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

 

 

An Interview on Linda’s Book Bag About My Newly Released Edition of Mystical Circles

On 9th September 2017 on the last day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, fellow blogger Linda Hill published an interview with me on her blog Linda’s Book BagBlog tour ad as at 26 August 2017 This is the final one in a series of  nine blog posts, in which I re-publish the stops on my blog tour.

So with my thanks to Linda, here’s the interview she first published on her blog on Saturday 9th September 2017:

An Interview with SC Skillman, Author of Mystical Circles

Mystical Circles cover

I know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but Mystical Circles by SC Skillman really appeals to me and so I’m delighted to be featuring it on Linda’s Book Bag today as part of the launch celebrations. I have an interview with SC Skillman that sheds light on Mystical Circles in a very enlightening way!

Published by Luminarie, Mystical Circles is available for purchase here.

Mystical Circles

Mystical Circles cover

“Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds. Massive change of plan. I’m in love. Craig’s gorgeous, sexy, intelligent. Paradise here. Staying forever.”

Juliet, concerned that her younger sister has fallen in love with the charismatic Craig, leader of the Wheel of Love, sets off for the Cotswolds to investigate, fearful that Zoe has become entangled with a religious cult.

She arrives at Craig’s community hoping to rescue Zoe. But  intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle, and despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love… with completely unforeseen consequences.

An Interview with SC Skillman

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag. Firstly, could you tell me a little about yourself?

I was born and brought up in Orpington, near south London. As a child I was inspired by Enid Blyton. I started writing adventure stories at the age of seven; the love of writing that her stories first instilled into me has strengthened over the years. I studied English Literature at Lancaster University, and my first permanent job was as a production secretary with the BBC.

Later I lived for nearly five years in Australia before returning to live in the UK.

I now live in Warwickshire with my husband David, son Jamie and daughter Abigail. Nearby are three of England’s most famous destinations: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon Avon and the two great castles at Kenilworth and Warwick.

Without giving away the plot, please could you tell us a bit about Mystical Circles?

Mystical Circles is set in the beautiful Cotswolds hills, not far from my present home. It’s a psychological suspense with a hint of paranormal. When freelance journalist Juliet learns that her sister Zoe has fallen for the charismatic leader of a mystical cult in the Cotswolds, she sets off to investigate, and to rescue Zoe. But she is unprepared for what her investigations will uncover. Intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle, and despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love… with completely unforeseen consequences.

(This sounds really intriguing!)

Your writing considers the themes of spirituality and human psychology. Why do you choose to write about these themes?

I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction of different complex personalities, an inexhaustible source of inspiration for a writer. The general inspiration for Mystical Circles arises largely from the advice I give an aspiring writer: read a lot, listen to people’s conversations, be observant about the details of your world, and especially about human behaviour and interaction.

More specifically, for the story, themes and characters of this novel, I drew upon my own past experience of “hunting in ‘Guru Land’”. My journey has led me from the insights of the late Laurens Van Der Post and the inspirational writings of the late Dr Raynor Johnson via a mystical mountain in the Himalayas (Mount Neelkanth near Badrinath) to a dream yoga course in Brisbane Forest Park.

I lived in Bayswater in London for eight years and during my time there I attended courses and lectures at the Theosophical Society in Gloucester Place, and investigated spiritualism at the Spiritualist Association in Belgrave Square and at the White Eagle Lodge, Kensington. I also became a member of the Centre for Spiritual & Psychological Studies which met at the Royal Overseas League, St James’s Street and spent a weekend with the group at Hawkwood College near Stroud in Gloucestershire. I additionally studied the teachings of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh at his Body Centre in Belsize Park and at his Hertfordshire branch Medina Rajneesh. In both places I experienced Dynamic Meditation and his own brand of group therapy.

My most quirky New Age experience was in Australia, walking backwards through the rainforest as part of a residential Dream Yoga weekend held at Cosmos Lodge, Mount Nebo, Brisbane Forest Park.  It was on this occasion that the course leader, a dream interpretation guru called Greg, spoke the memorable words: ‘If you master the art of lucid dreaming, death will be a breeze.’  Something from all these experiences has played into Mystical Circles.

Many reviewers refer to the wonderful quality of your characterisation. Which is more important to you as a writer, character or plot and why?

I believe that character and their motivations and relationships drives plot, and plot often arises as you get to know your characters really well and watch them responding to and reacting against each other. An essential task when one plans a novel is to create a ‘bible’ for each character. I love observing people and listening to conversations and also I love writing dialogue. It’s one of my favourite things about writing fiction. From the point of view of a reader, I believe the greatest joy in reading novels is to be inside the heads of fictional characters. When we feel we are living inside the mind and heart of someone else, when we feel we share their joys and sorrows, and understand how they think, this is the greatest transformation of which a novelist is capable.

