England Trip: Stoneleigh Abbey, Part 3

Greetings and salutations! I left you all unceremoniously in the main hall, discussing fascinating plasterwork and a mad cousin. Today I’ll tie up a few loose ends, get into a little more detail about another Austen cousin, and finish up with some ZOMG MANSFIELD PARK SQUEEE! business that I know you’ve all been waiting for. First let’s start by taking a little trip back to the library. In Part 2 I mentioned “the wife of Jane Austen’s mother’s cousin, nephew of the Reverend who inherited in 1806, [who] later turned the [bed]room into a fantastic library.” And I included a handy family tree. If you are lost, feel free to take a moment. Okay. Better?

This wife of James Henry Leigh, nephew of Jane Austen’s mother’s cousin (omg I’m doing it again), was named Lady Caroline Brydges. She and James Henry had a son named Chandos Leigh, as she was the daughter of Henry Brydges, 2nd Duke of Chandos, and these fancy folks like to keep their family names in their families, even if it results in a little silliness. (Fitzwilliam Darcy, cousin of Col Fitzwilliam? hee hee) But Chandos wasn’t the only one in their circle named after someone important – his friend and fellow poet Leigh Hunt was named in honor of James Henry Leigh, Chandos’s very own father. Wikipedia tells it better than I do, (I’m lying, I can’t read my notes from that page) so I’ll just give you the information straight from the most reliable web-based encyclopedia to be found on Wikipedia’s servers:

Leigh Hunt was born at Southgate, London, where his parents had settled after leaving the United States. His father Isaac, a lawyer from Philadelphia, and his mother, Mary Shewell, a merchant’s daughter and a devout Quaker, had been forced to come to Britain because of their loyalist sympathies during the American War of Independence. Hunt’s father took holy orders and became a popular preacher, but he was unsuccessful in obtaining a permanent living. Hunt’s father was then employed by James Brydges, 3rd Duke of Chandos as tutor to his nephew, James Henry Leigh (father of Chandos Leigh), after whom the boy was named.

Coooool. Royalist refugees! Fleeing those naughty American teenagers with their silly temper tantrums and brutal guerilla warfa… oh. 😦 Chandos and Leigh Hunt were therefore quite close, but Leigh Hunt went to school at Christ’s Hospital, just after Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge1, while Chandos attended Harrow School with – guess who! – that inimitable scoundrel, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron. In fact, David (remember – our tour guide) explained that the two were such close friends that Chandos Leigh was among the party that dined with Lord Byron on his last evening in England. With friends like Byron, I can’t help but wonder what kind of wild parties happened at Stoneleigh – but perhaps ol’ George was polite enough to keep his wildest behavior in check around the parents. We all had that friend, right?

Chandos Leigh, while apparently being all emo & stuff as a young Romantic, eventually grew out of that noecleighabbeypainting1842historynsense and into his role as High Sherriff & Baron & Other Important Grownup Things. Then his kids grew up too, and like many weatlhy white kids, were huge jocks and made him turn their lawn into a cricket ground and form the Stoneleigh Cricket Club, which is like an important historical sports thing. That cricket was the lifeblood of the young Messrs. Leigh is obvious in the portrait which hangs in the Queen Victoria Suite of the two boys and their (poor, poor, probably-sick-of-hearing-about-cricket-already) sister. My photograph of this portrait didn’t come out very well, which turned out to be a good thing, because some enthusiastic googling for it led me to the Stoneleigh Cricket Club site (linked above. And here again I guess.) which gives the portrait the following caption:

Hon William Henry Leigh (aged 18) holds the cricket bat, Hon. Edward Chandos Leigh (aged 9) holds the stumps and sister Julie Leigh looks on. Painted 1842 Stoneleigh Abbey – © Stoneleigh Trust

Although who knows – maybe Julie got in on it too? The generation of Leigh children pictured here also had a very special treat in store for them in 1858. In the summer of that year, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert (and a whole bunch of their employees) descended on Stoneleigh to give the Leighs the pleasure of their company. The Royal Party’s visit was under much less trying circumstances than that of Charles I, (remember him?) but the expectation of having money spent on their visit was still present. David informed our group that the Leighs had to rush through an order of brand new china for the visit – they had to pay the factory to stop production on all of their other lines and produce their custom set for the Queen. And yet, even with all of tvictoria bedhe expense of such a step, the set was used only during her three-day visit, and packed into storage after!

