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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Headline magic

If you read the UK media, you might be forgiven for thinking that no story about British real estate is complete without a link to Jane Austen’s life or work. A “Jane-Austen-slept-here” or “this-house-inspired-Pride-and-Prejudice” can seem as essential an amenity as central heating. (Maybe more essential, judging from some of my chilly experiences in UK housing.)


And yet, as I have had occasion to mention before, when you get beyond the headlines, you often discover that the purported Austen links fall somewhere on the spectrum between tenuous and non-existent, with occasional stop-offs at speculative. The latest examples:


--“Jane Austen pub closes three months after reopening”: Last month, a pub in Southampton, England, called the Juniper Berry shut down, after its new landlords discovered a host of serious problems with the heating, electricity, and plumbing systems, further complicated by asbestos contamination.


And all this at the watering hole where Jane Austen used to hang out during her relatively short sojourn with her brother Frank’s family in Southampton!


Surely that must be the meaning of the phrase “Jane Austen pub,” right? Well, no. “A plaque on an external wall records that Jane Austen lived on the approximate site of the pub from 1807 to 1809,” the story notes in its next-to-last paragraph. (Italics mine. Because—Jane Austen pub? Give me a break.)


--“Charlton Park, which hosted Jane Austen and Pink Floyd, on the market for £2.5 million”: A palatial Kent mansion is up for sale for the equivalent of $3.1 million, and if the ten bedrooms, nine bathrooms, two wine cellars, swimming pool, ballroom, and commercial kitchen aren’t attraction enough, there’s also a plausible-but-speculative Austen link.


Charlton Park, parts of which date back to the sixteenth century, was bought by the Foote family in the 1760s. Various Footes were friendly with various Austens. Charlton Park is close to the Kent estates of Jane Austen’s brother Edward and the family of Edward's wife, Elizabeth. Jane Austen often visited Edward and Elizabeth.


And so, as a 2016 history of the estate notes, “it is unlikely she did not visit the house frequently.” On the other hand, author Jack Wales has to acknowledge, there’s no mention of any such visit—or, indeed, of the house or its owners--in any of Austen’s surviving letters.*


Pink Floyd, however, definitely played Charlton Park, headlining a Woodstock-esqe 1970 music festival called Medicine Ball Caravan. So if your 2024 bingo card has a square for “Jane Austen-Pink Floyd connection,” you’re golden.


-- “Historic mansion which inspired Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is crumbling away after being left to rot for 100 years - as campaign to rescue it has failed as the land is owned by offshore company listed in the British Virgin Islands”: Piercefield House is an eighteenth-century neo-classical mansion in Wales, designed by the famous architect Sir John Soane. And, as the Daily Mail’s novella-length headline explains, it’s in a state of near-irreversible disrepair.


Among Piercefield House’s early owners was one Valentine Morris, whose money came from a slave plantation in—wait for it—Antigua. And three months ago, when the Guardian covered this sad story, it quoted an architectural historian named Victoria Perry on the “powerful resonance” between Piercefield House and Mansfield Park, also owned by a man whose money came from Antigua, and therefore probably from a slave plantation.


In the hands of the Daily Mail, however, Perry’s careful comment about cultural zeitgeist morphs into a claim that “some [!] literary [!] historians believed [Piercefield] also inspired Austen's Mansfield Park.” Which morphs into a headline claiming, without equivocation, that it did.


If only similar magic could turn a decaying eighteenth-century mansion into a fully refurbished museum of the UK’s historical ties to slavery.



* I pass over, with the derision it merits, the suggestion in the real estate listing that Austen derived “an idea for the plot of Pride and Prejudice” from the fact that a member of the extended Foote family had five daughters.

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