Stoneleigh Abbey – a Glorious Restoration and a Fascinating Historical Tour

We recently made another visit to Stoneleigh Abbey, very near where we live in Warwick: a stately home that has been beautifully restored since it was devastated by fire in 1960.

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire
Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire

Originally home to an order of Cistercian monks granted land by Henry II in 1145, this later evolved into a gracious seventeenth century residence, formerly owned by the Leigh family, and it is the subject of one of the chapters in my forthcoming illustrated non-fiction book Spirit of Warwickshire.

I can also thoroughly recommend the historical house tour, and also the Jane Austen tour. The guide is both highly entertaining and full of fascinating historical information.

The house is famous for Jane Austen’s visit with her mother Cassandra in 1806, when they were both invited by Cassandra’s cousin the Revd Thomas Leigh to come and view his surprise inheritance. Cassandra – who does sound as if she was rather snooty, and a perfect model for some of Jane’s class-conscious characters –  was delighted and enormously impressed by everything she and her sharp-eyed daughter saw aand experienced during the ten days of their visit, and Jane herself, whilst admiring the physical attributes of the house, imbibed many subtle details which would later emerge in her novels, especially Mansfield Park.

"The morning room" at Stoneleigh Abbey
“The morning room” at Stoneleigh Abbey

Their visit came a few years before Thomas Leigh commissioned Humphrey Repton to landscape the grounds, or she would have  certainly have memorised her impressions and taken due note of details there too.

Humphrey Repton grounds, Stoneleigh Abbey
Humphrey Repton grounds, Stoneleigh Abbey

Now the rooms and chapel open to the public may often be the scene of a Jane Austen tour; guided by an experienced actor and devoted Jane Austen enthusiast, you may once again imagine that 1806 visit, enhanced as it will be by your close reading and knowledge of all Jane Austen’s novels.

View of the 14th century gatehouse at Stoneleigh Abbey
View of the 14th century gatehouse at Stoneleigh Abbey

Stoneleigh Abbey: A Setting to Inspire Jane Austen for Her Novels

If this be error and upon me proved

I never writ nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare:  Sonnet 116

Certainly, among novelists living and working in the centuries following Shakespeare’s outpourings of genius, it can most truly be said of Jane Austen that if anything she wrote be error and upon her proved, then she certainly never wrote at all. Elegant interior Stoneleigh AbbeyFor Jane Austen observed not only manners, attitudes, words and behaviours in her own society and social class, but she saw into the hearts of everyone she wrote about. Her subject matter took for its outward form a restricted world of elegance, wealth and privilege; but in its essence her focus was simply universal truth.

For her settings and character names, she took her inspiration from her own life, and the places she visited. One of these was Stoneleigh Abbey, situated between Kenilworth and Leamington Spa, near the village of Stoneleigh.

Stoneleigh abbey seen from the other side of the river AvonAs you turn off the B4115 from Leamington Spa, and drive in between the Grecian Lodges, and make your way along the avenue between the tall, symmetrical, evenly spaced rows of trees, you become immediately aware that you are in a setting of precision and elegance. Cross the rusticated stone bridge, and you will see ahead of you on the right the mellow stonework of the fourteenth century gatehouse.

Passing through the gatehouse you emerge onto a winding path beside  flower beds, and ahead of you arises an imposing, silver stone building surmounted with ornamental balustrades.

This is Stoneleigh Abbey, which occupies land granted to a group of Cistercian monks by Henry II in 1154.

The monks longed for a peaceful, tranquil piece of land and they certainly found it here beside the River Avon. Building commenced in April 1156 and the rhythm of the Daily Office continued here undisturbed over four hundred years for the white monks. But with the dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, there came Henry VIII’s agents, evicting the abbot and monks, dispersing them and confiscating lead and major timbers from the property for the royal treasury.

