecture. The real attractions, though, are just beyond it on Church Square, Henry James's great love. The Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin dominates the square and, indeed, all views of Rye. Its most famous features are its bells and its 16th-century turret clock. The oldest turret clock in England, it still functions with its original working parts. On its face ''quarter boys,'' two gilded cherubs, strike the hour quarterly.
Along the east front of the square is the so-called Water House, a fine example of Georgian oval brickwork. Further down the street looms Ypres Tower, a rough-hewn fortification built in 1250 that now houses the Rye Museum. On the south and west fronts of Church Square are two of Rye's most beautiful structures: the 13th-century friary (Friars of the Sack) and the 15th-century St. Anthony, an imposing timber-frame house.
Doubling back toward Lamb House, stop at the Old Custom House. Famous for its crooked chimney, the house is where Elizabeth I reportedly stayed in 1573. Shooting down West Street, turn left on to not only the most famous street in Rye, but one of the most famous in England: Mermaid Street. This 15th-century cobblestone street is ''a-rowed'' with timber-framed houses. By far the most spectacular is the Mermaid Inn, the 16th-century hideout for smugglers like the Hawkhurst Gang.
It's here we paused for lunch. With its latticed windows and timber beams, the Mermaid is a fitting place to recoup one's energies before setting out to revisit the morning's sights. Sitting next to a fireplace that spans 12 feet, over the crackle of the winter fire I could hear a click of heels that I was sure belonged to James himself. Rye is like that. Practical details:
Lamb House, a National Trust property, is open Wednesday and Saturday. To get to Rye: By rail, start at Charing Cross Station and change at Asford for local line to Rye. By car: A21 via Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, turn left at Flimwell Cross Roads for Hawkhurst and Rye.
In Rye, the Mermaid Inn (Telephone Rye 3065/6) is the most popular lodging. Visitors may want to try the lower-priced Flackley Ash in nearby Peasmarsh. Run by Clive and Jeanie Bennett, the former Georgian manor house is a small, tastefully furnished hotel. Culinary wonders include asparagus plucked fresh from the garden. (Telephone Peasmarsh 079-721. Or make toll-free arrangements through Best Western Hotels in the United States at 1-800-528-1234.)
Additional sights: Bodiam Castle, located 14 miles from Rye, dates from the 14th century. It has a moat and is considered one of the most beautiful in England. Northiam, eight miles from Rye, is a charming Elizabethan village. Great Dixter, one-half mile from Rye, is a 500-year-old oak-timber house. Its garden, laid out in 1910 by Sir Edwin Lutyens, is internationally celebrated. Winchelsea, a hop and a jump from Rye, is one of the original Cinque Ports.