Last month’s post included an excerpt of Elizabeth’s love for architecture and viewing a glimpse of Knole House. This month’s is about the house and its residents. Jane Austen only gives us a few passages about Rosings and even less about the surrounding area. We know nothing about the village of Hunsford. In Mr. Collins’ first letter to Mr. Bennet, we read that it’s near the town of Westerham, Kent. We also know that the style of living in the area was beyond Mr. Collins’ reach and so they had few engagements other than invitations to Rosings.
Westerham itself is unremarkable. However, nearby is the town of Sevenoaks and Knole House. The Archbishop of Canterbury built the original structure in 1456. A century later it came to the Sackvilles. At one time it was a calendar house. So called because it had three hundred sixty-five rooms, fifty-two staircases, twelve entrances and seven courtyards. The home boasts of Stuart era furnishings, art from Van Dyck, Gainsborough, and Joshua Reynolds. There are many other items of interest such as the Italianate staircase and carved “Sackville Leopards” holding up heraldic shields in their paws.
In Jane Austen’s lifetime, the third Duke of Dorset resided in the home. The French Ambassador preceding the French Revolution, he was also an avid cricket player, Lord Lieutenant of Kent, Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard, and one of the greatest rakes of the era. He had public affairs with Ann Parsons, an actress who was a former mistress of the Prime Minister and nearly his second wife, Bess Foster friend to Georgiana Cavendish and lover to her husband the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and most notably with a Venetian ballet dancer. He commissioned a portrait of her and a sculpture of her nude reclining on a divan which still resides at Knole. Upon his return from France, he married Arabella Cope, the daughter of a baronet and step-daughter to the Earl of Liverpool.
By the time Pride and Prejudice was published, the third Duke had died and passed the title to his only legitimate son, George, who had inherited the title at the age of six. In 1813 he was twenty years old, obtained an MA from Oxford, and became a captain and then a lieutenant-colonel of the Sevenoaks Militia. The Dowager Duchess remarried shortly after the third Duke but continued to go by her superior title. Her step-father had died and her half-brother, Robert, had inherited the title as Earl of Liverpool. He became Prime Minister in 1812 after the death of Spencer Perceval. In his earlier political days, he voted against the abolition of the slave trade and was a leader of the India Board of Control. By contrast, his younger brother, and the eventual third Earl, was also a politician but notably did not serve in the cabinet during his brother’s tenure as Prime Minister. Additionally, his wife was the daughter of a famed astronomer.
In Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride, Darcy and Elizabeth spend considerable time in Kent, and that includes meeting Lady Catherine’s neighbors. I take artistic license with the families of the Duke of Dorset and the Earls of Liverpool but keep them in their historical roles. A peer who argued against the abolition of slavery might be proud and condescending toward the lower gentry. A man who marries the daughter of an Irish astronomer may be more sympathetic. What of a Duke whose father was a womanizer? Here, I have an excerpt of the Rosings and Hunsford parties being guests for a picnic and cricket game at Knole House.
“Who did you say this one was and where was she from?” the Countess asked, looking at Lady Catherine.
“Her name is Elizabeth Bennet and father has an estate in Hertfordshire,” Lady Catherine replied. “I have told her before she gives her opinions shockingly freely for one so young.”
Inwardly, Darcy cringed at the way they talked about Elizabeth as though she were not present or capable of speaking for herself. He opened his mouth to defend her, but the expression on her face showed she was more amused than offended. Their eyes met, and silently she communicated that he need say nothing.
“Miss Bennet,” the Countess gave Elizabeth a haughty look. “It is forgivable you do not know much of superior society. I do not mean Lady Darcy. I am speaking of Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, wife to the second Earl and Clara and Amelia’s aunt.”
“I am sorry, aunt to who?” Elizabeth asked.
The duchess set down her teacup. “There are far too many Catherine and Annes about. The ones you call Lady Anne and Lady Catherine, we as close friends of the family,” she nodded at Lady Catherine and then Darcy,” know as Clara and Amelia, their second names.”
“Forgive me, I had not realised,” Elizabeth said and looked nervously at her tea cup.
“I cannot speak for my aunt,” Darcy said, “but my mother was known to nearly all as Clara. Their father did not inherit the earldom until just after Lady Catherine’s birth, and there were several Annes in the family already. Mother might have been known as Lady Anne in formal situations, but she grew up as Clara Fitzwilliam, daughter to a barrister who never expected to inherit.”
“At any rate,” the Countess continued in a bored tone, “Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, the Countess, was a leader in that Bluestocking Club. It was she who involved Lady Darcy and later Clara in it. We were all just scandalised when she married the Earl. His first wife had been the daughter of a marquis and died after their first child, a son and his heir, was born. He lived decades without remarrying. We all believed he loved his wife too much.”
“What happened?” Anne asked, appearing fascinated with the talk of long dead relatives she had never known.
“The young man died,” the Countess said.
“In a riding accident, if you can believe it,” the Duchess inserted. “I always tell my son to take care riding, but then with his superior breeding he has the most magnificent seat I have ever seen.”
She eyed Darcy, and he held back another scowl.
“So, the Earl remarried, and just how he settled on a bluestocking we have never quite ascertained,” the Countess added.
“I am surprised to hear you demean a relation of your own,” Lady Catherine said, glaring at the Countess. “My aunt was the granddaughter of Viscount Falmouth, as you well know. What a joy it is for us to share a great-grandmother and claim such close kinship to James the Second.” The Countess sucked in a breath and paled, but Lady Catherine continued. “I know how the relationship pleases you since you named your daughter Arabella.”
When his aunt had finished, there was an awkward silence in the room, but he had eyes only for Elizabeth. Mirth swam in them, and he knew the same was reflected in his own. Finally, the door opened and several others bounded inside.
“Ah, Dorset,” the Duchess greeted her son and gave introductions.
“Enough formality,” the young Duke said when she had finished reminding Darcy of Bingley. “We have come to gather men for cricket. Darcy, I see your cousin is absent this year. I do not know that we will have enough unless any of you ladies play?”
Darcy did scowl when Dorset’s appreciative gaze landed on Elizabeth.
Hmmm…just what could happen next? Do you think Lady Catherine is in good company with such arrogant women? My next post will hopefully be celebrating the release of Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride as I have finally finished the first draft and it’s ready for editing!