Provender, Austen and the tsar
By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 30 2017 02:00PM
Pity the poor aristocrat. Your stately home is decaying, your heating bill is through the (leaky) roof, and you lack the millions required to refurbish it all. If only your family hadn’t sold off the jeweled icons to keep themselves in Malvern spring water!
Blog readers will recall that I’m a sucker for stories about cash-strapped heirs to once-great fortunes struggling to live amid the ruins of former glory. (See under: 12th Earl of Shaftesbury.) The renovating-the-dilapidated-manor plot appeals to my childhood dollhouse fixation; the caught-between-rungs-on-the-class-ladder element speaks to my inner Evelyn Waugh fan. And when there’s a Jane Austen connection, no matter how distant? Catnip. (See under: Caroline Knight.)
So naturally I ate up this story (available here, here and here) about a descendant of the Russian royal family who lives in an underheated thirty-room mansion in Kent once inhabited by Jane Austen’s niece Fanny. You’ve got to love someone who can legitimately call herself “Princess Olga,” especially if her father played with the tsar’s children before their gruesome murders and her mother was a “Scots-Scandinavian flour-mill heiress.” (Seriously: Edith Wharton wants her plot back. Right now.)
Provender House, the half-decrepit, half-renovated pile in question, looks like an interesting place, although you wouldn’t catch me spending my days somewhere so freezing that its owner “seems to live in a blue ski jacket to stave off the biting cold in the many unheated rooms.” (Shades of Fanny Price in the East Room with no fire. . .)
As a pedantic Janeite purist, however, I was displeased to find Provender’s website describing a previous owner -- Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen, the husband of Fanny Knight – as “9th Baronet and first Lord Brabourne.” The most cursory reader of Wikipedia, let alone any die-hard Janeite, knows that the first Lord Brabourne was in fact Edward and Fanny’s son, best known as an early editor of Austen’s letters. Such sloppiness doesn't bode well for the factual accuracy of the princess' recently published memoir, Princess Olga: A Wild and Barefoot Romanov.
Speaking of wild, I was also excessively diverted by this journalistic speculation, from coverage of Provender in the online magazine Faversham Life: “There is no record of Jane Austen visiting but it is surely extremely likely.” Not so much, actually, since Fanny married her baronet three years after Aunt Jane’s death. But hey – every decaying estate in search of tourist dollars needs its Jane-Austen-slept-here cachet. You can’t blame a strapped aristocrat for trying.
As a fellow addict of both Austen family connections (no matter how tenuous) and Romanov connections, I enjoyed this post so much that I was forced to give my laptop a wipedown after reading it. The last two months have been a little short on laughs around here; bless you for providing some.
And on another royal thread, do you agree with me that Princess Margaret may be spinning in her grave at one end of Windsor (under her slab in St. George's Chapel) and the Duchess of W. at the other (in the Frogmore cemetery) at the news of Prince Harry's engagement to a biracial American divorcee? But Meghan seems to have been keeping Harry off the rails for the past twelvemonth or so (no scandals and many charitable works during this period), so the couple has my blessing. And I was particularly chuffed at one Twitter speculation that they may choose to be named the Duke and Duchess of Hampshire (because of Aldershot and Harry's Army connections). Here's hoping!
I'm a big fan of Princess Meghan -- that family could use some updating, not to mention some attractive American genes. (I thought I'd read that they were in line to be Duke and Duchess of Sussex, though "Duchess of Sussex" is such a mouthful that perhaps cooler heads will prevail.) I don't think the Duchess of Windsor has much to complain of, since she got to marry the man she allegedly loved and live in luxurious idleness. Princess Margaret's story appears to be genuinely tragic, however, at least based on the exhaustive research I did by watching The Crown last year. If only she'd been born 50 years later. . .