"Chapter XV." by Constance Hill
"On scenes like these the eye delights to dwell."
IN the month of August 1806, Miss Jane Austen and her mother paid a visit to their relative, the Rev. Thomas Leigh, of Adlestrop, who had just inherited and taken possession of Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire.
The Abbey stands in one of the most beautiful and luxuriant parts of the county, between Kenilworth and Leamington; the Avon winding through its pleasure grounds and deer park. In the medieval part of the building there is an ancient gate-house, upon which is still to be seen a stone escutcheon bearing the arms of Henry II., the founder of the Abbey.
In the days of the Stuarts the Leighs were ardent Royalists. It was in Stoneleigh Abbey that King Charles I. found a resting-place in 1642. "The King was on his way to set up his standard at Nottingham and had marched to Coventry; but finding the gates shut against him, and that no summons [Page 162] could prevail with the mayor and magistrates to open them, he went the same night to Sir Thomas Leigh's house at Stoneleigh, and there his majesty met with a warm and loyal welcome and right plenteous and hospitable entertainment from his devoted subject Sir Thomas." Was Sir Walter Scott, we wonder, thinking of this same Sir Thomas Leigh when he described the character of his fine old cavalier, Sir Harry Lee, of Woodstock?
Some of the circumstances of his story curiously tally with those connected with the Royalist owner of Stoneleigh Abbey, and certainly the romantic attachment of the Leighs, as a family, to the Stuarts would have appealed to the imagination of the author of "Waverley." So strong was this attachment, we read, that from the time of the flight of James II. down to the very close of the eighteenth century the Lords Leigh, of each [Page 163] succeeding generation, kept aloof from all public affairs, refusing even to attend the meetings of Parliament. They lived in complete retirement, amid the memories of former times, and "surrounded by portraits of the fallen family." Among these there was a "likeness of King Charles I., by Van Dyck, which, during the troubled times, was painted over with flowers, and which was only discovered in 1836."
The visit of Miss Jane Austen and her mother to Stoneleigh Abbey is chronicled in the following amusing letter, written by Mrs. Austen to a daughter-in-law, the greater part of which has fortunately been preserved:
"MY DEAR MARY, - The very day after I wrote you my last letter, Mr. Hill wrote his intention of being at Adlestrop with Mrs. Hill on Monday, the 4th, and his wish that Mr. Leigh and family should return with him to Stoneleigh the following day, as there was much business for the executors awaiting them at the Abbey, and he was hurried for time. All this accordingly took place, and here we found ourselves on Tuesday (that is yesterday se'nnight) eating fish, venison, and all manner of good things, in a large and noble parlour, hung round with family portraits. The house is larger than I could have supposed. We [Page 164] cannot find our way about it - I mean the best part; as to the offices, which were the Abbey, Mr. Leigh almost despairs of ever finding his way about them. I have proposed his setting up direction posts at the angles. I had expected to find everything about the place very fine and all that, but I had no idea of its being so beautiful. I had pictured to myself long avenues, dark rookeries, and dismal yew trees, but here are no such dismal things. The Avon runs near the house, amidst green meadows, bounded by large and beautiful woods, full of delightful walks.
"At nine in the morning we say our prayers in a handsome chapel, of which the pulpit, &c. &c., is now hung with black. Then follows breakfast, consisting of chocolate, coffee, and tea, plum cake, pound cake, hot rolls, cold rolls, bread and butter, and dry toast for me. The house steward, a fine, large, respectable-looking man, orders all these matters. Mr. Leigh and Mr. Hill are busy a great part of the morning. We walk a good deal, for the woods are impenetrable to the sun, even in the middle of an August day. I do not fail to spend some part of every day in the kitchen garden, where the quantity of small fruit exceeds anything you can form an idea of. This large family, with the assistance of a great many blackbirds and thrushes, cannot prevent it from rotting on the trees. The gardens contain four acres and [Page 165] a half. The ponds supply excellent fish, the park excellent venison; there is great quantity of rabbits, pigeons, and all sorts of poultry. There is a delightful dairy, where is made butter, good Warwickshire cheese and cream ditto. One manservant is called the baker, and does nothing but brew and bake. The number of casks in the strong-beer cellar is beyond imagination; those in the small-beer cellar bear no proportion, though, by the bye, the small beer might be called ale without misnomer. This is an odd sort of letter. I write just as things come into my head, a bit now and a bit then.