View of Stoneleigh Abbey from across the River Avon.jpgFor twenty five years the property remained a roofless ruin until it was sold to Sir Rowland Hill and Sir Thomas Leigh. Subsequently, it was to remain in the hands of the Leigh family for the next four centuries, whose first move was to build an Elizabethan manor from the ruins, while later generations built around the cloisters. By the seventeenth century it was a sumptuous and richly furnished mansion.

Jane Austen’s connection with Stoneleigh Abbey was via her mother Cassandra Leigh Austen’s relationship to the Leigh family. In 1806, following the death of Mary Leigh, the direct line of descent from the first Thomas Leigh came to an end and the estate of Stoneleigh Abbey passed to the successors of Thomas’s eldest son Rowland. Thus, Cassandra’s distant cousin Sir Thomas Leigh found himself the new owner, and he visited in 1806 with Jane Austen, her sister, and her mother.

During the few days of the visit, Jane Austen’s sharp observational skills were fully employed. Names and life histories of family members, details of conversations at the dinner table, and perfect descriptions of rooms and chapel, have all been discerned in her novels.

Elegant interior Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgAs you tour the grand rooms here today, you will observe that they are not  faded by age; but that they look exactly as they would have done in 1806. That is a consequence of a series of major reversals of fortune for the property, similar to the case of Compton Verney.  Following the disappearance of the family wealth, swallowed up in debts, the house went through a sad period of degradation. Then in 1960 a disastrous fire severely damaged the West wing. Most of the furniture and paintings were rescued, but the house was forced to close. In subsequent decades, it fell into further disrepair. In 1996 ownership of the house and estate was transferred from Lord Leigh to Stoneleigh Abbey Limited. Stoneleigh Abbey was saved from becoming a ruin.

Subsequently the Abbey underwent a massive restoration project in which close attention was paid to the integrity of the original. I visited the Abbey during its period of restoration and enjoyed a guided tour under the direction of a conservation expert, thereby gaining some insights into the methods by which the restorers ensured the materials, colours and furnishings were as authentic as they possibly could be.

Admired so much by Jane Austen's mother - interior at Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgNow, the ordered beauty of the Georgian interiors will fill you with a deep sense of pleasure and calm. These are much more appealing to my eye than the very busy interiors favoured in other historical periods: an abundance of flambuoyant rich gold frames and decorative work on already very ornate walls, along with rich and elaborate furniture, combines to assault the visitor with an overload of visual stimuli. But as we walk from room to room here, I appreciate their shape and proportions even more when complemented by the arrangement of the paintings, the three-dimensional plasterwork and the subtle colours of the wall coverings. The library with its mahogany panelling is one of my favourite rooms; I would love to retreat there for several days to immerse myself in the books, among which are the poetry books of former owner and friend of Lord Byron, Chandos Leigh.

Along with her mother and sister, Jane Austen would have greatly admired the aspect and proportions of the rooms, their decor and furnishings; but she would also have dedicated a finely-tuned ear to the conversations that took place within them. Nothing would have escaped her, especially not the words and behaviour of those who moved through these rooms. She would have silently accomplished what Lizzy Bennett does out loud, to the annoyance of Mr Darcy; that is, sketching their characters.

Interior, Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgI feel sure, too, that Jane Austen would have been only too aware of the wisdom of keeping this keen scrutiny to herself; for Lizzy Bennett’s voiced observations certainly alerted Mr Darcy to the fact that he was the subject of shrewd examination, much to his discomfort.

Just like several of her own heroines, Jane Austen would have been discerning the vices, quirks, and follies of her fellow dinner guests. She would be noting wit, or lack thereof; manners, and attitudes; and always what these revealed  of the hearts within.

Jane Austen’s visit came a few years before Thomas Leigh commissioned Humphrey Repton to landscape the grounds, or she would have  certainly have memorised her impressions and taken due note of details there too.