(Oh yes. You’ve summed that up beautifully. That’s exactly the experience I want as a reader.)

You’ve lived in Australia which has a strong aboriginal tradition of Dreamtime and now live in an area of the UK steeped in history. How far do you think living location impacts on a writer?

It has a strong impact. I have known of several novelists for whom “the spirit of place” is of paramount importance. Everywhere I have lived I have sought out these things: water (in rivers and lakes), trees and forests, beautiful gardens, castles and historical sites, high viewpoints with panoramic vistas.  All these things have a powerful emotional effect upon me.  Nevertheless I am aware, that wherever you go in the world ‘you’ are still there. You can never escape from yourself.

I set out to develop this idea in Mystical Circles, as I brought together several troubled individuals, many with problematic family relationships, in an idyllic location. All the members of the Wheel of Love (the cult group) have escaped from their normal lives, to come apart and find something special, a spiritual haven. Yet the one thing they cannot escape is themselves: their own hearts and minds and, most importantly, the emotional position they take about their past. I believe our greatest challenge in life is to understand ourselves, and understand the human heart. Being in a beautiful geographical location can impact us strongly, but not in the way we might hope, if we are trying to escape ourselves. In aboriginal spirituality, human lives and every aspect of the land have been so intimately linked over many centuries, that it was only the incursion of an alien culture which introduced negative influences. I have been deeply moved by aboriginal spirituality, through some of the places I’ve visited in Australia, and hope to incorporate this in a future novel.

When you’re not writing, what do you choose to read?

I read a wide variety of books both fiction and non-fiction, of different genres, and I always review them on Amazon and Goodreads. I have just finished reading How To Think Like Churchill by Daniel Smith and am halfway through a novel called The Life of Elves by Muriel Barber, and have several physical books and kindle books on my TBR piles. I will read Young Adult, thrillers, fantasy, comedy, historical, suspense, psychological, crime, paranormal, romance…  I love the novels of Phil Rickman, Susan Howatch, Dan Brown, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling and many others. In my teens I read through Thomas Hardy, Emile Zola, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens. And I also love Jane Austen and the Brontes.

If you could choose to be a character from Mystical Circles, who would you be and why?

I’d choose to be Theo. He is something fresh coming in from the outside into the hothouse environment of the group, and he is all about people on spiritual journeys and he believes in coming alongside them, without judging. He listens to people and helps them to see themselves differently and how they might move forward in their journeys of self-knowledge. But also he is someone whose background hides a mystery and that creates an extra sense of intrigue about him.

If Mystical Circles became a film, who would you like to play Zoe and why would you choose them?

This is easy because, as a keen film buff and TV drama fan, I have plenty of ideas for my dream cast! Currently, to play the part of Zoe, I feel I would like Sophie Turner (who plays Sansa in Game of Thrones). Firstly she looks right – she has long auburn hair and is physically my idea of Zoe.  She is a diverse actress, who used to be in Playbox Warwick near where I live – a wonderful youth theatre which my children attended – and can play a young naive, excitable character, which is how Zoe is when she precipitates the action of this novel.

If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Mystical Circles should be their next read, what would you say?

Like troubled family relationships infused with spiritual and psychological tension? This book is for you.

Thanks so much for telling us a bit more about Mystical Circles and your interesting life!

About SC Skillman

SC Skillman Author photo WEB

SC Skillman studied English Literature at Lancaster University. She has previously worked within a BBC radio production office and later spent four years in Australia. She now lives in Warwickshire with her husband David, their son Jamie and daughter Abigail.

You can find SC Skillman on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also visit her blog.

There’s more with these other bloggers too:

Blog tour ad as at 26 August 2017

 

 

Book Review: The Beatles Lyrics by Hunter Davies

Having received this book as a Christmas gift, substantial 375-page tome that it is, I devoured it in a few days.

The Beatles Lyrics The Unseen Story Behind Their Music by Hunter Davies
The Beatles Lyrics The Unseen Story Behind Their Music by Hunter Davies

I found the book utterly compelling. Hunter Davies starts by describing his search among collectors, companies and auction houses for what must surely rank among the most valuable “scruffy scraps of paper” in the world: those the Beatles first wrote their original lyrics down on. A good proportion of these got thrown away by the Beatles then disposed of by the cleaners at Abbey Road Studios but several of those which didn’t ended up in the possession of certain key individuals who wish to keep the huge value of their possessions secret.

Hunter Davies himself offered his own personal collection of handwritten lyrics to the British Library on permanent loan and they now reside in the Manuscript Room alongside the Magna Carta, Shakespeare and Wordsworth.