"Now I wish to give you some idea of the inside of this vast house - first premising that there are forty-five windows in front, which is quite straight, with a flat roof, fifteen in a row. You go up a considerable flight of steps to the door, for some of the offices are underground, and enter a large hall. On the right hand is the dining-room and within that the breakfast-room, where we generally sit; and reason good, 'tis the only room besides the chapel, which looks towards the view. On the left hand of the hall is the best drawing-room and within a smaller one. These rooms are rather gloomy with brown wainscot and dark crimson furniture, so we never use them except to walk through to the old picture gallery. Behind the smaller drawing-room is the state-bedchamber - [Page 166] an alarming apartment, with its high, dark crimson velvet bed, just fit for an heroine. The old gallery opens into it. Behind the hall and parlours there is a passage all across the house, three staircases and two small sitting-rooms. There are twenty-six bedchambers in the new part of the house and a great many, some very good ones, in the old. There is also another gallery, fitted up with modern prints on a buff paper, and a large billiard-room. Every part of the house and offices is kept so clean, that were you to cut your finger I do not think you could find a cobweb to wrap it up in. I need not have written this long letter, for I have a presentiment that if these good people live until next year you will see it all with your own eyes.
"Our visit has been a most pleasant one. We all seem in good humour, disposed to be pleased and endeavouring to be agreeable, and I hope we succeed. Poor Lady Saye and Sele, to be sure, is rather tormenting, though sometimes amusing, and affords Jane many a good laugh, but she fatigues me sadly on the whole. To-morrow we depart. We have seen the remains of Kenilworth, which afforded us much entertainment, and I expect still more from the sight of Warwick Castle, which we are going to see to-day. The Hills are gone, and my cousin, George Cook, is come. A Mr. Holt Leigh was here yesterday [Page 167] and gave us all franks. He is member for, and lives at, Wigan in Lancashire, and is a great friend of young Mr. Leigh's, and I believe a distant cousin. He is a single man on the wrong side of forty, chatty and well-bred and has a large estate. There are so many legacies to pay and so many demands that I do not think Mr. Leigh will find that he has more money than he knows what to do with this year, whatever he may do next. The funeral expenses, proving the will, and putting the servants in both houses in mourning must come to a considerable sum; there were eighteen men servants."
The Lady Saye and Sele alluded to was a cousin of the Austens, her mother having been a Leigh. It is the same Lady Saye and Sele whom Fanny Burney met "at a rout" in 1782, and of whom she gives an amusing account in her "Diaries. This lady seems to have been a sort of "Mrs. Leo Hunter." On being introduced to the author of "Evelina," she exclaimed, "I am very happy to see you; I have longed to see you a great while; I have read your performance, and I am quite delighted with it! I think it's the most elegant novel I ever read in my life . . . . I must [Page 168] introduce you," continued her ladyship, "to my sister (Lady Hawke), she'll be quite delighted to see you. She has written a novel herself, so you are sister authoresses. A most elegant thing it is I assure you. It's called the 'Mausoleum of Julia!' . . . Lord Hawke himself says it's all poetry . . . . My sister intends to print her 'Mausoleum' just for her own friends and acquaintances."
What ecstasies would Lady Saye and Sele have experienced could she have foreseen the future renown of the young cousin with whom she was walking and talking at Stoneleigh Abbey!
1 This "young Mr. Leigh" inherited the Stoneleigh estate. His son Chandos was created Lord Leigh in 1839.
2 Family MSS.
3 In 1806 this lady must have been the Dowager Lady Saye and Sele.
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