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When Jane Austen arrived at Stoneliegh with her mother and Cousins Rev. Thomas Leigh and his sister Elizabeth Leigh she must have been full of awe and excitement. They had travelled 30 miles in a rush to reach Stoneleigh as soon as possible to deter any challenge to the estate Rev. Thomas Leigh had inherited and Jane knew her cousin Thomas well so she must have been caught up in his emotion.
When they arrived and faced such a lavish statement of wealth,
Jane’s eyes must have been wide and her heart thumping. Remember she had come from an apartment in the narrow cobbled Trim St, in Bath.
The area about the house looked very different then. There was a narrow path and lawn and then a farm directly before its entrance as the walled gardens were still in front of the Elizabethan manor behind the silver baroque wing and the river Avon ran further away from the house. Yet a wilderness walk stretched off towards the river.
Jane’s mother wrote of it
‘I expected to find everything about the place very fine and all that, but I had no idea of its being so beautiful. I had figured to myself long avenues dark rookeries and dismal yew trees, but here are no such melancholy things.
The Avon runs near the house amidst green meadows bounded by large and beautiful woods, full of delightful walks.’
In comparison to the rectories Jane had grown up in and Thomas had lived in during his career Stoneleigh must have seemed a place of pure dreams. When they stepped down from the carriage and Thomas dismounted from his horse you might imagine her hand shaking with the excitement of it. Jane knew her family history and we know she cared about history. She had written about it in her childhood after all. Now she finally faced the house where her ancestors had resided – and her dear cousin was to own it. We know what they experienced on their arrival because both Jane and her mother wrote letters about it including their thoughts and feelings.
The Steward greeted them at the front stairs and led them into the hall where Thomas apologised because he had to disappear and get the papers signed to claim his inheritance. He told them then to ask the servants for anything they needed and said they may wonder where they wished. Can you imagine how that must have felt in comparison to the dingy distressing life they’d left behind in Bath. For months Jane and her mother had endured poverty and emotional pain counting pennies and eating poorly and now they were faced with the antithesis.
Jane must have been gazing at it all and taking it in and as a writer I am certain she must have been looking about and thinking what wonderful inspiration for books capturing every detail and
wondering how it might influence scenes and plots. And she was to have character inspiration almost immediately when Lady Saye & Sele arrived from Broughton Castle near Banbury (another place I’ve visited which is still owned by Lord and Lady Saye & Sele) with her daughter and son-in-law to claim the inheritance in Rev. Thomas Leigh’s stead.
Lady Saye & Sele’s son-in-law was another of Jane’s cousins and that Lady was a domineering pushy aristocrat who thought the money and the property should come to her far more prestigious and deserving family than to a mere Reverend. But Thomas had been selected to inherit from all the cousins of the deceased Mary Leigh as he was the eldest. He refused to concede to Lady Saye & Sele’s arguments.
Now which character do you think may have been if not inspired at least remodelled on Jane’s experiences and observations that day? Of course Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps even Rev. Collins’s excitement over the qualities of Rosings were drawn from her own cousin’s first views of Stoneleigh.
In Pride and Prejudice when Lady Catherine de Bourgh arrives to warn Jane off Darcy she says ‘Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of the lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it.’ The wilderness at Stoneleigh was on the right side of the West Wing which faced a lawn strectching towards the river and we know during Jane’s stay both Jane and her mother enjoyed frequent walks through it. Jane’s mother says in a letter, ‘We walk a great deal, for the woods are impenetrable to the sun even in the middle of an August day.’ Perhaps Lady Saye & Sele commented on it during her visit.
If you doubt Jane’s inspiration in Lady Saye & Sele Jane’s mother gives us an insight into Jane’s personality and their thoughts on their aristocratic companion.
‘Poor Lady Saye & Sele to be sure is rather tormenting, tho’ sometimes amusing, and affords Jane many a good laugh—but she fatigues me sadly on the whole.’
More stories of Stoneleigh next week.
Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.
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