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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Balls in the air

Ah, the passive voice. It conceals a multitude of sins.

The other day, I happened across one of my favorite genres of newspaper story: the aspirational real estate listing, Jane Austen division. It seems that a two-bedroom apartment in a converted --but still palatial! -- seventeenth-century Hertfordshire mansion is up for sale, for the low, low price of £835,000 (about $1.1 million).

After downloading the brochure, the better to ogle the gorgeous façade, breathtaking public reception room, and enviable kitchen, I turned my attention to the Austen link. The unfortunately named Balls Park, the Daily Mail reported, “is believed to have been the inspiration for some of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice.” More specifically, the newspaper continued, Balls Park “is understood to have been the inspiration for Netherfield Hall, Mr. Bingley's grand estate.”

Heaven knows, I’m no expert on every location known to have inspired Jane Austen, but I’d never heard of this alleged Netherfield connection, and those telltale passive locutions immediately raised my suspicions. “Is believed”? “Is understood”? By whom, exactly?

A quick glance through the indexes of my close-at-hand Austen reference books drew a blank. Balls Park doesn't get a mention in Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen: A Family Record. Or her standard edition of Austen's correspondence. Or the Austen biographies written by Paula Byrne, Claire Tomalin, and Lucy Worsley.

And so to Google, for an illuminating look at how the game of Telephone is played in the Age of the Internet, where lazy citation practices are easily concealed under a fluffy blanket of vague and/or passive verbiage:

--Wikipedia, 2021: “The estate and house are believed to have been the inspiration for some of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice.”

--Great British Life, 2017: “There are those who believe that Netherfield, Mr. Bingley’s house, is based on 17th-century Balls Park in Hertford.”

--Our Hertford and Ware, 2015: If fictional Meryton is based on the real-life market town of Hertford and fictional Longbourn on the real-life village of Hertingfordbury, then the specified distance between Longbourn and Netherfield “might suggest that the location for Mr. Bingley’s home is Balls Park.”

--Telegraph, 2013: “This glorious Jacobean mansion is believed by some to have been the inspiration for Netherfield Hall.”

--Easier, 2011: “Balls Park, in Hertford; a development thought to be the inspiration for the Netherfields [sic] mansion in Jane Austen’s iconic novel, Pride & Prejudice.”

--The JC, November 2010: “The estate is believed to have inspired parts of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.”

--The Times, September 2010: “Literary historians believe that the market town [of Hertford] was the model for the fictional Meryton. . . . Jane Austen is thought to have visited Balls Park and used it as the inspiration for Netherfield.”

By now, the alert reader will have noticed that the Daily Mail’s real estate article cribs directly from Wikipedia, which in turn cites the Telegraph’s 2013 article as the sole source for its Austen claim. Meanwhile, no one at all has attributed the claim to a specific source; the best we get is the Times’ vague citation to “literary historians,” along with the unsubstantiated speculation about an actual Austen visit to Balls Park.

But fear not! Your intrepid sleuth is on the job! And Google Books yields a crucial clue: In the 2005 book Hertfordshire A-Z, author Pamela Shields cites a 1925 article on Austen’s topography, published in the Cornhill Magazine, by “Sir Frank Mackintosh.” Mackintosh, Shields writes in her “Austen, Jane” entry, identifies Meryton with Hertford, Longbourn with Hertfordingbury, and Netherfield with Balls Park.

At last, here is the “literary historian” (only one, but who’s counting?) who believed/thought/understood Balls Park to be Netherfield! Success!

Or is it?

The Cornhill Magazine is available online, and a perusal of the August 1925 issue reveals a few uncomfortable facts: The author of “Topography and Travel in Jane Austen’s Novels,” is F.D. MacKinnon, not Mackintosh, and his discussion of Pride and Prejudice (pp. 188-90) never mentions Balls Park or Hertfordingbury. The closest MacKinnon gets to equating a fictional Hertfordshire location with a real one is his speculation that Meryton might be Hemel Hempstead or Ware, if P&P's cryptic town of "---" were taken to be Watford or Hertford. And even this speculation hardly earns MacKinnon's ringing endorsement: "The suggestion would be more plausible than others that have been made," he writes. Indeed, MacKinnon, a judge with a sideline in literary studies, disclaims the whole project: “I am sure that [Austen] never delineated a known place under a fictitious name,” he declares at the outset of his article.

So is Shields herself the originator of the Netherfield-is-Balls-Park claim? Or did she draw on some other, non-MacKinnon source and simply confuse her citations? I’m leaving the mystery here, but I’d be happy to entertain the theories of any fellow literary sleuths. Just couch your speculations in the active voice, please.


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