Now the rooms and chapel open to the public may often be the scene of a Jane Austen tour; guided by an experienced actor and devoted Jane Austen enthusiast, you may once again imagine that 1806 visit, enhanced as it will be by your close reading and knowledge of all Jane Austen’s novels.

 

How to get there:

Stoneleigh Abbey

Kenilworth

Warwickshire

CV8 2LF

 

Find out more:

www.stoneleighabbey.org

 

 

A Passionate Spirit in Lancaster Alumni Magazine

A Passionate Spirit is featured in the latest edition of “STEPS” the Lancaster University alumni magazine online.

The picture below was taken on Box Hill, in Surrey, on a recent visit.

I have happy memories of Box Hill from my childhood, as I was born and brought up in Kent. This is a landscape which has aroused love and feelings of spiritual wellbeing in many.

This time I couldn’t help but recall once again one of the most famous scenes in fiction; the picnic which takes place in Jane Austen’s novel Emma, when Emma allows her irritation with Miss Bates to overcome her forbearance… provoking a reaction from Mr Knightley which makes Emma realise for the first time how much she cares for his opinion of her.

And, curiously, Emma was the subject of my very first English Literature seminar at Lancaster, when I was pounced upon and challenged to mount an argument in defence of Jane Austen’s literary reputation. I had much less insight into human psychology then than I do now, having spent many more years observing people and relationships and the many ironies of this life; and (to my eyes at least) I failed miserably on that occasion!

A fitting literary scene, then, for an author photo to go alongside my Lancaster University alumni article.

Author Sheila Skillman at Box Hill, Surrey, January 2016

 

Find the article here

The Therapeutic Journey of the Fictional Hero or Heroine

Recently I came upon an article in The Psychotherapist magazine which highlights the close parallels between the novel and the process of psychotherapy.

In her article Psychotherapy and the Novel, in issue 56 Spring 2014 edition, the author (therapeutic counsellor Rosamond Williams) makes the point that only the novel (of all the narrative art forms) offers a parallel detail to the process of psychotherapy, in the exploration of relationships, thoughts and feelings.

Rosamond Williams cites as examples the following novels: Jane Austen’s Emma, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Dickens David Copperfield, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as well as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

In all of these we can trace the hero or heroine’s  learning curve through their confusions and unsatisfactory relationship to resolution: a very therapeutic experience for the reader as well as for the main protagonist.

I can bear out everything she says not only in my reading, but in my own novel-writing.

In Jane Austen’s Price and Prejudice for example, I believe there are many other universal truths, equally valid for our own lives in 2014 just as they were in Regency England, that  we can learn, well beyond the ironic and flippant one in the first line: that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.

Here’s just a small selection of the truths, helpful for a therapeutic journey, that I’ve picked out from Pride and Prejudice:

1)  even the most outrageous person, behaving badly, can end up getting what he or she wants;

2)  no matter how mortifying and objectionable, that person can still be playing a vital part in the chain of events leading to a final positive outcome;

3)  when you’re at your saddest and most disappointed, convinced you’ve lost all your hopes and dreams, you don’t know what is going on behind the scenes;

4) when all seems lost, help can sometimes come from the most unexpected quarter;

5) sometimes people do the most disgraceful things and end up triumphing through it, because of the links and connections they’ve unwittingly set up between other people;

and

6) sometimes you can, through your own wrong-headedness and flawed attitude, interfere to try and stop a certain event happening, and end up being the vital factor that facilitates it.

I can identify, too, with the psychotherapeutic  journey in my own fiction-writing. In my upcoming novel A Passionate Spirit, my heroine, Zoe, sees her situation as perfect and ideal; when negative influences start to creep in, she denies them; through her stubbornness she continues her denial until she is goaded by a friend with a totally different outlook on life to recognise the threat for what it is. Only when the antagonism has become too great for her to ignore, she makes a critical choice to take responsibility and act to oppose the menace which is engulfing her life.

