“Plenty of hidden doors and secret passages…” – The Royal Pavilion in a 1950s children’s book by Malcolm Saville

With public tours of the Royal Pavilion’s basement and tunnel imminent, it is worth looking at how the building with its many deceptive features and hidden passageways has been used in fiction.

In 2012 it was the setting for a gruesome and gripping thriller (Not Dead Yet) by Peter James. I had great fun showing him around the palace and behind the scenes, trying to find suitable places to commit crimes or hide bodies. But Peter James wasn’t the first author to have set a crime story in the Royal Pavilion…

The dust-jacket of the first edition, 1954.
The dust-jacket of the first edition, 1954.

Half a century earlier another author, Malcolm Saville, must have asked for a private research tour of the Pavilion, with the aim of writing a detective story for children. He published The Long Passage, a story partly set in the Pavilion, its gardens, the Lanes and other parts of Brighton, in 1954, when he was at the pinnacle of his career as a writer and was about to move from Hertfordshire to Barcombe, near Lewes. The book was the third in the so-called ‘Buckingham Series’. Saville was born in Hasting in 1901 and wrote more than 90 children’s books between 1943 and his death in 1982, many of them set in the Romney Marsh borders of Kent and Sussex. Now relatively little known, he was in his time a hugely popular author, who encouraged his young readers to write to him and famously responded to most letters personally. He had four children of his own and frequently visited local schools. On 9 Dec 1960, for example, he visited Wallands Primary School in Lewes and talked to more than 150 children about reading and books. He also read to them from Kipling’s works and of course his own.

Illustration from 'The Long Passage' with the Royal Pavilion minarets in the background
Illustration from ‘The Long Passage’ with the Royal Pavilion minarets in the background

His love for Kent and Sussex is obvious in his work. In the foreword to The Long Passage he gushes about ‘lively, sunny Brighton’ and ‘the gorgeous, fantastic Royal Pavilion’. He tickles his readers’ curiosity by mentioning that ‘When you go to Brighton you will be able to go round the Pavilion as Simon and Sarah did in this story and see the same treasures. You might even see the outlines of one of the walls of the secret door through which they slipped to escape their old enemy.’  Here Saville is clearly referring to the numerous jib doors in the Pavilion, for example to either side of the organ in the Music Room. I won’t give too much of the story away, but it involves a precious antique miniature, a chase through twittens in the Lanes, a tour of the Royal Pavilion (during which the children are told off by a ‘self-appointed guide’ for “failing to take advantage of the knowledge of their elders”) and a grand finale in the tunnel leading from the palace to the Dome.

Illustration from the book showing the protagonists in the Banqueting Room.
Illustration from the book showing the protagonists in the Banqueting Room.

The dust-jacket for the hardback first edition (Evans Brothers Ltd, London) is a glorious example of mid-20th century colourful book design, showing the three teenage protagonists in the Pavilion gardens, with the east front of the palace in the background. The first edition also had two charming maps as endpapers, one of Brighton and one of an area near Chanctonbury Ring, allegedly drawn by one of the children during their adventure. The actual artist was Alice Bush, who also illustrated a number of Enid Blyton books. Among the illustrations in the text are amusing views of the Lanes, the Banqueting Room of the Pavilion, and – in prime position as the frontispiece – an eerie image of two of the children discovering the tunnel. From the accurate description of the scene it is clear that Saville must have seen the tunnel himself:

“Ahead of them stretched an arched and whitewashed passage. Electric light bulbs were in the ceiling but a little grey daylight coming from circular sky-lights at the top of stone-lined, narrow funnels at intervals in the ceiling of the long passage. They looked up at the one just over their heads and saw a shadow pass across the thick, greenish glass which, they guessed, must be on the ground level.”

These skylights (8 in total) are still in place and can be spotted between the stage door of the Dome and the north-western corner of the Pavilion.

The frontispiece of the book, showing the tunnel, and the tunnel as it looks today. Photograph: Strat Mastoris, 2015
The frontispiece of the book, showing the tunnel.
Tunnel 2
The tunnel as it looks today. Photograph: Strat Mastoris, 2015
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One of the sky-lights of ‘thick, greenish glass’, as seen from inside the tunnel. Photograph: Alexandra Loske. 2015

The book was in print until 2012, when Evans stopped trading, but second-hand copies can still be sourced easily. Early editions with the original dustjacket are already becoming harder to find. Apart from it being a pretty good story, the book also throws an interesting light on how the Pavilion operated in the mid-20th century. It is very probable that Malcolm Saville was shown around the Pavilion by the inimitable Director Clifford Musgrave, who saw the Pavilion through the difficult war and post-war years, organised the Regency Exhibitions (with the help of a committee, including historian Antony Dale) and wrote several books on the Pavilion, Brighton and the decorative arts. He also lived in the Pavilion, in rooms at the north end of the building. By coincidence, we have just received three albums of photographs of the Pavilion, dating from the 1940s to the 1960s, donated by Musgrave’s son, and I will be looking very carefully through them, in case I spot Malcolm Saville on his research visit for this book in one of the photographs.

One of the endpapers of the first edition.
One of the endpapers of the first edition.

 

The Long Passage and other 20th century books inspired by the Royal Pavilion will be included in the display Visions of the Royal Pavilion Estate (14 March 2017 to 3 Sept 2017, Prints & Drawings Gallery, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery).

Alexandra Loske, Art Historian and Curator, The Royal Pavilion