Another way in which the Leighs pampered their Queen was by creating a special set of bedding just for her. The ladies of the house had a bedspread sewn from their most impressive dresses. But, David informed us, Victoria was so paranoid about assassination that she had the beautiful custom bedding replaced with her own for her visit. Typical!

Now, just in case you think I’ve forgotten about our Dear Jane, I want to tell you that the room with all of the fussy flowery Victorian stuff is actually not the room the Queen stayed in at Stoneleigh – it is what Jane knew as the breakfast room. (Since us common folk are not fit to wander the upper corridors of this stately home, the Keepers of House have graciously rearranged a bit, so we can bask in Victoria’s frilly pinkness without leaving the plebe level of the house.) Remember how I mentioned that Jane and her mother preferred this end of the house, with its painted panels, to the dark oak on the other end? This was Jane’s favorite room, and the room from which she could sit and observe her favorite view.

My sister took an awesome video of the room, in which you can see my hulking figure stumbling about the room, being, like, totally a loutish American, whoa! Go me!

In the video, you can also catch a glimpse of David in his lovely costume. He is describing the view the Austens would have seen on their first approach to the house, and he mentions Repton’s watercolor, which is quite convenient for me. I’ll show it to you here:

Repton's Stoneleigh Watercolor
Repton’s Stoneleigh Watercolor

… and consider it a segue into my next topic – the Improvement of the Estate.

Austenonly has a much better version of this painting on her Pinterest page, and I strongly, strongly, strongly recommend you read this post about the grounds, which we, having only a few hours, were not able to enjoy in their entirety. (Yes, believe me, I was also thinking: “I shall never be quite happy till I have been all round the park. A low phaeton, with a nice little pair of ponies, would be the very thing.”) She gets into the Repton history a little, but before I get too carried away with links, let me give you some hints of it.

Stoneleigh Abbey’s website has this blurb on the front page:

REPTON WALK

In 1809, Humphry Repton, the most respected landscape gardener of his time, was invited to Stoneleigh Abbey by Reverend Thomas Leigh to advise him on updating the abbey landscape.  Repton created one of his ‘Red Books’, a collection of watercolour images of the house and grounds as they existed with overlays to suggest alterations to the estate.  While not all of his suggestions were implemented, the result is a stunning natural landscape with superb views.  New for 2014: visitors can enjoy the first phase of Repton’s idyllic walks over the river and take in the spectacular view.

I have seen a few links with more information about Repton’s Stoneleigh book, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to see it myself. I recommend checking out a couple of the links though:

Stoneleigh and Repton at www.plants.info
A window on a green and pleasant land… one of Humphrey Repton’s Red Books
> and: Repton’s Regency Landscapes: Moving Towards a Picturesque Ideal and also Cassandra Leigh Austen’s Stay at Stoneleigh Abbey (both at Jane Austen’s World, a blog you should be reading all of the time anyway, so you should already have these links, because it’s like the best thing ever, and I am already disappointed with you for not knowing that!)

Okay, so that’s where the Repton stuff comes in. Are you getting some Mansfield Park tingles yet? Are you heartbroken over the fate of an avenue you’ve never even seen? Well, hang tight. I said I was going to tie up some loose ends and then SQUEE you with those Mansfield Park things, and there is one more (TOTALLY WORTH IT) loose end here. I’ve now taken you through a majority of the tour, but I left out one important room – the sitting room, which we toured just before the Queen’s bedroom. This is another delightful light-painted room, with red velvet cushions and impressive china cabinets:

Captain Wentworth
Come on now. What mom is gonna reject that guy?