To me this closely parallels the journey one may take in psychotherapy.

 

 

 

 

Totally Devoted to Jane Austen

One of my favourite Christmas gifts was one I bought for myself for 10p in the late stock-clearance at my son’s school Christmas Fair – an audio book of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice book cover (The Folio Society Definitive Collector's Edition)
Pride and Prejudice book cover (The Folio Society Definitive Collector’s Edition)

I’ve been listening to it in the car over and over again. And despite Death Comes to Pemberley  on TV after Christmas, I still cannot get enough of Elizabeth, Darcy, Mrs Bennett, Lydia, Wickham and all the rest of them.

In addition, as another Christmas gift I received the DVD set of the classic BBC TV series starring Colin Firth as Darcy and Elizabeth Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett.

You’d think that knowing all the story-points and the outcome would dim your enthusiasm for engaging with one novel again and again.

Yet in Pride and Prejudice my appetite is never sated.

On every hearing, there are new glittering gems of psychological insight, discernment and irony to be found.

Was there ever such a bitchy young woman as Miss Bingley? Or such a cringing sycophant as Mr Collins? Can we ever quite fathom the sardonic detachment of Mr Bennett? And was Lady Catherine really pleased with Mr Collins’s obsequiousness? And can we ever truly understand Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr Collins, or determine exactly what Mr Wickham imagined would happen to Lydia and her family once he’d  finished with her in London and gone off abroad to seek better chances there – as was his avowed plan when Darcy finally hunted him down? And has any author ever written a  better account of a changing heart than Jane Austen’s, in her depiction of Elizabeth reading Mr Darcy’s letter and coming to a new opinion of the respective characters of Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy?

We keen novel readers have many ideas of the best novel ever written. Some may say Cervantes’ Don Quixote, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or  Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But I say Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is the most perfect novel ever written because I can never get my fill of her wisdom and  insight into human relationships and behaviour and motivation. And there seems no end to the power of this story and these characters and this author’s observations, to set off answering bells in my own life-experience.

Literary Criticism, Joseph Conrad Corns and Jane Austen’s Irony

A friend recently asked me this question on behalf of her daughter, an Eng Lit A level student: “How do you analyse a novel?” And I tried to be helpful… but what strikes me most about literary criticism is that even though you may analyse a novel on many levels, according to the personal preference of the analyst, none of it  may bear any resemblance to the author’s original intention.

I am taken back to my university days; and both Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad rise up before my mind’s eye. What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about?  wrote Joseph Conrad to HG. Wells in 1902. (See Claire Harman’s website for more on this!)

I recall my first Eng Lit seminar at university. Before us was Jane Austen’s novel Emma which we’d all been asked to read during the vacation. Our tutor opened by asking, “Does anybody here actually like Jane Austen?”  Silence met this question. Then I foolishly said, “Yes.” “Why?” he shot at me. “Her use of irony,” I said. “Read me a passage from the book which demonstrates her use of irony,” he said. The spotlight was on me. My mind blanked. I flipped through the book, totally unprepared, panicking. “All of it is ironic,” I said.

At that time I was naive and unprepared for the kind of critical thinking university study requires of you. I soon became more streetwise, but even so there was no way to avoid being caught out. Another tutor opened a seminar with the words: “Today we are going to look at Sylvia Plath as victim and product of society.” Later on in the discussion, he targeted me with the words, “And what about you, Sheila? Surely this relates to your earlier theme, doesn’t it?” And I couldn’t remember what my earlier theme was.

The final word goes to a third tutor (a world authority on Joseph Conrad with a long list of acclaimed publications behind him) who walked into a seminar room where we sat with Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent before us: “Now, come on; who’s going to step on my Joseph Conrad corns?” Later we considered Conrad’s motif of overweight villains. In The Secret Agent  we read that Mr Verloc is:   “… fat – the animal.” “What a horrifying vision of humanity,” mused our tutor. “I must slim.”