Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 8 2020 01:00PM

Even before the coronavirus curtailed recreational travel, the Internet-assisted ogling of Jane Austen-adjacent real estate was one of the cheapest and most satisfying pastimes available to Janeites.

How much the more, then, can we now appreciate the listing of two UK properties with strong Austenian links and price tags that place them solidly in the Lottery Fantasy category of homeownership.

* The Berkshire vicarage where Jane Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh spent the last decades of his life – and where he was living when he wrote his 1870 memoir of his famous aunt -- is on the market for £3.5 million (about $4.5 million).

Berkeleys, in the village of Bray in south-central England, is nominally an eighteenth-century building, but it’s been so thoroughly modernized that few traces of the period remain, at least as far as I can tell from the pictures. Instead, the new owners will have to content themselves with the four thousand square feet of floor space, the six bedrooms, the hardwood floors, the marble kitchen countertops, and the Thames River boat mooring, mere steps from the back door.

Austen-Leigh, who was eighteen when his dear Aunt Jane died, moved to Berkeleys many years later, in the mid-nineteenth century. Still, the house, however altered, is a concrete link to someone who knew her well.

* But if compromise – modernized surroundings, two-steps-removed Austenian links -- are not your thing, you may prefer to consider the Ashe Park estate, the centerpiece of the village whose rectory housed Anne Lefroy, Jane Austen’s older friend and mentor, frequently known as “Madam” Lefroy.

Located just a mile from Austen's home village of Steventon in Hampshire, England, Ashe Park is a place she certainly visited: a letter from January 1801 mentions the discomfort of being "shut up in the drawing-room with Mr. Holder [the Ashe Park tenant] alone for ten minutes" (Letter #33 in Deirdre Le Faye's standard edition of Austen's correspondence). Mr. Holder, one surmises, was the handsy type: Austen tells Cassandra that she kept one hand on the door-lock the whole time. (Alas, the more things change. . .)

However uncouth its one-time occupant, the house, parts of which date to the 1600s, is anything but. Years of seesawing fortunes (additions, refurbishments, land sales, land acquisitions, and a nasty fire, not to mention commercial enterprises that included a polo center and a mineral-water business) have delivered it into the Ogleable Real Estate stratosphere.

Now boasting 13,000 square feet of living space located on 232 acres of land, the estate also includes five freestanding cottages and a “party barn” where you can, say, host dinner for 80, prepared in the on-site catering kitchen. Back at the main house, there are seven bedroom suites, palatial reception spaces, and even a temperature-controlled “wine room” with wooden racks fitted on three walls.

The gardens (herb garden, wildflower garden, lime avenue, etc.) are spectacular, and the grounds are extensive enough to provide “great sporting potential for a family shoot,” real estate company Savills assures prospective buyers in the thirty-two-page, full-color booklet advertising the sale.

It will not surprise you to hear that this property is not to be had for a song, or even an entire hymnal. The price is listed as “on application” – in other words, if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it – but a recent piece in Country Life, that bible of the British upper classes, helpfully pegs it at “over £18 million” (about $23.3 million).

Apparently someone with the requisite cash has already stepped forward: the estate is “under offer,” according to the Country Life listing. We can only hope the new owners are appreciative Janeites.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 11 2019 01:00PM

Forty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

"It is a period, indeed!” Captain Wentworth exclaims to Anne Elliot, as their long estrangement begins to thaw in Chapter 22 of Persuasion. “Eight years and a half is a period!"

A similar spirit of mingled pain and nostalgia seems to have animated Jane Austen in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 214 years ago today (#43 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

The preceding months had been difficult ones for the Austens. On Jane’s twenty-ninth birthday, in December 1804, her beloved friend and mentor Anne Lefroy, known as Madame Lefroy, was killed in a horseback riding accident at 55. Two weeks later, the Austen patriarch, the Rev. George Austen, died unexpectedly at 73. His death, with the loss of his clerical pension, inaugurated a financial slide that would eventually force the surviving Austen women to move repeatedly, as they sought ever-cheaper rented rooms in less and less desirable parts of Bath.

Some inkling of these troubles surely hangs over the letter Jane wrote to Cassandra, who was back in Hampshire, the county the Austen sisters had called home until four years earlier, when their parents uprooted them. While Cassandra helped nurse the dying Mrs. Lloyd, mother of their sister-in-law Mary Austen and their close friend Martha Lloyd, Jane reported the news from Bath.

“This morning we have been to see Miss Chamberlayne look hot on horseback,” Jane wrote to Cassandra. “Seven years & four months ago we went to the same Ridinghouse to see Miss Lefroy’s performance!—What a different set are we now moving in! But seven years I suppose are enough to change every pore of one’s skin, & every feeling of one’s mind.”

By our standards, Jane Austen was still young in 1805, and it would be another decade before she began Persuasion. But already, in this letter, we can glimpse the emotional raw materials of the novel: a melancholy sense of the inexorable passage of time.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 5 2015 02:00PM

Jane Austen was a country girl – she spent most of her life in a couple of small villages in Hampshire, England – and even today the places she knew best are hard to reach by public transportation and difficult to discover without a guide.

Thus I was excited to learn this week that Destination Basingstoke, a non-profit dedicated to promoting “Hampshire’s most visited town” (is there much competition for that title?) has added a six-mile, self-guided “Jane Austen Historical Walk” to its slate of Austen-themed tourist attractions. An accompanying leaflet, which can be downloaded here, provides a map and directions and includes relevant quotes from Austen letters, plus some useful background about Austen’s life.

The walking tour begins at St. Nicholas Church in Steventon, where Austen’s father, the Rev. George Austen, was rector; proceeds past the empty field where Austen’s birthplace, the long-gone Steventon rectory, once stood; and moves on other places associated with the Austen family, including Ashe Rectory, home of Austen’s dear friend Madame Anne Lefroy. The whole thing sounds like quite the most delightful way to spend an autumn afternoon.

Oh, to be in England. . .

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