Alongside photos of the handwritten lyrics, some on the backs of letters and birthday cards and envelopes, Davies gives an account of how the words were chosen, and what they mean, with some intriguing memories from his own personal contacts with the Beatles and with Brian Epstein. In so doing, he tells the story of the Beatles’ lives as musicians and songwriters entirely in and through the lyrics, the way they were composed, and the way in which their writers developed personally between 1957 and 1969.

During his observations on the songs he draws out not only the intended sense of them (if there was any – and sometimes John Lennon would deliberately write nonsense to defy the intellectual analysts) but also the unconscious meanings in the words, what they reveal of their composers’ inner lives. On one occasion, referring to some of George Harrison’s lyrics, Davies observes: “Perhaps George fooled himself, harbouring a subconscious fear that he was not admitting at the time or even aware of.”

Davies also examines the way the words emerged from the Beatles’ own life experience. I found his insights into Paul McCartney and John Lennon all the more moving because a lot of those biographical details held high emotional charge for me at the time. I became a Beatles fan at an early, and very impressionable, age – too young to be allowed to go to any of their concerts. Nevertheless I was devoted to them; every detail of their lives reported in the media, I followed avidly.

But there were several things I misunderstood.For instance, by the time “Beatles For Sale” came out, the acquisition of a new Beatles LP was so precious to me, so desirable, that I would never have guessed this title emerged from the Beatles’ own feelings of almost unbearable pressure at the commercial expectations being laid upon them.

One of the most engrossing aspects of the book is Davies’ reflection on the nature of success, and upon the creative process, often erratic and uneven. For instance, he recounts journalist Kenneth Allsop encouraging John to show his feelings more in his pop lyrics, closing the gap between his literary outpourings and his pop lyrics. And writing song lyrics is comparable in one sense to writing a novel, something Davies is quite explicit about, showing the way writers may unwittingly betray attitudes never consciously intended. “Novelists in particular,” writes Davies, “often create situations on paper, out of their imagination, which then come true.”

Davies gives a sensitive and penetrating analysis of John and his angst in particular, for, as he notes, “the discovery that success is all rather hollow, that you are still alone with yourself, can of course lead to self-destruction through excess be it drink or drugs.”

On page 234 Davies notes: “This was their philosophy: you could do these things, if you really wanted. There was no need to follow the rules or be bossed around.” How I identify with that ideal. Yet the truth is that this can only really apply to creatives when they have established themselves and become successful. As Hunter Davies says, “it helped that by this time they were multi-millionaires who had already made their mark in the music business.” And they’d made their mark through following Brian Epstein’s rules and letting him boss them around.

To conclude, I found studying this book to be a very intense experience. As we see the lyrics developing from boy-girl love songs fixated with promises to “be true” into richer, profounder and often more disturbing lyrics, as we study how the Beatles’ lives became more complex and their experience of the world deepened, it’s almost like seeing a reflection of our own lives, moving on from naivety, simplicity and idealism, through all the mistakes, folly, betrayal, loss and disillusion, along with the flashes of wonder, fun, hope, and joy.

 

Novelists and Screenwriters – Where To Find All You Need To Know About Story Structure

Several years ago, I nearly signed on for Robert McKee’s “Story Structure” workshop in London – tempted by the testimonial from John Cleese, who attributed his success in creating the Fawlty Towers scripts to what he learned from this workshop. But I saw it was essentially for screenwriters, and chose to pass on it.  I have since recognised that story structure  is universal, and applies not only to screenwriters, but also novelists. When I recently found this book in Waterstones Piccadilly, the inner voice said “Buy it!” And I obeyed.  Now I’ve absorbed all that McKee has to say about story, it will transform the way I work on the second draft of my new novel.

Story saturates our lives, through books, plays, the theatre, TV and radio drama, and movies; and we all respond to story instinctively. And yet if we were asked to explain why we respond as we do, and why something works or not, many of us would fall silent. But Robert McKee does explain. One thing that has long mystified me is: “How is it that we are satisfied by a story where the protagonist does not achieve his desire?”  McKee replies that “the flood of insight that pours from the gap delivers the hoped-for emotion, but in a way we could never have foreseen.”  He illustrates his points with many references to famous movies. “Story” is a huge challenge; dense and even overwhelming, its author acknowledges this at the end: “You have pursued “Story” to its final chapter and, with this step, taken your career in a direction many writers fear… I know that when confronted with a rush of insights even the most experienced writer can be knocked off stride.” I hope that, having studied thoughtfully, as I “follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty,” I too may “write boldly” and produce stories that “will dazzle the world.”

SC Skillman