Deborah Yaffe

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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, Jul 27 2020 01:00PM

Tom Lefroy’s house is crumbling away.


To Janeites, this may seem poetic justice for the young Irishman who danced and flirted with the twenty-year-old Jane Austen in the winter of 1795-6. If, as some believe, he broke her heart by bowing to family pressure to cut short his budding love affair with a not-rich girl, then presumably we must hate him: How dare anyone hurt Our Jane?


So perhaps it’s karma that Carrigglas, the nineteenth-century mansion in County Longford where Lefroy and, later, his descendants lived from early in the 1800s until 2005, is now one of the ten most at-risk historic buildings in Ireland. Carrigglas made the annual list issued recently by An Taisce, the non-profit organization that oversees Ireland’s historic preservation efforts, just as the National Trust does in most of the United Kingdom.


Carrigglas’ architecture is classed as Tudor revival, with an older stableyard and entrance gates designed by well-known English architect James Gandon. Judging from the pictures, the house’s turreted gray façade is striking, if a bit forbidding, in a Mr.-Rochester’s-wife-in-the-attic kind of way.


The last Lefroys to own the estate sold to developers, who had planned to convert the property to luxury housing. Instead, the end of Ireland’s economic boom ushered in fifteen years (and counting) of vacancy and neglect; the depressing results are chronicled in this short film and this blog post. The whole saga is a reminder of what might have happened to Chawton House, the Hampshire mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, had Sandy Lerner and her Silicon Valley fortune not come to the rescue.


In retrospect, of course, the Lefroy family may have bet on the wrong horse: If they had owned a crystal ball, Jane Austen might have looked like a better marital prospect, what with the book sales and the movie rights, the licensing deals on fridge magnets and tote bags, the tourism possibilities and the pop-culture ubiquity. Surely a clever lawyer such as Tom Lefroy would have found a way to get around the pesky expiration of copyright?


But perhaps we Janeites should consider Tom Lefroy’s decision in a different, more charitable light. If he had married Jane Austen and taken her off to Ireland, she might have ended up the exhausted and preoccupied mother of many children – Lefroy and the woman he actually married raised seven sons and daughters – rather than the author of six great novels. Personally, I’d rather have the incomparable Emma Woodhouse than a passel of obscure little Emma Lefroys.



By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 18 2019 02:00PM

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


For devotees of the Tom-Lefroy-was-the-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life-and-the-inspiration-for-all-her-best-material school of thought – and blog readers will recall that I am not a member of this gushy clan -- the letter that Jane Austen finished writing exactly 221 years ago today is a crucial piece of evidence.


Almost three years earlier, Lefroy had spent a few weeks in the neighborhood, visiting his aunt Anne Lefroy, an older friend and mentor of Jane Austen’s. The two young people met, danced, talked, and enjoyed each other’s company – perhaps too much: The Lefroys, concerned that the not-rich Tom might contract a disadvantageous marriage with the not-rich Jane, seem to have rapidly hustled him out of town.


How deeply Austen cared for Tom Lefroy, and how much his departure hurt, are unresolvable questions whose very unresolvability has spawned rampant speculation, not to mention the biopic Becoming Jane. As an old man, Lefroy told a younger relative that he had felt a “boyish love” for Austen. So there’s that.


And there’s this: Letter #11 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.


Writing to her sister, Cassandra, who is in Kent to help out after the recent birth of their brother Edward’s latest child, Austen reports on a recent visit from Anne Lefroy.


“Of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little,” Austen tells Cassandra. “She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practice.”


“Too proud to make any enquiries”: That smacks of wounded pride, at least, and a desire not to let even a close friend – perhaps the close friend Austen blamed for breaking up the budding romance – see how much she had cared. It suggests that even three years later, Austen felt vulnerable and self-protective when it came to Tom Lefroy. That’s not slam-dunk proof that she had loved him, let alone that she still did, but it’s evidence that the relationship was more than a casual flirtation.


On the other hand, she never mentioned him again in a single extant letter, and there is exactly zero evidence that she used him as a model for any of her characters. Could Cassandra have burned all the letters in which Austen despairingly confessed that she would never be able to love again, and that Tom was the man she imagined every time she sat down to create a hero? I suppose anything’s possible.


(**snort**)


Rather than indulge such speculations, however, I prefer to note that one person quietly acquits himself beautifully in the scene Austen sketches in this letter: Her kind father, who presumably knew or suspected that his daughter’s heart had been bruised, and who found a way to get her the information she was too proud to ask for.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 1 2019 01:00PM

The dog days of summer are approaching, and perhaps that’s why the amount of Stupid Jane Austen Stuff coming my way seems to have ramped up recently. The hot weather softens the brain, I guess, rendering journalists incapable of CHECKING THE ACCURACY of anything they post online about one of the world’s most famous authors.


Or so I conclude from the following:


1. Bad Quoting: For once, it’s not a movie quote masquerading as a book quote. It’s a book quote understood in a sense diametrically opposed to Austen’s intentions.


“Where would we be without our best friends?” the parenting website Romper asked last month. “It's hard to encapsulate all that your bestie means to you in a speedily written message, but worry not, these sentimental things to text your BFF on National Best Friends' Day will do just that.”


