Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 30 2017 02:00PM

Pity the poor aristocrat. Your stately home is decaying, your heating bill is through the (leaky) roof, and you lack the millions required to refurbish it all. If only your family hadn’t sold off the jeweled icons to keep themselves in Malvern spring water!


Blog readers will recall that I’m a sucker for stories about cash-strapped heirs to once-great fortunes struggling to live amid the ruins of former glory. (See under: 12th Earl of Shaftesbury.) The renovating-the-dilapidated-manor plot appeals to my childhood dollhouse fixation; the caught-between-rungs-on-the-class-ladder element speaks to my inner Evelyn Waugh fan. And when there’s a Jane Austen connection, no matter how distant? Catnip. (See under: Caroline Knight.)


So naturally I ate up this story (available here, here and here) about a descendant of the Russian royal family who lives in an underheated thirty-room mansion in Kent once inhabited by Jane Austen’s niece Fanny. You’ve got to love someone who can legitimately call herself “Princess Olga,” especially if her father played with the tsar’s children before their gruesome murders and her mother was a “Scots-Scandinavian flour-mill heiress.” (Seriously: Edith Wharton wants her plot back. Right now.)


Provender House, the half-decrepit, half-renovated pile in question, looks like an interesting place, although you wouldn’t catch me spending my days somewhere so freezing that its owner “seems to live in a blue ski jacket to stave off the biting cold in the many unheated rooms.” (Shades of Fanny Price in the East Room with no fire. . .)


As a pedantic Janeite purist, however, I was displeased to find Provender’s website describing a previous owner -- Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen, the husband of Fanny Knight – as “9th Baronet and first Lord Brabourne.” The most cursory reader of Wikipedia, let alone any die-hard Janeite, knows that the first Lord Brabourne was in fact Edward and Fanny’s son, best known as an early editor of Austen’s letters. Such sloppiness doesn't bode well for the factual accuracy of the princess' recently published memoir, Princess Olga: A Wild and Barefoot Romanov.


Speaking of wild, I was also excessively diverted by this journalistic speculation, from coverage of Provender in the online magazine Faversham Life: “There is no record of Jane Austen visiting but it is surely extremely likely.” Not so much, actually, since Fanny married her baronet three years after Aunt Jane’s death. But hey – every decaying estate in search of tourist dollars needs its Jane-Austen-slept-here cachet. You can’t blame a strapped aristocrat for trying.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 21 2016 02:00PM

Seventeenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


In 1884, when Jane Austen’s great-nephew Lord Brabourne published an edition of her letters, he made some judicious edits. The publication fourteen years earlier of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen had sparked interest in the writer’s life, but Brabourne apparently worried that some of her observations might seem a tad too. . . candid for Victorian sensibilities.


One of the most famous examples of his bowdlerizing red pen can be seen in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, that the twenty-four-year-old Jane Austen finished writing exactly two hundred and sixteen years ago today, on November 21, 1800 (Letter #27 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Cassandra was staying in Kent with the family of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, whose daughter Fanny would one day be Brabourne’s mother.* Back home at Steventon, Jane had attended a ball and, with an eye for detail and an ear for a phrase that will seem familiar to any reader of her novels, she described the company:


“There were very few Beauties, & such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, & Mrs Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck. . . . Miss Debary, Susan & Sally all in black, but without any Statues**, made their appearance, & I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.”


In his edition, Brabourne silently substitutes “circumstances” for “their bad breath.” Brabourne, the son of a baronet, had been elevated to the peerage only four years earlier, and although he was proud of his author-aunt, he also had a social position to maintain – a position that he apparently thought would not be enhanced by the publication of Austen’s commentary on unpleasant bodily odors. The Victorians, it seems, were easy to shock.




* Fanny seems to have shared Brabourne’s concern over Austen’s supposed coarseness: she has outraged generations of Janeites by writing, in an 1869 letter to one of her sisters, that Austen “was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent” and would have been “very much below par as to good society and its ways” had she not benefited from her relationship with the wealthy and well-bred Knight family, who adopted Fanny's father.


** My thanks to anyone who can explain to me what this reference to “statues” is all about. Who brings statues to a ball? I’m stumped.


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