Deborah Yaffe

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Pemberley for sale

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 13 2014 02:00PM

Ogling unattainable real estate is one of life’s great pleasures, and the mother of all real estate ogling is upon us now: Wentworth Woodhouse may soon be on the open market, if preservationists can’t quickly raise the bargain asking price of £7 million.


Whether a long-ago owner, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, was really, as this Daily Mail article has it, “the man who inspired Mr. Darcy” is hardly a slam-dunk – as we Janeites know, that distinction has been bestowed upon more than one man, on the slimmest of evidence.


What’s beyond doubt is that this stunning, ginormous stately home in northern England – we’re talking ninety acres of parkland, five miles of corridors and, in its prime, a household staff of nearly four hundred – has a plethora of Austen-ish associations. Its four-hundred-year history is replete with Wentworths, Woodhouses, D’Arcys, Watsons, and Fitzwilliams, as Janine Barchas chronicled in her recent book, Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity.


Alas, despite the soaring ceilings and jaw-dropping plasterwork, the place is a bit of a fixer-upper, with an estimated £42 million in needed repairs for such alarming items as subsidence damage, probably caused by extensive coal mining on the property.


Even Sandy Lerner, the multimillionaire Janeite who rescued Chawton House, might hesitate to take this on: we all know that repair costs have a way of ballooning beyond initial estimates. So don’t look at me. But surely someone will come forward to save this national treasure for future generations of Britons – not to mention their real-estate-ogling visitors.


4 comments
Nov 13 2014 09:44PM by A. Marie

I've not only heard Barchas talk about Wentworth Woodhouse, but seen a BBC documentary that included WW as one of its subjects (it was one of those Amanda Vickery programs, I think). Unfortunately, the place really is falling apart at the seams, and I think it would take Bill Gates himself to provide sufficient funds for the restoration. (As you accurately note, estimates for repairs have a way of spiraling.)

On the other hand, can you imagine the documentary that could be made about the project? We could call it "This Really Old, Really Humungous House"!

Nov 13 2014 10:07PM by dyaffe

Oh, I'd definitely sign up to watch that one! Not to mention to appear in the "Regency House" special set inside the newly restored Wentworth Woodhouse.

It's interesting how unsustainable these places turn out to be when the whole social context that once supported them -- tenanted land, no progressive taxation system, rigid male primogeniture, etc. -- has vanished. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Nov 13 2014 10:53PM by A. Marie

Re: the social lessons: Yowza. My personal angle on this is that my Sprayberry ancestors are said to have come (and to have derived their surname) from Sprotbrough, a village near Doncaster and not all that far from Wentworth Woodhouse (consult a Google map). My father's family is from north Georgia, and I've always assumed that my ancestors came over with General Oglethorpe's debtors (or worse!). If they'd stayed in Yorkshire, I could have just possibly have had relatives jockeying for positions among those 400 servants at WW. I always tell my sister (who has visions of herself as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey) that she and I would have been duking it out for Daisy's job!

Nov 13 2014 11:21PM by dyaffe

So true -- the vast majority of us would have been scrubbing Elizabeth Bennet's muddy petticoats, rather than scornfully declining Mr. Darcy's proposals. But that is why it is called fiction. . .

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