Topping the following thirteen-item list is a one-hundred-percent genuine quote from Northanger Abbey: “There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”


Why this quote? Romper explains: “Jane just had a way with words, and if your friends are big bookworms like mine are, they'll likely know the quote.”


Better hope not, since these words come from the mouth of Isabella Thorpe, whose recipe for friendship is two parts cynical manipulation to one part insincere flattery. (Although, come to think of it, Isabella is exactly the kind of person who would text Hallmark-worthy sentiments to her #BFF #reallyyouare #loveyousomuchgirl for a fake holiday like this one.)


2. Bad History: A strikingly unusual four-bedroom house is for sale in Warwickshire, in south-central England. It’s an octagonal building located on the palatial grounds of a medieval abbey. It’s selling for £870,000 (about $1.1 million). The pictures make it look lovely. So far, so good.


Alas, however, the estate in question is Stoneleigh Abbey, which has a peripheral relationship to Jane Austen’s life and work. Thus giving us the following headline on a report about the sale of the octagonal house: “Inside the eight-sided home in Warwickshire that inspired one of Jane Austen’s novels.”


Sigh. Yes, it has often been theorized that Austen based Sotherton Court, the Rushworths’ grand home in Mansfield Park, and especially the family chapel where one crucial scene occurs, on Stoneleigh Abbey and its chapel. The eight-sided house, however, forms no part in this discussion. I’d call it an exaggeration to say that even Stoneleigh itself “inspired” the entire novel, but I’ll cut the headline writers a break . . .


. . . because at least they didn’t write the following, from a different publication’s report on the sale of the octagonal house: “Jane moved to the estate in 1806, before she became a successful novelist, when it was inherited by her mother’s cousin, Reverend Thomas Leigh. He brought Cassandra Austen, Jane’s mother, to live with him at the site as well as Jane and her sister, also called Cassandra. At the time the gardener on the estate was Humphry Repton, who later featured as a minor character in Austen’s third novel Mansfield Park.”


Extraordinary how much misinformation can be packed into a few short sentences. To wit:


--Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister visited Stoneleigh Abbey in 1806 while staying for a short time with Reverend Leigh in the nearby village of Adlestrop. They “moved to” Stoneleigh only in the sense that I “moved to” Rhode Island during my four-day vacation there last summer.


--Humphry Repton was not a gardener. He was one of the most famous landscape designers of his era. He did, indeed, undertake improvements at Stoneleigh, but not until a year or two after the Austens’ visit.


--Repton is not a character, even a minor one, in Mansfield Park. He is mentioned briefly during a discussion in chapter 6 of possible improvements to Sotherton.


And to think! All of this is easily verifiable through a few quick Google searches!


3. Bad Biography: Although you have to be careful about what you Google, since you might end up getting your question answered on a site like Study.com, a purveyor of online courses, where I found the following answer to the question “Who was Jane Austen married to?”


“Jane Austen never married. She fell in love with her former neighbor, Tom Lefroy. They spent much time in each other's company, and it briefly looked as if they would marry. However, Tom Lefroy never proposed to Jane Austen, and their relationship eventually ended. For the rest of her life, Jane Austen set Tom up as the standard by which she judged all other suitors. None of them compared to him, so she refused to marry.”


**headdesk**


It’s not even that Tom Lefroy was a visitor to the neighborhood, not a neighbor; or that they actually spent only a handful of hours in each other’s company, not “much time”; or that the depth of Austen’s feelings for him and the reason(s) she never married are unknown, and unknowable. No, it’s the sentimental and purely speculative twaddle about Tom as “the standard by which she judged all other suitors” that really irks me. Repeat after me, children: Becoming Jane was fictionalized. Just because Anne Hathaway says it, that doesn’t make it true.


Suggestion for Study.com: Offer a course in finding accurate information on the Internet.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 13 2019 01:00PM

Most Janeites don’t need to hear, yet again, that Jane Austen was not a kindly maiden aunt whose sweet, insubstantial little romance novels provide a wholesome escape from reality. But it’s still enjoyable to listen as smart people discuss her life and work, and thus it is that I can recommend a recent half-hour episode in the BBC’s “Great Lives” radio series.


The segment, which aired last week, features Caroline Criado Perez, the British journalist and activist whose campaign to put a woman on the UK’s currency brought us the Jane Austen £10 note; and Paula Byrne, the scholar whose Austen books include The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things and The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hollywood.


In conversation with host Matthew Parris, Byrne and Criado Perez discuss Austen’s juvenilia, Austen’s family, Austen’s humor, Austen’s misleading public image (“What more annoys me is when people dislike her for the wrong reasons,” Criado Perez says), and—inevitably—Austen’s love life.


Parris begins, “There is a biopic called Becoming Jane. . .”


“. . . oh, God. . . ,” interjects Criado Perez, right before she and Byrne savage the evergreen tale of Austen’s heartbreak over her youthful crush Tom Lefroy as so much sexist bunkum.


“She did have an eye for men,” Parris suggests, noting the sex appeal of Austenian heroes.


“We all have an eye for men, but that doesn’t mean we want to marry them and have their babies,” Criado Perez replies tartly. “Sometimes there are other things in a woman’s life.”


Not that this is news to Janeites. But it still bears repeating.


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