Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 1 2016 02:00PM

Admit it: It’s always satisfying to see Janeites slapping down silly, unprovable, probably inaccurate speculation about Jane Austen. (This is why none of our non-Janeite friends will discuss Austen with us anymore.)

We got another shot of this not-so-guilty pleasure late last month, when Philip Hammond, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that the government would contribute £7.6 million, the post-Brexit equivalent of $9.5 million, towards the renovation of the Yorkshire stately home Wentworth Woodhouse.

Wentworth Woodhouse, as blog readers may recall, is an historic property that, even by the capacious standards of aristocratic British mansions, is incredibly big, as well as ridiculously decrepit. Over the past two years, the house has been for sale, sold, unsold and resold, eventually ending up where it belonged all along: under the wing of a conservation consortium that hopes to repair it for the nation.

It’s excellent news that the UK is dipping into its treasury to help with the renovations. So perhaps it is slightly churlish of us Janeites to take issue with Hammond's explanation for the grant: Wentworth Woodhouse, he told Parliament, “is said to be the inspiration for Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.”

Except not, as the UK Jane Austen Society pointed out when the Guardian newspaper asked for comment. “There is absolutely no evidence that Jane Austen ever travelled further north than Lichfield in Staffordshire,” the society said, adding that Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 annual income would never have supported an establishment as grand as Wentworth Woodhouse.

I don’t know where the chancellor got his misinformation, though I’d guess it came from the real estate version of one of those silly tabloid stories insisting that every tall, dark and handsome man born after 1730 was a model for Mr. Darcy.

What’s really curious is why Hammond felt he needed to rely on this fairy tale to justify a modest investment in the preservation of a national treasure. If we needed further proof that Jane Austen -- whatever the reality of her writings -- has become synonymous with a certain kind of elegant Englishness, here it is.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 19 2016 01:00PM

So here’s what I’d be doing right this minute if I were in England: Taking today’s “Fitzwilliam Tour” of Wentworth Woodhouse.

You will recall that Wentworth Woodhouse is an unbelievably huge, unbelievably rundown stately home in northern England whose Austen-ish associations – a former owner, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, is one of the many, many people sometimes suggested as a model for Mr. Darcy – came up often during the past eighteen months of real estate drama.

To recap: A sale of the property, which features nearly ninety acres of parkland, five miles of corridors and an estimated £42 million in deferred maintenance, was first discussed in November 2014. A year later, the whole shebang was sold to a Hong Kong-based investment company, after a conservation consortium failed in a bid to save the four-hundred-year-old estate for the nation.

But at the eleventh hour, the foreign investors withdrew and, in an Austen-worthy happy ending, the conservation consortium bought the estate for £7 million and announced a plan to spend fifteen years restoring the property. In the meantime . . . tours!

The estate’s Austen associations are on the circumstantial side – besides the dubious Mr. Darcy connection, it has a history replete with names familiar from the novels – but that’s no reason to miss out on seeing such attractions as the Whistlejacket Room, the Oak Staircase and the Chinese Dressing Room. And tourists can feel virtuous in the knowledge that their £25 is contributing to the restoration of a true national treasure.

But hey -- I had you at “Fitzwilliam,” didn’t I?

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 12 2015 02:00PM

It’s been a year since the imagination of real-estate-coveting Janeites was captured by the news that Wentworth Woodhouse, a humongously big stately home in Yorkshire with some Austen-ish associations, was for sale. And now comes word that the house – its hundreds of rooms, miles of corridors and scores of acres of parkland -- has been sold.

Alas, the £8 million price tag proved too steep for the buyer we all would have preferred: a conservation consortium that planned to open the main interior and gardens to the public, under the supervision of the UK’s heritage organization, the National Trust. The consortium planned to fund the house’s long-term upkeep by dedicating some of the peripheral spaces (and there are many!) to income-producing uses like short-term rentals, small-business workspaces and special events.

Instead, Wentworth Woodhouse went to the Lakehouse Group, a Hong Kong-based investment firm whose backers remain obscure. Presumably, however, they’re resigned to spending more than five times the purchase price – an estimated £42 million – on the extensive repairs that the decaying mega-mansion will require.

No one knows what the buyers have in mind for the building, whose four-hundred-year history includes many names familiar to Austen readers – Wentworth and Woodhouse, of course, but also Watson, D’Arcy and Fitzwilliam. We can only hope that the Lakehouse Group includes a Janeite or two who might give the rest of us a look-in one of these days.

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.

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