12 September 2012

In Jane Austen's Footsteps

“In Warwickshire, I have true-hearted friends.” – Henry VI, Part III

“You should write a novel,” a friend suggested casually over a cup of tea. “Your life,” she added,  “has been so ‘Austen-esque’.” The comparison of my ‘romantic narrative’ with the stories of Jane Austen does seem apt in some small ways. After re-establishing our acquaintance in 2007, my Darling English Boy and I pursued a long-distance relationship built firmly on correspondence. Beyond emails and text messages, in true Austenian fashion, we actually wrote letters – and sent them in the post!
On one occasion, the Darling English Boy signed his missive: “Your Mr Darcy or Colonel Brandon - which ever you prefer.” What a deliciously romantic choice! And, what a boon: a man who knows his Austen from his elbow. (I was completely hooked.)
One thing about Jane Austen neither of us knew was her affection for Warwickshire. The City of Bath may well lay claim to being Austen’s place of residence. However, in her novels she decries the “insincerity, smoke, confusion, and horrid gatherings” that were unavoidable features of city living. Without doubt, Jane Austen was a country girl at heart, and Stoneleigh Abbey, here in the heart of Warwickshire left a lasting impression on her.

In 1806, Jane Austen arrived at Stoneleigh Abbey with her mother and beloved sister, Cassandra. This trio was enrapt by the beauty of their cousin’s newly inherited stately home and its bucolic setting. Nestled on the banks of the River Avon, Stoneleigh Abbey sits on 690 acres of parkland and is surrounded by a lush, verdant landscape. Austen found here the “life and liberty” she so missed in hustle, bustle and din of Bath.
Taking in the view from the house, one can see the woodland grove that gave Austen such pleasure on those late summer days. She called Stoneleigh’s woodland grove a “pretty wilderness.” This phrase resurfaces famously during the iconic encounter between Elizabeth Bennett and Lady Catherine de Bourgh in her masterpiece Pride & Prejudice.
Stoneleigh Abbey and family figures associated with it provided Austen with ample fodder for her renowned novels. It is referenced at length in the description of Sotherton Court in Mansfield Park, and as one takes a turn about the estate, thoughts of Pemberley immediately spring to mind.
By far my favourite feature – after the breathtaking Georgian plasterwork in the Grand Hall – was taking a stroll along Jane’s favourite path. On a (surprisingly) sunny summer day, I found myself following in Jane Austen’s footsteps. What better inspiration could there be for a would-be novelist or avid Austen fan?
Every September, hundreds of “Janeites” (as Jane Austen fans are known) flock to Bath for that city’s annual “Jane Austen Festival”. I have yet to persuade the Darling English Boy that we should don Regency costumes and join them. Lucky for him, I have found a touch of Jane Austen much closer to home.

More details
Stoneleigh Abbey – “Warwickshire’s hidden jewel”                                                                                       Jane Austen tours Sundays (1pm) and Wednesdays (12pm). Special Jane Austen evening tours with wine and canapés, throughout the year. See website for details: www.stoneleighabbey.org

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