Stoneleigh Abbey (4 mile round trip)
Sunday, September 3, 2006
The last time we visited England, in the summer of 2000, Stoneleigh Abbey was covered with scaffolding, in the midst of a multimillion pound restoration project that was completed in 2003. This summer was a special summer for Stoneleigh Abbey, since it marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s stay at the house in August 1806. Jane Austen, whose mother had been Cassandra Leigh before her marriage to Rev. George Austen, came to Stoneleigh as the guest of her cousin, Rev. Thomas Leigh, who had recently inherited the estate. The estate, originally established as a Cistercian abbey in 1156, first came into the Leigh family in the middle of the sixteenth century.
Stoneleigh Abbey is approached from the west by a long, gracefully curving drive bordered on both sides by rows of tall lime trees (basswood trees to those of you at home). A visitor to the estate enters through the beautiful 14th century gatehouse, which belonged to the original monastery. A short distance beyond the gatehouse, the house itself rises magnificently in the midst of grounds originally landscaped by Sir Humphry Repton in the early 19th century. The older east wing of the house, built of local red limestone, was built on the foundations of the monastery. The baroque west wing was designed by Francis Smith of Warwick. (Smith’s characteristic use of Corinthian pilasters in the interior of Stoneleigh are perhaps a link with the church at Honiley.) Only the ground floor of the west wing is open to the public; the older east wing has been converted into private residences.
These exterior photographs show the gatehouse, the west wing, and the “lake” that Humphry Repton created by widening the Avon River (just as, closer to home, D. Blake Stewart, Carleton’s legendary groundskeeper, widened Spring Creek to create the Lyman Lakes on the Carleton College campus).
The most remarkable aspect of the interior, in my opinion, was the mid-eighteenth century plasterwork, especially in the Saloon (the great entry hall), which depicts the Labors of Hercules. The ceiling depicts the Apotheosis of Hercules. Interior photography is not permitted, but you can see some of the details of the plasterwork by following this link.
Our tour guide, who liked to imagine herself as the housekeeper in Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley, or Mrs. Rushworth at Sotherton, presented all of the family portraits to us in almost excessive detail, and lavished a great deal of attention on the furniture. She was fond of telling us that “this is exactly as Jane Austen would have seen it.” Stoneleigh Abbey is undoubtedly the model for Sotherton in chapters 8-10 of Mansfield Park. As we sat in the pews of the Leigh’s private chapel, the guide read us a passage from Mansfield Park in which the chapel of Sotherton is described. It was clear that we were sitting in exactly the place that Jane Austen described, but I didn’t experience any special frisson at the thought. In the end, Mansfield Park remains much more real to me than Stoneleigh Abbey. The stone and plaster of reality is no more than an interesting but minor footnote to the work of a brilliant imagination.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, chapter 9:
The whole party rose accordingly, and under Mrs. Rushworth's guidance were shewn through a number of rooms, all lofty, and many large, and amply furnished in the taste of fifty years back, with shining floors, solid mahogany, rich damask, marble, gilding, and carving, each handsome in its way. Of pictures there were abundance, and some few good, but the larger part were family portraits, no longer anything to anybody but Mrs. Rushworth, who had been at great pains to learn all that the housekeeper could teach, and was now almost equally well qualified to shew the house. On the present occasion she addressed herself chiefly to Miss Crawford and Fanny, but there was no comparison in the willingness of their attention; for Miss Crawford, who had seen scores of great houses, and cared for none of them, had only the appearance of civilly listening, while Fanny, to whom everything was almost as interesting as it was new, attended with unaffected earnestness to all that Mrs. Rushworth could relate of the family in former times, its rise and grandeur, regal visits and loyal efforts, delighted to connect anything with history already known, or warm her imagination with scenes of the past.