Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Chasing Jane

"Ah! There's nothing like staying at home for real comfort." - Jane Austen

Artist's impression of Steventon Rectory

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that one can not explore many historic sites in the south of England without, at some point, encountering Jane Austen. This year she seems particularly prevalent, as it is the bicentennial anniversary of her sadly early demise at the age of forty-one, and she will soon be adorning the reverse of our ten pound note.

 Even on a personal level, she seems to have been close to me of late; my two previous articles have featured her to a greater or lesser extent, although neither focused upon her as more than an author and commentator. One was a short essay regarding the interpersonal relationships portrayed in her earliest novel, the other was an exploration of an estate in Kent which just happened to adjoin an estate belonging to her brother.

In early April came an opportunity to follow the historic trail of Austen herself. Not the author, not the cultural icon, but the apparently unremarkable clergyman's daughter who never married, never lived apart from her parents or siblings, and spent three-quarters of her life residing at two addresses in a small area of Hampshire.

This is not to say that Jane Austen never travelled. Some of her youthful education took her to boarding schools in Oxford, Southampton and Reading. She has connections with several addresses in Bath, where the family resided for several years following her father's retirement, and I have encountered her in Lyme Regis (where she set part of her final novel Persuasion), and in Tonbridge (her father's home town, now the location of my favourite Italian restaurant). Nevertheless, Jane Austen was born, lived most of her life, died and was buried in a relatively small area of Hampshire and it was this area that, thanks to the enthusiasm of a visiting American friend, came to be explored by us early last month. The life of Jane Austen, from birth to burial, spatially covered in a single afternoon.

Reading Abbey gatehouse, where Jane attended school

On Tuesday 4th April, four of us bundled into the latest Vulpine-mobile, a silver Vauxhall Corsa dubbed 'Hyper', and undertook the mundane journey around the M25, diverting in Surrey to pass through Guildford and over the stretch of A31 known as the Hog's Back. From here, we snaked west across country before arriving on the fringes of a small village near Basingstoke, a quiet rural community called Steventon. Our first point of interest is the parish church of St Nicholas, set on a hill at some distance from the present settlement, a building which played an important role in Jane's life. She was baptised here, her father, two brothers and a nephew were all vicars here, and she would have been a regular attendee of its services for the first quarter-century of her existence.

Steventon Church

The church itself occupies a peaceful and rustic spot, but is of little architectural or aesthetic merit. Its power rests with the superiority of its connections. The steeple, erected after Jane's time, is capped by a weather vane in the shape of a pen. In the churchyard lie her eldest brother James with his two wives, as well as family members of her brother Edward.

Inside the church can be found a plaque dedicated to the author, erected by her great-grand-niece Emma Austen-Leigh in 1936, and also to be found is a card upon which is written a prayer created by Jane herself. This is the building presided over by the Reverend George Austen for thirty years. He was succeeded in his position by his sons James and Henry, and by his grandson William Knight.

The lane leading from the church rolls gently down an incline, and we amble leisurely toward the foot of the hill. A belt of trees shields the meadows to our left; the exposed fields to our right glow with the cheerful verdance of early Spring. Robins flit and scold among the boughs and buds, lambs bounce and scurry around the legs of their dams. Our guest from Colorado wonders if we are likely to see any pheasants in the wild; we assure her that the sighting of pheasants, in the arcadian Springtime of deep Wessex, can be all but guaranteed.

Jane was born in a house in the corner of this field. The New Rectory is in the background.

The church lane terminates at a country road that leads toward the village of Steventon... and here, at the junction, stands a meadow. Sheep gather in its distant corner, and a neat hedgerow attempts to shield its secrets from passers-by. However, by leaning on a gate, one can gain a good view of the trees in the meadow's north-eastern corner, and the remains of an old well. Upon this spot once stood Steventon Rectory, now replaced by a building visible up a slope behind us. Only the trees and the well remain to show that a rambling old dwelling used to stand here, and there is nothing else... no clues, no information boards, no indication that this is the spot where Jane was born in 1775, the seventh of eight children, where she grew from childbood to adulthood, where she made her coy and incisive observations of the Georgian society to which she belonged, and where she wrote the drafts of what would eventually emerge as Northanger Abbey, Pride And Prejudice and Sense And Sensibility.

Right here in this unimposing field in Hampshire.

The spot of Jane's birth and childhood
As a perpetual student of literature and history, this unassuming pocket of English countryside is a Mecca for me. Little remains but what the imagination can provide. I can see the colours of Spring dancing and diving before my eyes, magnetically drawing together to form images lost in time and born of fancy. I can see a rambling, three-storey building, a barn adjoining, a well and an orchard beyond... I can see chickens fussing and cackling in the yard, can visualise the Austen children laughing and giggling as they stumble and run down the slope beyond the orchard... as inside the house Mrs Austen bustles in the parlour while Mr Austen nestles in his study, perusing his theological literature as he quietly plans the next Sunday sermon.

