By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 1 2016 02:00PM
Admit it: It’s always satisfying to see Janeites slapping down silly, unprovable, probably inaccurate speculation about Jane Austen. (This is why none of our non-Janeite friends will discuss Austen with us anymore.)
We got another shot of this not-so-guilty pleasure late last month, when Philip Hammond, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that the government would contribute £7.6 million, the post-Brexit equivalent of $9.5 million, towards the renovation of the Yorkshire stately home Wentworth Woodhouse.
Wentworth Woodhouse, as blog readers may recall, is an historic property that, even by the capacious standards of aristocratic British mansions, is incredibly big, as well as ridiculously decrepit. Over the past two years, the house has been for sale, sold, unsold and resold, eventually ending up where it belonged all along: under the wing of a conservation consortium that hopes to repair it for the nation.
It’s excellent news that the UK is dipping into its treasury to help with the renovations. So perhaps it is slightly churlish of us Janeites to take issue with Hammond's explanation for the grant: Wentworth Woodhouse, he told Parliament, “is said to be the inspiration for Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.”
Except not, as the UK Jane Austen Society pointed out when the Guardian newspaper asked for comment. “There is absolutely no evidence that Jane Austen ever travelled further north than Lichfield in Staffordshire,” the society said, adding that Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 annual income would never have supported an establishment as grand as Wentworth Woodhouse.
I don’t know where the chancellor got his misinformation, though I’d guess it came from the real estate version of one of those silly tabloid stories insisting that every tall, dark and handsome man born after 1730 was a model for Mr. Darcy.
What’s really curious is why Hammond felt he needed to rely on this fairy tale to justify a modest investment in the preservation of a national treasure. If we needed further proof that Jane Austen -- whatever the reality of her writings -- has become synonymous with a certain kind of elegant Englishness, here it is.