Jill Dawson is fascinated by Patricia Highsmith—though, let’s be honest, who isn’t? While the rest of us merely read Highsmith’s novels over and over, Dawson decided to do a bit more research into the life of this mysterious author. The things she learned helped to shape her new novel The Crime Writer. It’s a fictionalized tale that images Patricia Highsmith’s life while she was living in England in the 1960s. Nothing is what it appears to be in this quiet village, and Pat soon finds herself wrapped up in a psychological thriller that seems ripped from the pages of her own novels. Here, Dawson shares what she learned about Highsmith’s time living in England and how it helped to inspire The Crime Writer.
Many people—I was among them—are surprised to discover that novelist Patricia Highsmith lived in England. It’s incongruous somehow: a hard-drinking, smoking, independent Texan writer like Highsmith living in a village as small and inconsequential as Earl Soham in Suffolk. I discovered this from her biography. Having just finished reading The Talented Mr. Ripley, I was thrilled to discover that for three years in the 1960s she’d lived not very far from me.
Highsmith chose the village of Earl Soham—a rural area in the east of England—because it would be good for working “due to [its] extreme English quietude.” It was close to the home of her friend, the nature writer Ronald Blythe. But her real reason for wanting to be there was simple: Highsmith was in love, wildly and as never before, with a married woman. The cottage, she believed could be a secret love nest, the perfect distance from London, where she could invite her girlfriend to stay with her, away from prying eyes.
Of course I couldn’t wait to go there and see the cottage she’d lived in: Bridge Cottage. I found a book of Highsmith drawings where the interior of the cottage is lovingly sketched—(Highsmith was a talented artist, as was her mother). The cottage, roses curling round the door, little stream in the garden, is pretty much unchanged, though the current owners seem unaware of its famous former owner (they run it as a guest house these days). Highsmith bought it in 1964 for the sum of 3,500 UK pounds.
It was her habit to move somewhere inspirational, write for a while using where she was living as a setting, and move on. So she set her novel The Storyteller (published in England as A Suspension of Mercy) in Bridge Cottage, and it made sense for me to use it as a setting too for my novel, The Crime Writer. I couldn’t help thinking that Highsmith would not escape the various demons that pursued her and had fun dreaming up ways that the tropes of her fiction (stalkers, murderers and sexual obsessives) might follow her to the English setting.
Seeing the 17th-century Bridge Cottage and thinking of Highsmith living there, my mind teemed with stories. What would Highsmith make of such a typical English village? In her day there would have been two pubs (now just one); I went into The Victoria to check it out and immediately realized what a strong impression a woman, a stranger, made going into a pub on her own in such a small place. And this in 2015! What would it have been like for Highsmith to drink alone there in 1964? Her idea of being incognito was ridiculous: The locals would have been agog with the scandal and drama of having a famous writer in the village. Whether her sexuality was known is a moot point. Highsmith was highly private, and her only lesbian-themed novel, Carol, had been published under a pen name as The Price of Salt. Highsmith did not put her name on the cover until 1995.
The frustrations Highsmith clearly felt at her girlfriend’s refusal to leave her marriage caused her pain, but on the other hand loneliness, longing, and being in love were states that suited her. Highsmith wrote in her diary that without a lover “I cannot develop as a writer any farther, or sometimes, even exist.”
I contacted author Ronald Blythe. Now 95, he still lives in Suffolk, and agreed to talk to me about Highsmith. He told me that they had shared “grim sandwiches” in local pubs and he had showed her churches and architecture, and she had in return cooked him the occasional supper at Bridge Cottage. “She wasn’t at all a good hostess,” Blythe said. “It was obvious she wanted her life back to herself, to go back to her typewriter and work.”
Despite Highsmith’s famously difficult personality, Ronnie spoke affectionately of her and in a postcard he wrote that their friendship had been “tender and true.” I tried to be faithful to that, as I wandered around Earl Soham, always picturing Patricia Highsmith moseying around, doing the same: walking, taking notes, and making up stories.
Jill Dawson is the author of Trick of the Light, Magpie, Fred and Edie, which was short-listed for the Whitbread Novel Award and the Orange Prize, Wild Boy, Watch Me Disappear, which was long-listed for the Orange Prize, The Great Lover, and Lucky Bunny. She has edited six anthologies of short stories and poetry, and has written for numerous UK publications, including The Guardian, The Times, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar. She lives in Norfolk with her husband and two sons.