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

 

 

Genre: What is it Exactly?

On  2nd September on the second day of my Mystical Circles blog tour,Blog tour ad as at 26 August 2017 blogger Jenny in Neverland hosted a guest post from me on her blog.

This is part of a series when I shall be re-blogging those articles from that blog tour. So today’s post is the article Jenny first published, called:

Genre: what is it exactly?

As a writer, I believe we should be willing to explore new areas, and to step outside our comfort zone. And that applies very closely to us as readers too. I read a wide variety of books, both non-fiction, and fiction of all genres. I admit I do like psychological insight but I believe all good writers in every genre should incorporate that in their novels anyway.

I find that the way I think about genre is influenced by my own eclectic reading habits. I did have quite a bit of trouble trying to work out what genre I was writing in myself. Writers are given an enormous amount of advice these days, mostly from online sources, and amongst them is this adage: Write the kind of book you most love reading. But if you read a wide variety of books, how does this help?

Another piece of advice we find floating around the internet (perhaps propagated by the commercial publishing fraternity) is that an author should, when writing a pitch to a literary agent, be clear what genre he or she is working in, so the agent reading the letter can immediately think, “Whereabouts in the bookshop will this book will go?” Another piece of advice suggests you should name a few established authors to whom your novel could be compared.

All this is anathema to me – and to many other writers, I suggest. Yet we are forced into this kind of mindset.

So now, for the benefit of the readers of this article, I shall say that Mystical Circles is psychological suspense with a flavour of paranormal.

An example of my willingness to go into new areas is my recent attendance of the UK Games Expo, as one of five writers on the Authors Stand; and for a while, we were alongside a bestselling author and his legion of fans queuing up for signed copies: Ian Livingstone, the successful creator of the fighting Fantasy gamebooks series. So what do fighting fantasy and roleplay games have to do with books such as the ones I write?

I admit I knew nothing of the UK Games Expo until I was invited by the organiser, author Richard Denning, through his father John (a friend of mine) to come and exhibit/sell my books on the Authors Stall all weekend last June at the Birmingham NEC. It was a fabulous opportunity. The gaming world is one that I haven’t paid too much attention to, but the whole weekend was a revelation.

The atmosphere was wonderful, there was so much fun and good humour. I met and made contact with new authors, I had the chance to chat and learn better ways to promote myself as an author, and there was a great sense of camaraderie. The gaming world is one in which a vast number of “tropes” flourish: adventure, quests, danger, violence, fantasy, history, steampunk, sci fi…

I gained some new insights into how my own work is indeed using some of those tropes, for instance, the predicament of the main protagonist as she finds herself in a deadly situation from which she must escape. Hidden chambers and secret passageways and dark rooms all find their place in the gaming world. There was an unexpected connection for me.

Mystical Circles is set in the real world but the world Craig inhabits moves further and further into a world of impossible ideals – and the paranormal, an area in which he has special gifts. Hidden chambers and secret passageways and dark rooms all act as symbols for states of mind – and thus their connection to the world of psychological suspense fiction. And finally, family relationships, which play a strong role in my novel. Problematic relationships between father and son, between two sisters, between twin brothers, between mother and son… I find these provide a fertile ground upon which the action of my novels can be played.

Which leaves me still with a fluid situation as regards genre; though now I write psychological suspense, the paranormal element is getting stronger, and maybe in the future I could move into areas of fantasy and magical realism. All is possible.

A Passionate Spirit on Display at Kenilworth Books

Join me on Saturday 13 February at Kenilworth Books, Talisman Square, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, where I shall be signing copies of “A Passionate Spirit” from 11am to 2pm.  I’d love to see you there if you live within striking distance of Kenilworth, and you enjoy reading thrillers.

Come and chat to me, browse through my novel and many others, and support a lovely local independent bookshop, which, in common with many other independent bookshops, offers a personal service, a friendly welcome and a strong encouragement to local and independent authors along with those published by the major commercial publishing houses.

 

 

10 Things I Want My Readers to Know About Me

1. I was born and brought up in Orpington, Kent; my father’s family owned A.D. Skillman & Sons, the Ironmongers Shop opposite the Woolwich Ferry on the River Thames. This shop was started by my grandfather in December 1900 and the last owner was my brother Chris who sadly had to close for business in June 2002. During my early life, I regularly visited the shop and helped out there, and encountered colourful characters who made a strong impression on me.

Author photo SC Skillman
Author photo SC Skillman


2. My inspiration as a writer came from an early love of reading: at first, the stories of Enid Blyton. I began writing at the age of seven. All successful stories stem from this; the main protagonist leaves their ordinary life and enters a new world.


3. The first stories I ever wrote were adventure stories starring children of my own age doing exciting things. I was also influenced by Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmations, and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.


4. My previous workplaces have included BBC Schools Radio, the Royal College of Surgeons of England, the Universities of London, Queensland and Warwick, and the European School of Osteopathy. They have all furnished me with raw material for my two published novels Mystical Circles and

A Passionate Spirit.COVER DESIGN A PASSIONATE SPIRIT pub Matador


5. At the age of fifteen I had a summer job on the assembly line making pop-up toasters at Morphy Richards factory in St Mary Cray, Kent.


6. The best job I ever had was at the BBC when I worked with many creative people and had great fun recording programmes both in studio and on location.


7. The worst job I ever had was as a temp at a company called Imported Meat Trades Ltd (I’m a vegetarian). After the first day I was asked not to come back again (and it was nothing to do with my food preferences either…)


8. I got my ideas for my new novel A Passionate Spirit from many sources; the ghostly encounters in my book are all based on real stories, one of which is from my sister Julia who, several years ago, experienced paranormal activity while babysitting. I’ve also been inspired by esoteric and new age philosophies. Other ideas about my character Natasha (a mysterious spiritual healer) were sparked off by the sorceress Morgana in the BBC TV drama series Merlin.


9. I have myself experienced several groups like the ones in Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit; among the most quirky was a dream yoga group led by a shaman in the Australian rainforest.


10. If asked to give advice to anyone who wants to write I’d say, “Read a lot, listen to conversations, closely observe human behaviour and interaction in groups, and be persistent, single-minded to the point of obsession; never give up, always believe in yourself, despite all evidence to the contrary, and hold out for what you first dreamed of.”