While we were in this room, David told us a fascinating story about one of the Leigh ancestors, Elizabeth Wentworth. She was the sister of Mary Lord, the wife of William Leigh, of the Adlestrop branch, who was Cassandra’s uncle, father to the Rev. Leigh who inherited Stoneleigh. There will be a quiz.2 This Elizabeth fell in love with a charming soldier without family or fortune to recommend him. His proposal was received with disgust by her mother, and he was turned away. BUT! Her loving sister Mary secretly helped the couple wed. Elizabeth’s mother presented her with more suitors while her secret love was off doing what soldiers do, but they were all spurned. Finally, a young man showed up for dinner, invited by Mary, and introduced as Lord Craven. (I think. Seriously, my handwriting…) He met the mother’s approval, and only after this did the sisters reveal that he was actually the soldier she had disapproved, now wealthy and aligned with her daughter Elizabeth!

The kicker? His name was Thomas… wait for it… Wentworth. I know. I KNOW. SHUTUP!

Jane Lark must have taken the same tour we did, because she has a nice romantic write up of the story – not surprising, as she writes romances. How swoony is that though? And yes, Jane probably would have heard this story from her mother, whose Aunt Mary perhaps disseminated it among the more adventurous of her young nieces.

Now, speaking of young nieces, I will finally get to the part you’ve all been “GET ON WITH IT”-ing in your head for. Yes. YES. Stoneleigh is often considered to have inspired the description of Mr. Rushworth’s home at Sotherton Court. The house itself, while not seen by Fanny until Chapter 8, is first described to us as being, in Rushworth’s eyes, “quite a dismal old prison.” The conversation goes on:

“[…] Repton, or anybody of that sort, would certainly have the avenue at Sotherton down: the avenue that leads from the west front to the top of the hill, you know,” turning to Miss Bertram particularly as he spoke. But Miss Bertram thought it most becoming to reply—

“The avenue! Oh! I do not recollect it. I really know very little of Sotherton.”

Fanny, who was sitting on the other side of Edmund, exactly opposite Miss Crawford, and who had been attentively listening, now looked at him, and said in a low voice—

“Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”

He smiled as he answered, “I am afraid the avenue stands a bad chance, Fanny.” — MP, Chapter 6

Now, obviously, Repton wasn’t brought to Stoneleigh until 1809, three years after Jane’s visit. But there is no reason to believe she would not have known of his coming, through family letters and gossip. We can perhaps imagine that she overheard conversations similar to those between Mr. Rushworth and Henry Crawford, who was enthusiastic about improvement, during her visit with Reverend Leigh. There must have been some of the party who disapproved not only of the dark oak inside the house, but perhaps of the dark woods outside as well. And it’s easy to imagine a man who has just come into such an amazing inheritance brimming over with plans for the future.

Fanny, however, feels more of a reverence for things historical and “untouched” by improvers – perhaps overlooking the irony that each previous generation has undoubtedly improved upon Sotherton in its own way. It is during her outing to Sotherton that we can begin to see similarities to Stoneleigh: (emph. mine)

The whole party rose accordingly, and under Mrs. Rushworth’s guidance were shewn through a number of rooms, all lofty, and many large, and amply furnished in the taste of fifty years back, with shining floors, solid mahogany, rich damask, marble, gilding, and carving, each handsome in its way. Of pictures there were abundance, and some few good, but the larger part were family portraits, no longer anything to anybody but Mrs. Rushworth, who had been at great pains to learn all that the housekeeper could teach, and was now almost equally well qualified to shew the house.

And soon they come to the chapel, the one physical space in the book that can truly be said to be modeled on Stoneleigh:

Having visited many more rooms than could be supposed to be of any other use than to contribute to the window–tax, and find employment for housemaids, “Now,” said Mrs. Rushworth, “we are coming to the chapel, which properly we ought to enter from above, and look down upon; but as we are quite among friends, I will take you in this way, if you will excuse me.”

