'They do say there was a curse on him that built it, and he wasn't to rest in earth or sea. So he's buried half-way up the tower — if you can call it buried'
- Nesbit, The Wouldbegoods
An Eltham resident from 1899-1920, Edith Nesbit — the popular children's author of The Railway Children, The Phoenix and the Carpet and Five Children and It — often drew inspiration from local landmarks in her fiction. Severndroog, which features in The Wouldbegoods (1901) as the enigmatic 'Tower of Mystery’, was among the sites to capture her imagination.
First edition of The Wouldbegoods.
© Ellen Bulford Welch.
Much like James Malcolm Rymer, Nesbit wove a fictional gothic history around Severndroog to match its Gothic architecture. Drawing upon Severndroog's original purpose as a monument to the memory of Sir William James, Nesbit reimagined the castle as the tomb of Richard Ravenal, a fictional, cursed eighteenth-century gentleman: ‘They do say there was a curse on him that built it, and he wasn't to rest in earth or sea. So he's buried half-way up the tower — if you can call it buried’.
Learning about the castle's sinister story from a friendly local, the young heroes of The Wouldbegoods are especially keen to pay Severndroog a visit when he adds another layer to the morbid legend surrounding it. Although he informs the children that Ravenal's coffin is now 'behind a slab of stone’, he chills them with the fact that his mummified corpse was once on display to visitors:
Before then it was [behind] thick glass, and you could see the dead man lying inside [...] My uncle said his hair had grown out from under his wig, and his beard was down to the toes of him. My uncle he always upheld that that dead man was no deader than you and me, but was in a sort of fit, a transit, I think they call it, and looked for him to waken into life again some day.
Despite the excitement stoked by this grisly tale of living death, the children are more than a little relieved upon their arrival at the castle to discover that the 'sun was shining very brightly, and the Tower of Mystery did not look at all like a tomb'. However, their encounter with the castle is far from uneventful. Threatened by a passer-by who attempts to extort money from them, they are locked inside the tower and only able to escape when the local who had first directed them towards Severndroog comes to their rescue.
Illustration from the first edition of The Wouldbegoods, showing the friendly local who helps the children to escape the Tower of Mystery. Severndroog is just visible in the background.
© Ellen Bulford Welch.
Although The Wouldbegoods was written for a younger audience, Nesbit's representation of Severndroog includes a serious reflection on the castle's history and purpose. When the children ask if the building is a ruin, the kindly local sarcastically replies that 'It ain't no ruin [...] no fear of that! The man wot built it he left so much a year to be spent on repairing it! Money that might have put bread in honest folks' mouths'. While this comment presents the castle as a vanity project that directs funds away from the community, Nesbit also acknowledges that anyone can enjoy the 'fine view from the top'. Recalling the competing identities that Severndroog had acquired during the early nineteenth century, Nesbit appears to have been unable to decide whether the castle had benefited only a small portion of the community, or whether it was defined by its openness to all of society.
Severndroog's re-opening as a community-run heritage project in 2014 has ensured that it is the latter vision of Severndroog that prevails. The castle may remain 'The Tower of Mystery', but its mysteries are open for all to explore.
A 1906 postcard of Severndroog, showing the castle as it would have appeared when Nesbit wrote The Wouldbegoods.
© Jonathan Taylor.