By Rob Hardy of Kenilworth, England, but soon to be of Minnesota again
First we were taken into the gallery of the chapel and shown the small organ that once belonged to Lord Chandos, an instrument that Handel surely must have played. Then we were taken down into the chapel itself. White plasterwork stood out against the pale blue of the walls, giving the high-ceilinged room the look of a Wedgewood box—although the plasterwork of the chapel was austere compared with the baroque excesses of the saloon, where the apotheosis of Hercules in plaster dominated the great inverted dish of the ceiling. In the saloon, our Mrs. Rushworth had told us, as she would tell us many times on the tour of the house, that we were standing where Jane Austen had stood and were seeing exactly what Jane Austen had seen. Austen’s cousin, Rev. Thomas Leigh, would have greeted her from the top of these steps, just as Mr. Rushworth stood on the steps of Sotherton and greeted his visitors from Mansfield Park. The remarkable thing about the plasterwork, our guide told us, was that Jane Austen never mentions it in her letters.
Jane Austen visited Stoneleigh Abbey, the ancestral home of her mother’s family, in August 1806. Rev. Leigh, rector of Adlestrop, had recently inherited the estate, and had come to look over the property with an eye to making improvements. He would decide to engage the services of the famous landscape designer Sir Humphry Repton, who would conclude that the property required a lake. But this would happen later, two years after Jane Austen’s visit. For the moment, all the talk was of improvements—and Jane took it all in. Eight years later, she would publish Mansfield Park, in which Stoneleigh Abbey becomes Sotherton, the object of the shallow Mr. Rushworth’s schemes for improvement.
I visited Stoneleigh Abbey in early September 2006. I was standing, as the tour guide continued to remind us, exactly where Jane Austen had stood exactly two hundred years earlier. In the morning, she had sat at exactly this window, overlooking the still unimproved river, carefully revising Pride and Prejudice. She had taken exactly this book, Fordyce’s Sermons, from the shelf of her cousin’s library, and handed it to her fictional Mr. Collins so that he could bore his cousins around the evening fire.
Why was I disappointed?
In the chapel, I sat in one of the pews where generations of Leigh family servants had sat. I could turn and look up at the red velvet cushions laid out on ledge of the gallery. The tour guide took out her copy of Mansfield Park and began to read aloud from chapter nine:
They entered [the chapel]. Fanny’s imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere, spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion—with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above. “I am disappointed,” said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. “This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be “blown by the night wind of Heaven.”
Fanny’s imagination had been prepared for the chapel by her reading of Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The chapel itself, so far from her fictional ideal, was a disappointment. Strangely, I was standing where the real Jane Austen had stood, but my experience was that of the fictional Fanny Price. Like Fanny, my imagination had prepared me for something different. I had first read Mansfield Park fifteen years earlier, and as I stood in the footsteps of Jane Austen, I realized that Sotherton was more real to me than Stoneleigh Abbey. My imagination could not conjure Jane Austen at Stoneleigh as Austen herself had conjured Fanny Price at Sotherton. The real place, the solid stone and plasterwork of Stoneleigh Abbey, was a disappointment compared to the place Jane Austen had imagined.
Jane Austen’s characters themselves make extended visits to places in the real world, but they make their homes in imaginary places. Financial difficulties force the family of Sir Walter Elliot to leave imaginary Kellynch Hall and make their residence in real Bath. On an extended visit to her family in real Portsmouth, Fanny Price finds herself disappointed with her parents and homesick for imaginary Mansfield Park. “Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home.” I understand how dear Fanny felt. I have spent most of my life imagining England from the descriptions in novels, and I realize that I am more at home in the fictional England, the England of my imagination, than I can ever be in the real England. Stoneleigh Abbey is Stoneleigh Abbey. Mansfield Park is home.
Stoneleigh Abbey website: http://www.stoneleighabbey.org