Moments in time, replaced by the bleating of lambs, the scratching of rooks below the New Rectory at our backs, and the imperious strutting of a distant pheasant (there you go, Colorado!).

There are other sites to visit this day, more sights to see. The life of Jane Austen extended beyond Steventon, so we clamber back up the lane, heading for the car, ready and eager to pick up her trail.

Site of the well, where Jane and her family drew their water.

By the year 1800, only the Austen daughters remained at Steventon with their parents, the six sons having dispersed. James had taken holy orders and had followed his father into the church. George, suffering from an unidentified disability, was living with relatives elsewhere in the county. Edward had been adopted by their rich and childless cousins the Knights, who owned estates in Hampshire and Kent. Henry was attempting to pursue a career in banking, and both Charles and Francis had departed to join the Navy. It was at this point, at the turn of the new century, that the Reverend George Austen decided to retire.

The Reverend and Mrs Austen
Apart from a handful of brief spells at boarding school, the twenty-five year old Jane had never lived anywhere but Steventon. Now she found herself packing her clothes, her belongings, her letters and her handwritten manuscripts, and moving with her parents and older sister Cassandra to a place quite removed from the pastoral peace of Hampshire... the bustling, fashionable, cosmopolitan and ancient city of Bath in Somerset.

Jane's life for the next few years became busier. The Austens leased a house in Sydney Street. Their summers were spent in fashionable resorts such as Dawlish, Lyme Regis, Ramsgate, and Sidmouth. Visits were also made to their relatives and friends in Hampshire and Kent. Jane found herself with little time for writing. In 1804, the lease on their home having expired, they moved into Green Park Buildings.

R
4 Sydney Street, the Austens' first address in Bath

Then, in 1805, Reverend Austen fell ill and was dead within days. He was buried in the crypt of St Swithin's Church, Walcot, Bath - the same building in which he and Mrs Austen had been married. The day after her bereavement, Jane wrote to her brother Francis, "We have lost an excellent Father. An illness of only eight and forty hours carried him off yesterday morning between ten and eleven. His tenderness as a father, who can do justice to?"

Gay Street, the Austen's final Bath address

The Austen women subsequently moved to Gay Street, but their income of £600 p.a. was becoming increasingly stretched in a city that was becoming a more expensive place to live. They decamped to Clifton, then to Southampton, but it became clear that they needed a more permanent place of residence. It was Jane's brother Edward who came to the rescue. He had inherited the Knight estates at Godmersham in Kent and Chawton in Hampshire and was, in modern parlance, 'minted'. Consequently, Mrs Austen and her two spinster daughters moved, in 1809, to a cottage in Chawton - only fifteen miles across country from Jane's birthplace in Steventon.

And since Bath, Clifton and Southampton were too distant to be reached during a single daytrip, it was to Chawton that we headed after departing Steventon.

Bath, where Jane lived for six years

We park in Chawton's main car park, just across the road from our destination. Here, we meet with another friend, who has driven down from Reading, and our group cross the road and enter the property where Jane resided for the last eight years of her life.

Chawton Cottage from the rear

Built in the seventeenth century, the cottage was a farmhouse then, in the 1780's, a pub - the New Inn - where two murders took place. Edward Austen-Knight, once he became the owner, leased it to his steward before granting it to his mother, sisters and their companion Martha Lloyd (who, in old age, married Jane's brother Francis).

Cat in the garden, doubtless littering the place with deceased rodents and birds. Are the shades of Chawton to be thus polluted?

The house has a range of memorabilia, varying from furniture and fittings to small, personal belongings such as Jane's topaz ring. This was almost lost to the nation after being sold at auction to American pop star Kelly Clarkson, but the Government issued an order forbidding it to leave the country, and it now resides in a display case here at the House. It was originally a gift from Jane's naval brother Charles, who had purchased it from the proceeds of his reward for capturing a pirate ship.

Chawton Cottage from the garden



The family settled happily at Chawton and here, Jane's literary career took off. Northanger Abbey had already been purchased by a publisher who was 'sitting on' the manuscript rather than publishing it; however, Sense And Sensibility was published in 1811 and was followed two years later by Pride And Prejudice. The novels instantly gained a following, their most conspicuous fan being the Prince Regent.

A bedroom at Chawton
Dining table


George Austen's cabinet

One of Chawton's most evocative exhibits is a small, circular desk. Jane wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion while living here, and this was her writing desk. I tentatively reach out, feel its surface, its grain... feel the weight of its history. My fingers lightly brush the walnut surface where the words in Jane's head poured onto the page, where her canonical novels emerged into the world, to later irrevocably embed themselves in the English psyche. As well as mine. The shivers that run down my spine are born from awe as well as pleasure. Anne Elliot, Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse came to life on this same cool, quiet surface. I could not have felt more ecstatic if I had been holding Shakespeare's quill.

