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John Steinbeck's connection with Bruton, Somerset

PUBLISHED: 10:46 21 May 2019

The house at Discove near Bruton where John and Elaine Steinbeck lived

The house at Discove near Bruton where John and Elaine Steinbeck lived

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Sixty years ago John Steinbeck made his home in Bruton. Historian Andrew Pickering reveals more about the connection between the Somerset town and the world famous author

This year is a special anniversary year for Bruton. In 1519, the oldest of Bruton's several schools, King's School, was founded and 2019 also marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Sir Hugh Sexey, whose endowment established Sexey's Hospital on the south side of the High Street and also provided the site on which Sexey's School now stands.

Of much less importance, it also happens to be the 60th anniversary of the year in which a famous American author came to live on the outskirts of the town to pursue his work in a quiet rural retreat, conducive to the particular assignment he had set himself.

While most would agree nothing of great literary importance would come of it, the task in hand, a retelling of the King Arthur legends, is significant for those interested in the 'Matter of Britain' and also for those with an affection for its author, John Steinbeck.

This year happens also to be the 50th anniversary year of Steinbeck's death and commemoration events will be held across the world accordingly.

Back in 1959, between March and October, he and his wife, Elaine, occupied an old cottage, found for them by the playwright Robert Bolt (a teacher at Millfield school at the time) off the beaten track in the hamlet of Discove. Here he worked hard at producing a new version of the 15th century work by Sir Thomas Malory made famous by the pioneer-printer, William Caxton, who published it as Le Morte d'Arthur in 1486.

At the time he said he felt more at home here than he had ever felt in any place during his lifetime and he would remember Bruton with the deepest affection.

He made a final visit to Bruton in 1961 and, as was his wont, he recorded his experiences in long letters to colleagues and friends. It is on these letters that my new account of Steinbeck's fascination with Somerset is based. For those of us who live in the county, it is an intriguing tale and one that connects us in a very personal and surprising way with a literary giant most commonly associated with the world of America's Dust Bowl depression era in the 1930s.

For those who treasure the historic and imagined landscapes in which Bruton and the Vale of Avalon are set, Steinbeck's appreciation for the same is something worth remembering and celebrating.

Steinbeck and the Matter of Arthur: Bruton, Somerset, 1959, by Andrew Pickering will be published in May.

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