By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 22 2018 02:00PM
Sometimes the English are just so. . . English that you can’t help giggling. And so it was earlier this month, when I happened across the story of a teapot tempest involving a Jane Austen-connected Cotswold village, a restored medieval church, a wealthy businessman, and a local historian with a distaste for nouveau riche pretensions.
Our scene is set in the Gloucestershire village of Adlestrop, population 80, which – along with the stately Warwickshire mansion Stoneleigh Abbey, which sits on 690 acres some twenty miles farther north -- was the ancestral home of the Leighs, the clan to which Jane Austen’s mother belonged. The family tree boasts a Lord Mayor of London, a duke’s sister, and a master of Balliol College, Oxford, but Mrs. Austen’s particular twig was less star-studded.
Still, Mrs. Austen was proud of her illustrious relatives, and Jane Austen certainly kept abreast of family news. In 1806, she even stayed at Stoneleigh Abbey with an elderly cousin who had just inherited the estate. Plausible speculation holds that Austen might have had the family chapel at Stoneleigh in mind when she imagined the family chapel at Sotherton, site of an important scene in Mansfield Park.
Back in Adlestrop, another branch of the Leighs lived for centuries at the less palatial (about 100 acres) but still plenty nice Adlestrop Park. By 1999, however, this property had passed to the family of a high-powered businessman with the appropriately Austenesque name of Collins. (That would be Dominic Collins, chair of international insurance broker Hyperion Insurance Group.) The Collinses restored the house and donated to renovation projects at the local church, St. Mary Magdalene.
So when Collins asked if he could put up a hatchment – a diamond-shaped plaque bearing a coat of arms – in the church to honor the memory of his late wife, the church agreed.
Enter the disgruntled historian: thirty-year Adlestrop resident Victoria Huxley, author of the 2013 book Jane Austen and Adlestrop: Her Other Family, which explores Austen’s links to the village. Huxley, it appears, didn’t think those upstart Collinses, no matter how much money they had given to fix up the church bells, had deep enough roots in the village to deserve a plaque.
Huxley, reports the Telegraph, told a church court that she was “very surprised that someone with a relatively short link to the village (compared to the age of the church) should seek to place their coat of arms in the church. . . . I feel that only a family which has strong ties over several generations should have such a display.”
(It’s not clear from the reporting whether the matter went to the church court, formally known as consistory court, because of Huxley’s objections, or whether the court had to approve any hatchment request regardless.)
If hearing about this rich stew of ecclesiastical politics, small-town class resentment, and officious meddling makes you feel that you have mistakenly wandered into a Trollope novel – well, you’re not alone. Personally, I can’t tell whether I’m more entertained by the pretentiousness of the whole coat-of-arms-on-a-plaque idea, or by the spectacle of the thirty-year village resident policing the Johnny-come-lately aspirations of the twenty-year village resident. It’s all quite delicious.
Alas, the final chapter of this saga may already have been written: Huxley lost the argument. "The Jane Austen connection does not preserve in aspic this Church,” the court wrote, clearing the way for the Collins hatchment.