Jane's writing desk

Even in the outbuildings, small and personal touches abound. A bakehouse that produced the bread which the family would have eaten. A donkey cart which would have carried them around the neighbourhood. Many of Austen's comedy characters use forms of transport as a way of measuring the wealth and prestige of their contemporaries (Lord and Lady Weakchin arrived at the ball in a chaise and four!), and I had to speculate if Jane was thinking of her own, more modest form of transport when she scribbled down these sort of observations.

Outbuildings at Chawton

The bakehouse



The Regency equivalent of a Nissan Micra

By the time we step out of Chawton Cottage we are feeling a bit peckish. There is a pub across the road, the Greyfriars, and a tearoom with the amusing monicker of Cassandra's Cup. Both are tempting, but we decide to soldier on to the last stage of our literary quest, and the last stage of Jane's story. We bundle into our vehicles and drive sixteen miles southwest, to the venerable city of Winchester.

The Romans built it and named it Venta Belgarum. The West Saxons called it Wintoncaester and made it their capital. It is one of the most historic cities in England, and one of my firm favourites.

Prior's Gate, Winchester



Pilgrim's House, Winchester

We circle the Cathedral, pass colossal Perpendicular architecture, pass the Pilgrim's House of 1308 and through the fifteenth century Prior's Gate. We follow the high walls of the Cathedral Close along College Street until we come across a monument on a stretch of open grass, presumably created for the Austen bicentenary.

Bicentenary memorial, College Street

A wall of ivy, surrounding a quote from Sense And Sensibility: 'Know your own happiness. Call it hope.'

Why here? Why has this modern monument been placed here, up against the medieval wall surrounding the Cathedral Close? Why here in College Street?

Because of the mustard-coloured building on the opposite side of the road.

8 College Street, with Team Vulpine 

Working from Chawton, Jane saw Mansfield Park published in 1814 and Emma at the end of 1815. She completed and prepared Persuasion in 1816, but by now was beginning to suffer ill-health. Although her illness has not been definitively identified, it is believed to have been Addison's Disease or Hodgkin's Lymphona. Although Jane originally made light of her health problems, as the year progressed it became clear that her condition was becoming progressively worse. By 1817 she had begun a new novel, Sanditon, but abandoned it after twelve chapters as she was simply too weak to continue. She described herself as being 'every wrong colour' and remaining 'chiefly on the sofa'.

With Cassandra accompanying her, Jane removed herself to Winchester to seek a last-ditch cure. It didn't work. At about 4 o' clock in the morning of 18th July 1817, cradled in her sister's arms, Jane Austen passed away at the age of 41 in a room at 8 College Street.

The house opposite the new memorial.

The plaque at 8 College Street

We adjourn to Winchester's main thoroughfare and dine at The Royal Oak, a pub standing on the site of a medieval Royal dwelling. Replete with 4 x Fish & Chips and 1 x Macaroni Cheese, we head for our final site visit of the day... Winchester's magnificent Cathedral, resting place of Saxon kings and Queens, a couple of Danish monarchs and William II. Here, in the north aisle of the longest nave in Europe, we stand above the vault containing the woman whose life we have spent the day exploring.

Winchester Cathedral


Following the loss of his sister, Henry bought back the unpublished manuscript of Northanger Abbey and had it released as a double-bill with Persuasion. It would be another half-century before a later generation of the family published Jane's juvenile works, plus the novellas The Watsons, Lady Susan and the unfinished Sanditon.

Jane's grave

Mission accomplished. We have, over the course of a busy but rewarding afternoon, traced the shadow of Jane Austen from her quiet, provincial birthplace to her urban vault of eternal slumber. Her epitaph, composed by her brother James, lists her personal virtues yet omits her literary accomplishments... not a bad thing, as we read a panegyric on Jane the woman, the beloved daughter and sister, rather than the more abstract Jane that created  Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. After today, Jane feels more an old friend than an etched portrait on a forthcoming banknote.

Home we head, northeast up the M3, surrounded by rolling fields where the cattle low and the pheasants rasp.

Farewell, old friend.



Jane Austen, portrait by Cassandra Austen

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Beyond The Towers

Eastwell Towers

We leave the M20 at the Ashford junction, heading North into the Kent countryside as the stentorian bellow of Continental lorries fades behind us. After navigating a couple of miles' worth of winding roads and niggling roundabouts, rustic peace begins to descend as we reach the fringes of the village Boughton Aluph and, immediately on our left, we observe the local folly: Eastwell Towers, an impressive monument to hubris.

Why so?