They entered. Fanny’s imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above. “I am disappointed,” said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. “This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be ‘blown by the night wind of heaven.’ No signs that a ‘Scottish monarch sleeps below.’”

[…] Having visited many more rooms than could be supposed to be of any other use than to contribute to the window–tax, and find employment for housemaids, “Now,” said Mrs. Rushworth, “we are coming to the chapel, which properly we ought to enter from above, and look down upon; but as we are quite among friends, I will take you in this way, if you will excuse me.”

They entered. Fanny’s imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above. “I am disappointed,” said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. “This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be ‘blown by the night wind of heaven.’ No signs that a ‘Scottish monarch sleeps below.’”

It seems that what stood out Jane’s mind was the utilitarian nature of the chapel. This was not a medieval place of worship, painted round with red vines and filled with centuries of intricate wood carvings. It didn’t even have the cachet of the little Saxon stone church her father preached in, sanctified by untold generations of christenings and burials. This was a place where working people came to be preached to by a working minister, and the family, instead of suffering to be seated alongside the parishioners with only a wooden box to protect them from the sight of gap-toothed old widows, were granted the privilege of a seat high above the teeming masses of maids and butlers.

Not that it isn’t nice, but yes, it does strike one as “a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion:”

The notorious crimson velvet cushions are still present, still appearing over the ledge like they must have been in 1806. Here is consistency to warm even Fanny’s heart. But would she have been disappointed to learn that Edward Leigh originally wanted them in blue velvet, and was forced into crimson due to a shortage of blue? How differently would Maria’s story have unfolded if only those cushions had not been of such a suggestively passionate hue? The world may never know.

So there, there’s the payoff – the chapel at Sotherton, here before your very eyes. I believe that is all the loose ends of Stoneleigh for now3, although if I find any other goodies buried in my chicken scratch notes I will surely amend. When I return it will be to bring you tidings of another fascinating Austen site, and I promise you will not be disappointed! Unless you expect it to be written rather soon, in which case yes, you will be disappointed. I do not perform for strangers. But only because I’m too busy performing for my children.

Until then…!

 —

1. I already mentioned Samuel Taylor Coleridge in this post, and if you read the footnote of that post you will see that I lamented that the text of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is not available online, because anyone who has read that book will know that Mr. Coleridge was almost entirely responsible for the fate of the human race. Well, tell me to shutup next time I say that, because here it is. (pdf)

2. Quiz time:

Q: Is there too much convoluted family tree stuff in this blog?
A. yes B. yes C. all of the above
If you answered A, B, or C, congratulations, you passed!

3. Actually, there is one more loose end. Harken back to Part Two – do you remember a photo captioned “Jane Austen’s Great Grandpa! In “of Orange” orange“? Well, you don’t have to remember it, I just linked to it for you. This is Theophilus Leigh, the one who had all the kids pictured in the dining room. The story goes that he rode off in opposition to William of Orange’s (William III) invasion of England, but, when the tide turned in William’s favor, he was quick to accept him as King, even going so far as to have himself painted with an orange sash. Oh, the vagaries of court life.

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5 thoughts on “England Trip: Stoneleigh Abbey, Part 3”

  1. Bless you, Amy: You probably got about 10 times more out of your visit to Stoneleigh than I got out of mine, as I think I noted on Part 1. And on a day when I was feeling blue about local JASNA duties, the need to shorten a breakout, etc., “you give me fresh life and vigour.” Looking forward to seeing you and the whole JA Books family in Montreal!

    1. I get a bit too much out of everything…! Which explains why it takes me so long to get through my notes and get it all recorded. 🙂 Perhaps that online quiz that told me I’m Elizabeth Bennet was correct after all!

      “And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing…Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation.”

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