It’s that time of year when it’s not much fun to be outdoors – too cold, too wet, too windy. As I’m sitting with a frothy cup of hot chocolate, remembering days of summer and trips to gorgeous places, I’m thinking now’s a good time for an imaginary tour.
So how about a tour of country houses? Don’t know about you, but I find them terribly fascinating – the exquisite interiors, the colourful gardens, the glimpses into a vanished way of life, but most of all the snippets of old stories about their former owners. It’s those stories that bring the houses back to life and make them feel like homes rather than museums.
Not surprisingly, I make a beeline for the Georgian ancestors every time, and especially the late Georgians, Jane Austen’s contemporaries. Which is why I thought the first house on the tour has to be one with a connection to her – The Vyne, in the parish of Sherborne St John, not far from Steventon.
The Vyne has known great splendour in its heyday as a Tudor powerhouse, when it was the home of William Sandys, peer of the realm, Knight of the Garter and Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain. Over a hundred years later, in 1653, it changed hands from the Sandys to the Chutes. The first Chute owner, Chaloner, Speaker of the House of Commons during the Commonwealth, commissioned massive alterations to the Tudor house, reducing it in size and modernising it substantially. One of the notable features is the classical portico. These days, we can hardly picture a grand mansion without one. The Vyne was the very first English country house to have one added, in Chaloner’s time.
His immediate successors seemed to have been content to just keep the house in good repair. The next visionary descendant was John Chute, a very close friend of Horace Walpole’s. The Vyne owes those two gentlemen much of its enduring beauty – not least the exquisite entrance hall and staircase.
John Chute had no direct heirs and on his death, in 1776, the estate went to a cousin, who changed his name to Chute, and in 1790 to the cousin’s son William.
Jane Austen’s brother James was for a while vicar in the parish of Sherborne St John. He was often invited to dine at the ‘great house’ and hunt with the master of the estate. William John Chute inherited The Vyne when he was thirty-three and single, which must have set the local matrons’ hearts aflutter, for a single man in possession of a great fortune must be in want of a wife. Jane Austen, then fourteen, could not have been one of the contenders, but she was old enough to be aware of the feverish speculations as to which of the local beauties would be lucky enough to become the mistress of one of the best houses in the county.
Sadly for the neighbouring ladies, William Chute did not choose any of them. He married Miss Elizabeth Smith, a young lady from Devizes in Wiltshire.
Later on, Mrs Chute was to write often in her diaries about the ‘Austins’ (for some reason, she never spelled their name as they did). She is in fact thought to be the artist who drew the charcoal sketch now on display at Chawton, the one that many people would like to believe is a likeness of Jane Austen, portraying her as a strong, mature woman – a writer, proud of her craft and aware of her merit – rather than the frilly and vapid Victorian version. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/8934293/New-portrait-of-Jane-Austen-reveals-her-true-feisty-character.html).
The charcoal sketch is marked on the reverse ‘Miss Jane Austin’, which is consistent with Elizabeth Chute’s spelling, and the sitter certainly has the Austen nose. Nevertheless, Mrs Chute never seemed to warm towards the ‘Austins’, except perhaps Henry, and according to some tart remark in one of Jane’s letters, the sentiment was mutual, so who knows if she had really drawn a sketch of the ‘Austins’ youngest daughter?
Elizabeth Chute and her husband had no children of their own, but Mrs Chute’s mothering instincts were appeased by little Caroline Wiggett, a relation of William’s on his mother’s side. She came to live with them when she was three, and the separation from her many siblings, resulting in a lonely life in a very large house must have accounted for the melancholy tone of her reminiscences, written in her old age. She is nowadays regarded as a real-life Fanny Price and the possible inspiration for the heroine of Mansfield Park, even though in Caroline’s case there was real affection between her and her aunt. Still, she did not inherit The Vyne. On her uncle’s death the estate went to her brother, who eventually made further improvements and raised a large family there. Several watercolours painted by his wife Martha and his daughter Elizabeth captured the family life of the house. Among them there is the happy picture of the spacious stone gallery turned from some sort of indoor conservatory into a playroom, complete with a badminton net fixed across it, lots of toys, easels, woodcraft tools and a huge rocking horse.
There are no toys there any more, but the stone gallery is still a happy place. Some years ago, at a Jane Austen event, I’ve seen it used for dancing, and they couldn’t have chosen a better setting!
Outside, on the front lawn, there was a very different demonstration: just beyond the canvas tents and the bivouac fire, dashing redcoats were instructing their men to fire their muskets, salvo after salvo. Miss Lydia Bennet would have been giddy with excitement. Can’t say I blame her, it was pretty exciting! Or maybe I should find it terrifying that there’s quite so much of Lydia in me 😉
But speaking of exciting goings-on at The Vyne, a few years ago a new exhibition was opened, having at its centre a ring with a fascinating history. Apparently it was found in 1785 near Silchester by a farmer ploughing his field. It was sold to the Chutes and remained in the family, but later discoveries showed that the ring might have had a curse put on it. A tablet found more than 100 miles away revealed that the ring belonged to someone by the name of Silvianus. It was stolen from him, and in the tablet Silvianus asked the god Nodens to strike the offender down.
You can find out more here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2302710/Was-cursed-Roman-ring-exhibition-Hampshires-The-Vyne-JRR-Tolkiens-inspiration-The-Hobbit.html and http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/apr/02/hobbit-tolkien-ring-exhibition.
The ring had sparked some controversy. Some would like to believe it was Tolkein’s inspiration, while others strenuously oppose that idea. Nevertheless, after years of being all but forgotten in a display case in the library, the ring is now receiving all the attention that such an amazing artefact deserves.
Would you like to see the library? I’m sure you’d love it, it’s a wonderful room! And don’t miss the tiny chair under the desk.
The oak gallery is amazing too, with its linenfold panelling decorated with motifs celebrating the most powerful personages in the land. The King and Queen’s motifs are the most frequent (the Tudor rose, the tower for Castile, the pomegranate for Aragon) while others are identified by their war cry or by their ‘rebus’ – a sort of pun on their name.
The gardens looked ever so pretty in the spring and summer.
Here you can also see the summerhouse, where guests would have come to enjoy the last course of the banquet.
I hope you liked the tour. Please join me next month for something more Christmassy.