The Towers were constructed in 1848 by William Burn, and were designed to form an impressive entrance to the grounds of Eastwell Park. They are flint-faced, with quoins, window dressings and bandings of ashlar. Flanking walls extend, as though to embrace the approaching visitor in a pincer movement, and they terminate in panelled piers with statues of lions, crowned and bearing coats-of-arms. Structures like these were designed to inspire awe in the breast of the approaching traveller, to impress upon them the importance, power and lineage of the aristocratic family to whom the land belonged.
     And yet, only two decades later, the owner of Eastwell Park - the Earl of Winchelsea - was formally adjudged bankrupt. The fa├žade of the Towers displays the family's arms, as well as a mosaic depicting victories of Alexander The Great. It symbolically displays a noble family conquering against irrepressible odds yet, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems also to represent a last, defiant shout of a bloodline whose fame, power and fortune were in serious decline. Even Alexander's mighty empire crumbled rapidly once he was gone. Ironically but perhaps appropriately, the Towers are now completely redundant; the entrance to the Eastwell Park estate is, nowadays, further along the road and is considerably more discreet... and the stately pile itself, for centuries the epicentre of an old and distinguished dynasty, is a country hotel.

Eastwell Lion

     "...beautiful Eastwell, with its great grey house, its magnificent park, with its herds of deer and picturesque Highland cattle, its lakes, its woods, its garden with the old cedar tree which was our fairy mansion."
   - Princess Marie of Romania ( born at Eastwell in 1875. Her sister Beatrice followed in 1884.

     Having perused and photographed the Victorian gatehouse, my Youngest and I continue our journey, following the estate wall for a short distance before utilising the modern entrance. Entering the historic grounds, we drive for about half a mile before parking in front of the venerable pile, and we undertake a circular stroll around the building in order to gain a 'feel' for the place.

Eastwell Park

A hotel, spa and golf course it may be today, but Eastwell's grounds remain an agricultural concern and the building itself retains  an air of stubborn nobility. Following our circling of the building, Youngest and I stand in front of the mansion and survey the valley before us. On the opposite slope, we can discern what appears to be the entrance to a considerable bunker on the side of the hill. Lacking binoculars, we cannot take a closer look but, even at this distance, the concrete patterns of World War Two military architecture can be recognised. This place played a noisy role during the last Great Unpleasantness, as it was a practice ground for tanks.

The previous Eastwell Park, wiped out by a Victorian conflagration

     From the front of the building we stroll south, following a dusty farm track that crests a low scarp and affords us a partial view of the estate's great lake. The track snakes west to shadow the outline of the water, then swings south again, where - just before it merges with a country lane - we encounter an arboreal lakeside dell that partially conceals two intriguing buildings.

    The Lake House hugs the water's edge. It was listed a few years earlier than the more prominent Towers, and received the same rating - Grade II. The core of the building dates as far back as the thirteenth century, although the roof is seventeenth and the windows nineteenth. In its picturesque spot between clustered trees and lapping water, the Lake House exudes antiquity and atmosphere. Sadly, it is under full-time occupation and is therefore out of bounds to the interested visitor, who has to satisfy himself with the second lakeside building, only a brief stroll further along the shore.

The Lake House

The church of St Mary Eastwell has been a ruin since the mid-1950's, and all that remains are the tower, a mortuary chapel and some upstanding but crumbling walls. The churchyard is mostly canopied with trees and overwhelmed by persistently creeping foliage. What can be seen of the exposed church interior is sparse, yet at one time it was replete with impressive funerary monuments to the Finch-Hatton family, who occupied Eastwell Park from late medieval times through to the reign of Victoria. These monuments were rescued, and now reside in the Victoria And Albert Museum.

    The Finch-Hatton vault, containing approximately forty members of the family, remains sealed below the exposed nave of the church. One of the earliest members of the dynasty to be buried here was the Tudor courtier Sir Thomas Moyle in 1560, and in local legend his story is forever entwined with the story of another who is buried here, and whose memorial can still be found in the ruins.

The church tower

    The inscription on the memorial reads "Reputed to be the tomb of Richard Plantagenet, 22 December 1550"

    The story of Sir Thomas Moyle and Richard Plantagenet was written down by the historian Francis Peck in his Desiderata Curiosa of 1732-35, having been passed down orally through generations of the Finch-Hatton family. His burial record was discovered in the Parish Register by Heneage Finch, the 5th Earl of Winchelsea, while engaging in a spot of genealogy in 1720, and reads: "v. Rychard Plantagenet was buryed on the 22. daye of December, anno ut supra. Ex registro de Eastwell, sub anno 1550"

    The 'v' that precedes his name reflects on Eastwell tradition, whereupon that particular consonant is prefixed to the burial notice of a member of the nobility. The fact that this appears next to his name indicates that Richard's contemporaries certainly believed he was of noble birth. So what was his story?

