Gentle Readers: I welcome today, Janine Barchas, associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin, where she teaches, perfectly situated you might say, Austen in Austin. She has published a number of scholarly articles on Jane Austen and the just released Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location and Celebrity (Johns Hopkins UP, 2012). She has graciously offered to share a bit of one of the tales expounded on in her book, the Wentworth family of Yorkshire. I think you will want to know more about her very interesting findings – I highly recommend the book! – and see below for a contest offering from the publisher that starts this coming Friday October 26 [see the blog here: http://jhupressblog.com/ ] – and please comment or ask Janine a question!
A Janecation in Yorkshire? Jane Austen’s Real Wentworths
Although South Yorkshire may seem an unlikely destination for a Janeite pilgrim, the research for my book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: history, location, and celebrity (Johns Hopkins UP, 2012) led me to two breathtaking country estates with histories that connect to Austen’s fictions: Wentworth Castle and Wentworth Woodhouse.
I was not tracing Austen’s physical steps, but following some of her leading names—particularly Wentworth, Woodhouse, Fitzwilliam, Darcy, Watson, and Vernon. When Austen selected these surnames for her fictional protagonists, they hung on the real-world family trees of these two neighboring Yorkshire estates. Not unlike the Kennedy family in our own era, the Wentworth clan consisted of high-profile politicians and celebrities—with newspapers assiduously tracking all sightings and London shops selling reproductions of family portraits as cheap paper pinups. Jane Austen, too, seems to have been keenly aware of Wentworth celebrity.
Even a short summary of the history of Wentworth Woodhouse can make an Austen fan sit up with the surprise of recognition. After Robert Wentworth married a rich heiress named Emma Wodehouse, their Yorkshire family so prospered that in 1611 its senior line achieved a baronetcy, just as the owner’s sister married the heir of the wealthy D’Arcy family. The eldest son of that same first baronet was the hapless Thomas Wentworth, first Earl of Strafford and martyr to the royalist cause. With the Restoration, the estate was returned to Strafford’s eldest son, William Wentworth. But when William died without issue in 1695, it transferred to the children of his sister, Anne Wentworth, wife to the head of the Watson family. When in 1751, Charles Watson, heir to these princely estates, succeeded his father as the second Marquess of Rockingham, he became one of the wealthiest peers in England. Charles Watson Wentworth, having added his mother’s maiden name to his own, was twice elected Prime Minister of England. But he died unexpectedly and childless in 1782, just after his second election at age 52. Thus, when Austen was a mere girl, the combined fortunes of the Woodhouses, Wentworths, and Watsons transferred to their next of kin, the Fitzwilliams.
By then, a family feud between Wentworth cousins (Tory and Whig) had resulted in Wentworth Castle. Even the name of the rival estate deliberately taunted the mere “House” six miles away. Major renovations to Wentworth Castle were duly answered with elaborate improvements to nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, shaping English garden design through one family’s political rivalry. The competitive landscaping at these neighboring estates, the bulk of which took place between 1710 and 1790, was a prolonged endeavor that occurred on a grand scale and in the national spotlight. It was in 1791, when Austen was in her teens, that the Wentworth Castle estate and titles were inherited by an obscure gentleman from Dorset named (I’m not making this up!) Frederick Wentworth, making him the third and last Earl of Strafford. When Austen reached her late 20s, Wentworth Castle became the property of young Frederick Vernon after another heated Wentworth-family dispute. The historical circumstances surrounding this contested transfer of Wentworth wealth resemble those in Lady Susan, which features at least two characters named Frederic Vernon as well as a dispute over a family castle.
[Image from wikipedia]
After years of wily namedropping, and perhaps because her contemporary readers would have instantly connected the hero of Persuasion with this glamorous Wentworth family, Austen disclaims in her final novel. She has the sycophantic Sir Walter Elliot sneeringly dismiss any link between Capt. Frederick Wentworth, the story’s self-made naval officer, and the highborn Wentworths from Yorkshire, who held titles such as the Earl of Strafford: “Mr. Wentworth was nobody, I remember, quite unconnected; nothing to do with the Strafford family.” By placing the requisite disclaimer in the mouth of Sir Walter, Austen keeps her own tongue firmly in her cheek. Sir Walter is notoriously unreliable—a narcissistic fop who lacks judgment. Despite, or perhaps because of, Sir Walter’s dismissal, the name of Frederick Wentworth so flagrantly invites contemporary associations that the upending of those expectations (a landless sailor named after one of England’s most famous landowning families?) becomes part of the story’s piquancy and contemporary appeal.
[Image from wikipedia]
Today, both properties are being renovated and have opened their gardens to visitors. Privately owned Wentworth Woodhouse has plans for a spa and hotel by 2015, while the Wentworth Castle Trust (the house is a teacher training college) has already restored the castle folly for which the property is known. In both cases, the grounds and vistas are as stunning as eighteenth-century and regency guidebooks record. While enjoying the picturesque herds of deer that, according to the locals, have roamed there since 1066, I could not help smiling at how the popularity of Austen’s fictional characters—especially Fitzwilliam Darcy and Frederick Wentworth—have succeeded in eclipsing their historical namesakes, casting a Janeite shadow over the once-glittering owners of these estates.
If you’re an Austen enthusiast who has already been to Bath, Lyme Regis, and Chawton, then consider a visit to Wentworth Woodhouse and Wentworth Castle. Meanwhile, I hope that my book takes you partway there.
For a few photos as well as more information about these and other glamorous places alluded to by Austen, see the JHU Press Blog post by Janine “Jane Austen on Location”: http://jhupressblog.com/2012/09/12/jane-austen-on-location/
Johns Hopkins UP is about to run a small contest that would give away copies of my book to the first few who answer correctly a historical question with an Austen twist. Look for the question on the JHU Press Blog, starting on 26 October.
About the author: Janine Barchas is the author of Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (Cambridge UP, 2003), the editor of The Annotations in Lady Bradshaigh’s Copy of Clarissa (English Literary Studies, U of Victoria, 1998), and numerous scholarly works on Austen (search her name on the Jasna.org website here). Her research interests include eighteenth-century literature and culture, the British novel, book history, textual studies, Jane Austen, and early fiction by women. At the JASNA 2012 AGM, she spoke on “Austen Between the Covers: A Brief History of Book Cover Art”, and will be one of the plenary speakers at the JASNA 2013 AGM in Minneapolis, the AGM celebrating 200 years of Pride and Prejudice.
- Wentworth Castle website
- Wentworth Castle, a virtual tour by Northern College
- Wentworth Castle Gardens on facebook:
- Wentworth Castle at wikipedia
- Wentworth Castle and Stainborough Park Estate: at Rotherham.co.uk
And note that The Country House Revealed is a six part BBC series first aired on BBC Two in May 2011 in which British architectural historian Dan Cruickshank visits six houses never before open to public view, and examines the lives of the families who lived there. Wentworth Woodhouse s featured in Episode 4.
All photographs by Janine Barchas.
Please leave any comments or questions for Janine below – and don’t forget to check out the JHU Press blog on October 26, and see if you can answer the Jane Austen question!