The supposed tomb of Richard Plantagenet

    Richard was, apparently, an illegitimate son of King Richard III. This is not beyond the realms of possibility, as the King certainly acknowledged two illegitimate children: Katherine Plantagenet and John of Gloucester. According to the travel writer Arthur Mee, writing in 1935: "Sir Thomas Moyle, building his great house here, was much struck by a white-bearded man his mates called Richard. There was a mystery about him. In the rest hour, whilst the others talked and threw dice, this old man would go apart and read a [Latin] book. There were very few working men who could read in 1545, and Sir Thomas on this fine morning did not rest until he had won the confidence of the man."

    Latin was a language used and understood only by the clergy and the highborn, and Richard confessed to Sir Thomas the circumstances of his upbringing by a schoolmaster. Occasionally, a well-dressed 'gentleman' would visit, and donate funds to pay for the boy's keep and schooling. One day, the gentleman requested that the boy come on a journey with him. They travelled until they arrived at the encampment of the Royal army. It was the eve of the Battle of Bosworth, and the boy was brought into the presence of King Richard. The monarch told the boy, "I am your father, and if I prevail in tomorrow's battle, I will be provided for you as befits your blood. But it may be that I shall be defeated, killed, and that I shall not see you again... tell no-one who you are unless I am victorious."                                    The battle was subsequently lost, and the King fell on the field, almost within striking distance of his challenger Henry Tudor. The boy fled the bloody scene and travelled to London. Maintaining his anonymity, he sold his expensive clothes and bought an apprenticeship with a bricklayer, which is how he eventually came to work at Eastwell Park. Mee writes: "Sir Thomas Moyle, listening to this wonderful story, determined that the last Plantagenet should not want in his old age. He had a little house built for him in the Park... and instructed his steward to provide for it every day."

Some believe that the tomb is actually that of Walter Moyle (Sir Thomas' father) and that Richard Plantagenet was buried elsewhere in the grounds, the inscription on the tomb being added when the legend resurfaced in later centuries.


Finch effigies in the V&A

One of Sir Thomas' daughters married into the Finch family who, generations later, united by marriage with the equally illustrious Hatton family. The family produced many colourful figures down the years, many of whom now rest in the rustic solitude of the vault below the ruined nave. Some became MP's for Winchelsea, and later became Earls of Winchelsea and Earls of Nottingham.


  • Heneage Finch (1628-89), the 3rd Earl, was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Constable of Dover castle, and Lord Lieutenant of Kent. He became Ambassador to the Ottoman court in 1660, and gained of a reputation for his dalliances with Turkish women. When he was recalled to England in 1669, King Charles II - no stranger himself to the pleasures of female company - declared, "My Lord, you have not only built a town, you have peopled it too."
  • Anne Kingsmill Finch (1661-1720), Countess and wife of the 5th Earl, was a respected Restoration poet and therefore a pioneering female author, alongside contemporaries such as Aphra Behn, Susannah Centlivre and Delariviere Manley. She was held in high esteem by Swift and Pope.
  • Heneage Finch, who hecame the 7th Earl, prosecuted the regicides following the Restoration. He received a baronetcy and an earldom for his troubles. He died in 1729 and was succeeded by his son Daniel, 8th Earl, known as 'Don Dismal'. He had been First Lord of the Admiralty under Charles II, Secretary of State under William III, and his good fortune continued after the Hanoverian Succession when he became President of the Council after the accession of George I.
  • The 9th Earl, George Finch, veteran of the American War of Independence and the first President of the Royal Institution, was a keen cricketer and one of the founders of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Alongside Charles Lennox (later Duke of Richmond), he promised to compensate Thomas Lord for any financial losses incurred upon constructing a cricket ground for the Club. Lord went on to build London cricket ground that bears his name to this day.

Lady Elizabeth Murray, later Finch-Hatton, with her cousin Dido Elizabeth Belle

  • His cousin, the 10th Earl, was George William Finch-Hatton. His mother, Lady Elizabeth Murray, was cousin to the celebrated mulatto gentlewoman Dido Elizabeth Belle, and their relationship was explored in the recent movie Belle. The neighbouring estate to Eastwell was Godmersham Park, owned by Edward Austen-Knight, and Lady Elizabeth made the acquaintanceship of Mr. Knight's sister, a certain Jane Austen. It is thought by some literary scholars that Austen may have based her Lady Middleton in Sense And Sensibility and Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park upon Elizabeth, with whom she was not particularly impressed. Jane confided to her sister Cassandra: "I have discovered that Lady Elizabeth, for a woman of her age and situation, has tonishingly little to say for herself, and that Miss Hatton [her daughter] has not much more."
Lady Elizabeth's son, the 10th Earl, is famous for fighting a duel in Battersea Fields with no less a personage than the Duke of Wellington. The cause of this conflict was the Earl's outspoken opposition to the Duke's support for the Cathoic Emancipation Act.                                                                  Wellington arrived at the venue first, and upon the late arrival of the Earl, snapped at his second: "Now then, Hardinge, look sharp and step out the ground. I have no time to waste. Damn it, don't stick him so near the ditch! If I hit him, he will tumble in."                                                     When the order to fire was given, Wellington discharged his pistol first, missing Finch-Hatton's leg but peppering his coat. Finch-Hatton then fired his own pistol into the air, and ordered his second to deliver a written apology.  Following discussion, Wellington accepted the apology.

Mortuary Chapel at Eastwell

Lady Elizabeth was one of the last members of the family to be interred in the vault at Eastwell Church, being buried there in 1825, and the family abandoned Eastwell later in the century following their financial troubles. It was subsequently rented by Prince Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria, and his daughters Marie and Beatrice were born there. The Queen and her eldest son, the future Edward VII, became frequent visitors to Eastwell Park and perhaps it was the royal presence that inspired the construction of the Wye Crown, a hillfigure adorning the North Downs above the nearby village of Wye. It was created to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII in 1902.

Remains of church walls in the overgrown churchyard

     The last Earl to be buried at Eastwell was the 11th. Although he lived elsewhere, his body was returned here upon his demise and he rests, not with his ancestors in the crowded vault, but in the overgrown churchyard with his wife and son.

     Although no longer domiciled at Eastwell Park, the Finch-Hattons continued to leave their mark. The 13th Earl founded the London-Brighton car race in 1896, and his son Denys Finch-Hatton was the famous 'Great White Hunter' of the interwar years, residing in Kenya and forming an attachment to the Danish writer Karen Blixen. This relationship was explored in the 1985 movie Out Of Africa, where Blixen and Finch-Hatton were portrayed by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

     The 14th Earl followed the Edwardian trend of marrying into American money to reinforce the family's trembling finances. His wife was the daughter of AJ Drexel, a founding partner of the bank JP Morgan. The eccentric 16th Earl, who died as recently as 1999, is known for selling off a family treasure: the foundation charter for Westminster Abbey, written in 1065 and bearing the seal of Edward The Confessor.

     Ivy creeps relentlessly across the peaceful, bowered churchyard of St Mary's Eastwell. The tower stands proud, the roofless nave braves the relentless elements and shields the vault that contains generations of colourful and influential people. The waters of the lake quietly lick at the edges of the churchyard and an elderly gardener patiently clears leafmould and creepers from crumbling, timeworn gravestones. The hamlet of Eastwell slumbers in the Kent countryside, a small, peaceful place... yet the Towers catch the eye, they stand proud above their environment, and remind the casual traveller that even the humblest corner of rustic England can boast the pomp and colour of a rich and eclectic heritage.

Eastwell Park from the rear


 



Monday, 3 April 2017

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, and Gender Relationships



'No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.'

Focusing on Volume One, Chapter Three of Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey, I would like to explore how the relationships between the sexes are represented, how the chapter relates to the rest of the novel and what is its function?

This early chapter is the point in the novel at which the hero, Henry Tilney, is introduced to the heroine Catherine Morland. Although Austen narrates that their initial conversation is based on trivialities, she switches to dialogue as Tilney begins to satirise social norms: he does this by playong a game with Catherine during which the conventional course of polite conversation is mocked: 'forming his features into a set smile... affectedly softening his voice... with a simpering air' ( Northanger Abbey, p.12). Catherine colludes with the execution of the game, and Tilney makes barbed comments upon the conventions he mocks: '...some emotion must appear to be raised... I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again.' With this verbal game, Tilney demonstrates that he understands the underlying silliness of affecting modes of speech and referencing specifically trivial subjects for the sake of 'manners'. Catherine, however, is less confident; although she plays her part in the game, she is unsure whether she should laugh at the end of it.

  Henry then teases her, regarding what he believes that she will write in her journal about him, but here Catherine challenges his assumptions. To the reader, this asserts that Cstherine is possessed of a degree of independence: she is willing to play Henry's game, but will not be dominated by his putting words in her mouth. However, she lacks confidence over the depth of his mock-solemnity - her response to his comments upon ladies' journals is not to simply repeat or emphasise her earlier denial, but to remark that she doubts the quality of female writing is superior to the male style. Here, at the close of their conversation, they reach an agreement... for Henry too believes that 'excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes' (Northange Abbey, p.14).

  This initial conversation betwern the heroine and the hero reveals the differences in their personalities: Henry as a shrewd and satirical observer of Bath 'society', and Catherine as an observer who has yet to develop her critical faculties. She asserts her independence when Henry attempts to speak for her, yet falters when faced with more hypothetical topics. Despite Henry's eventual agreement with Catherine on the subject of writing, his behaviour has been interpreted as an accomplished form of 'bullying' by the critic Claudia L Johnson, who believes that Catherine's lack of confidence is a result of Henry's refusal to admit he could be wtong - as when he asserts, wtongly, that Catherine keeps a journal. For Johnson, Henry 'takes away the power of refusal, simply by turning a deaf ear to it' (Johnson, 1988, in Regan, 2001, p.183).

  The conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Allen, engaging in her favourite pastime of talking about clothes. Once again, Henry appears to be gently mocking, with not only his discourse upon a subject associated with the feminine sphere but his use of phrases which echo the language of Mrs. Allen herself: 'a prodigious bargain', 'I do not think it will wash well' (Northanger Abbey, p.14). He also grasps the opportunity of another joke at Catherine's expense by suggesting that her gown may provide useful material for smaller items - all the while disguising his satire as the semblance of sound economic sense: 'Muslin can never be said to be wasted.'

  Austen somewhat ambiguously states that Catherine, listening to the dialogue between Henry and Mrs. Allen, wonders if 'he indulged himself a little too much with the foibles of others' (Northanger Abbey, p.15). It is unclear here whether Catherine has missed Henry's satirical point, or is expressing criticism of his manner. As the chapter closes, Henry asserts that he now has the right to 'tease' Catherine whenever they meet.

  The function of this chapter is, principally, to introduce the character of Henry Tilney. Beneath his mocking/bullying are the roots of his rolebasbankind of 'teacher' to Catherine, a man who shows her how to challenge what she sees, an occupation he carries out himself through the medium of satire. However, as his assumptions show, he is not perfect. While teaching to others, he is also marked by his inability to listen to others.

  The chapter's relationship with the rest of the novel is one of both continuity and contrast. Continuity is provided by the Bath setting which had been introduced earlier, and which continues to form the environment backdrop for the rest of the volume, and by the characters of Catherine  Mrs. Allen with whom the reader is already familiarised. Contrast is provided by Austen's familiarising her readers with other new characters in the surrounding chapters. Catherine herself is introduced in the opening chapter, the Allens in the second, Mrs. Thorpe and Isabella in the fourth, with James, John and Eleanor being introduced later. It is a systematic way of emphasising the characters' differences by allowing breaks in chapters between introductions. This is a subtle allusion to individuality. After Henry's introduction in Chapter Three he vanishes from the narrative until Chapter Eight, during which time Catherine's sojourn in Bath becomes dominated by the boisterous Thorpes. However, his presence in the novel remains, as Catherine is eager to continue the acquaintance and looks for him at the Bath landmarks that she visits, and when he finally reappears , once again at a social gathering, he provides a contrast with the uncritical James and the oafish John.

Bibliography

Northanger Abbey, Austen, Jane, 1818, OUP, Oxford.
The Nineteenth Century Novel: A Critical Reader, ed: Regan, Stephen, 2001, Routledge, London.

'And what are you reading, Miss—?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady…in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.'

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A Village Divided

Village sign


Remote settlements can have a tendency to be defined by their very remoteness. How many times have you seen a hamlet, village or even a small town described as 'sleepy', or 'quiet', or 'peaceful'?

 These adjectives instantly qualify their subjects as places that are out of the way, spots relatively undisturbed by the roar of traffic and the clamour of crowds. Places that are awakened only by the twitter of birdsong and the sonorous pealing of Sunday morning church bells.

All of those adjectives could accurately be used to describe the Essex village of Paglesham. As much as any village in this dense and crowded shire could be described by any of the above, Paglesham seems the archetype. It can only be reached by a single, unrated road that originates in the large village of Hullbridge a few miles away, and the course of that road takes you through a distinct change in the landscape, from rolling fields and hedges into the flatter, wider expanses of the large areas of floodplain and saltmarsh that dominate the eastern seaboard of the county.

The village sign, pictured above, was set up to mark the Millennium and neatly encapsulates the qualities of the settlement. The larger plates reflect Paglesham's history of agriculture and maritime activity, while below, the sigil of Essex County Council is flanked by a cowslip - the flower also known as a pagle or paigle, from which the village takes its name - and an oyster, the community's chief export in a bygone age. The division of the two plates also reflects a more geographical split, for Paglesham is distinctly a village divided.

Paglesham Church End
The road splits as the traveller approaches the village; the turning on the left leads to the pastoral Church End, while the other leads to the maritime East End. Broad, austere fields form a distinct spatial barrier between the two.

St Peter's Church

The single street that runs through Church End trails off onto the marshes, and the hamlet is flanked by two distinctive buildings: St Peter's Church, dating back to Norman times, and the atmospheric, weatherboarded Punch Bowl inn, an establishment richly redolent of the area's smuggling past. Among the graves in the greensward of the village churchyard are those of the Blyth family, and one of them - William 'Hard Apple' Blyth - is something of a local legend.

Smugglers, busy smuggling.
William Blyth (1753-1830) was a busy man. He was a churchwarden, the local grocer, a Parish Councillor and even the local constable. He was also a smuggler, and stories of his physical prowess continue to the present day.

One story relates how Blyth once drank two glasses of wine at the Punch Bowl, then calmly proceeded to eat the glasses. Another has him partaking in a village cricket match which was interrupted by a rampaging bull. Enraged by this bovine interference, Blyth set about the startled animal with a cudgel then, as the beleaguered bull attempted to flee the scene of its chastisement, he grabbed its tail and was dragged along behind until the beast finally keeled over and died of shock and exhaustion. A local writer (and magistrate!), John Harriott, recorded how he hitched a lift, with Blyth and his crew,  back to Essex from Dunkirk in France. While seated in an inn with the smugglers, Harriott refused to partake in a toast to the destruction of the Customs men. This could have ended in an uncomfortable situation for the traveller, but he eloquently argued that without the Customs service there would be no smuggling, and they would all be the poorer for it. Ultimately, the smugglers begrudgingly conceded the point and they all drank a toast to 'revenue laws and officers for ever'.

Abandoned vessel on Paglesham Reach

Across the fields sits the hamlet East End, which forms the maritime half of Paglesham. Here may be found the popular Plough & Sail, a pub run by relatives of the TV chef Jamie Oliver, a native of Clavering on the other side of the county. Behind the pub, a rough road leads to the Marina, overlooking Paglesham Reach and the bleak Potton Island, most westerly of the five islands of the Essex Archipelago, and accessible only from a lane in Great Wakering. This island was home to several arable farms until it was overwhelmed by flooding in 1884, and is now pasture populated mostly by seabirds.

Paglesham Oystermen in 1908

A path along the sea wall strikes north from the Marina, and several points of historic interest can be seen before the path swings west to follow Paglesham Creek. The first is a series of old oyster beds on the foreshore, dating from  Victorian times. The heyday of Paglesham's oyster industry was between the 1870's and the Second World War, but the trade continues - albeit much reduced - to the present day.

Historic Oyster Beds

A short stroll to the north, at the confluence of Paglesham Reach and Paglesham Creek, overlooking both Potton and Wallasea Islands, stands a rather forlorn pillbox.

Paglesham Pillbox
Between the oyster beds and the pillbox, however, sits a patch of foreshore which, until about a century ago, was actually a dock... and, unknown to many of the visitors who amble along this bleak stretch of Essex coastal inlets, this innocuous piece of land hides a fascinating secret.

The site of the dock
Back in the area's days as a notorious haven for smugglers, several 'watch vessels' were set to work, patrolling the maze of inlets and waterways that form what is now known as the River Crouch and River Roach Tidal River System. One such vessel, larger than the others, was acquired from the Admiralty in 1845 and was unimaginatively named 'Watch Vessel No. 7'. Moored in the Reach at Paglesham, local fishermen and oystermen complained  it was forming an obstruction for honest traders as well as smugglers, and consequently the vessel was placed in the dock in 1851.

By 1870, probably in a poor state of repair, WV7 was sold to a pair of locals named Murray and Rainer, who set about dismantling it for salvage. It was stripped down to the hull, which was then abandoned in its dock.

Time and tide took their toll, and eventually the hull sank into the foreshore mud and disappeared from sight. The dock, unusable, silted up, and the remains of WV7 were apparently lost in time... until, in the early 2000's, Dr Robert Prescott of St Andrew's University uncovered documents which revealed the vessel's true identity.

It turned out that WV7 was, in fact, one of the most famous ships in English maritime history. Built at Woolwich Shipyard in 1820, it had made several trips around the globe as a research vessel. One such voyage was documented by its onboard scientist, the young Charles Darwin, who later turned those memoirs into a famous book.

Watch Vessel No.7 was HMS Beagle.

Depiction of HMS Beagle
Dr Prescott's team descended upon Paglesham and pinpointed the site of the dock. Victorian pottery was recovered from the scene, and an excavation revealed the ship's anchor, which now rests in the garden of Paglesham resident Ann Boulter, who has written a book about the vessel and its last days. An atomic dielectric resonance test performed in 2003 revealed that the ship's hull sits 21 feet deep in the mud and silt of the Paglesham foreshore. The last resting place of HMS Beagle had been rediscovered.

The grave of the Beagle
Paglesham is a quiet place, a peaceful place, long past its boisterous days of smugglers and oystermen. Nothing much to disturb the tranquility, other than the 'rustle of mudflats and the bustle of geese'.*

A bracing winter's breeze assails the rambler who follows the sea wall, passing the oyster beds, aiming for the distant pillbox. Stepping onto the springy, tough, wiry grass that hugs the brackish shore, avoiding the meandering rills with their treacherous, sucking pools of alluvium , scanning the almost featureless horizon and welling up with the knowledge that, less than six metres below your feet, lays the timbered remnants of a ship whose global journey in the 1830's sparked a scientific revolution. The name Beagle resonates into our present, into the era of space exploration, and here where the land and the sky stretch out into remote distance, it is so easy to stand and contemplate the echoes of destiny...


*from the poem 'The Leveret'. Yup, it's one of mine.