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West Wycombe Park – Sense and Sensibility (1811)

I’m off to visit West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire – stately home of the Dashwood family.

Why West Wycombe Park? Because it’s where they filmed the opening sequence of the classic 1986 fantasy movie Labyrinth. Fellow Labyrinth fans will know that’s the scene where Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) runs across a little flint bridge beside a lake, and starts reading lines from her book, The Labyrinth – watched by an owl/Goblin King (David Bowie).

I first spotted the lake in the background of a scene in another movie (The Importance of Being Earnest) which had the location listed in the end credits. The house appears in a lot of period drama, from Downton Abbey to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’ve been meaning to visit for ages, but the house is only open June to August – and then only Thursday to Sunday – but only between 2 – 6 in the afternoon.

And as I rely on public transport – let’s see, bus-train-tube-tube-tube-train-bus-bus – it’s going to take a few hours. It’s not quite “Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered” – but it’s worth bringing a book, I think.

The surname Dashwood rings a bell – of course, the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility! Jane Austen accompanies me to the station.

Sense and Sensibility was her first published book. Like Pride and Prejudice, it starts with worries about what will happen when an estate is entailed away. As observation, it’s fun – I love the bit at the beginning where Mr Dashwood lets his wife Fanny persuade him to reduce his generosity to his stepmother – from three thousand pounds, to helping her move out. The widowed Mrs Dashwood and her three daughters – Elinor (the one with the sense), Marianne (the one with overly emotional sensibility) and Margaret (the one who is too young to get a suitor – or even much dialogue of her own!) – move into a cottage near a distant relative, where various romantic threads begin tangling.

Elinor has a thing for Fanny’s brother Edward – but he’s already engaged to Lucy. Marianne falls for the artistic and obviously dodgy Willoughby – because the laws of romantic novels state that you have to fall for anyone who helps you when you sprain your ankle – ignoring her devoted admirer Colonel Brandon because she thinks that at 35 he’s far too old for love. Personally I’d be more concerned by the fact that he falls in love virtually as soon as he sees her, because she reminds him of someone else – his first love (a fallen woman) – would you want to be loved like that?

The time flies by. For once I make all my connections, and arrive at the park before the gates are even open. I ask the National Trust lady at the entrance if she knows where the little flint bridge is. She doesn’t even know that Labyrinth was filmed here – and there’s a lot of park to search. The house is set in 42 acres of grounds, with several bridges, and lots of ornamental temples (installed by the second Baronet after a grand tour of Europe). Luckily it’s perfect weather for wandering.

I turn left down Broad Walk, past Britannia Pillar, then turn right when I reach the lake and carry on until I come to a stream. I see an owl’s feather on the grass – a sign I’m heading the right way?

There it is!


Thirty years later, some things have changed. Ivy and bindweed are taking over one end of the bridge, and as it’s high summer there’s a lot of pondweed growing in the stream – but it’s unmistakably the same place. I resist the urge to run across it, spouting lines from the film – but I do take a lot of photos.

There’s no obelisk for an owl to perch on, no bench for Sarah’s dog (they were just set dressing). The clock tower isn’t there either – that must have been shot in America, as was the sequence immediately after the scene by the bridge. But there is a family of swans on the lake. I wonder if they’re descendants of the swans you can spot in Labyrinth, and I start to imagine an elderly swan grandfather boasting to bored baby cygnets about the time he once starred in a film with Jennifer Connelly.

The lake itself is said by some to have been designed like a swan – lake as body, river as neck, two streams for legs. Was it deliberately included in the film as a reference to the ballet Swan Lake, which also features a villain (Rothbart) who’s an owl – with ballet dancer’s tights? Probably just coincidence. When you’ve watched a film as often as I’ve watched Labyrinth, it does get inside your head.

And that’s why I’m here. To mark the film’s thirtieth anniversary, I’ve written a sequence of poems telling the story of Labyrinth in fifty-five sonnets. I sit down on the grass under a tree and, like Sarah, begin to read aloud from my little leather book…

It takes me an hour. This has been a poignant year for Labyrinth fans, but reading these poems, in this location – I feel quite ridiculously happy.

By now the park is starting to get busy. I start up the grass slope toward the ochre north front of the house. Built in the early 18th century, it’s about a hundred years older than Sense and Sensibility.

The impoverished Dashwood sisters would have been envious of a house like this (although, their home described in the book as ‘But a cottage’ has two sitting rooms, four bedrooms, two attic rooms, offices, and a garden – I think I’m envious of them).

Although the property is now owned by the National Trust, the real Dashwood family still lives here. It’s quite odd to visit a stately home where the portraits are recent, and there are family photos. The ground floor is open to the public, so I take the tour.

The hallway is unusual, in that it’s painted to look like a Roman villa – painted ceiling and  walls that look like marble, with frescoes up the staircase, and statues of Roman emperors.

Around the house we go – big tapestries, painted ceilings, lots of marble paintings, elaborate chimney pieces, silk-lined walls. But it’s the antique chairs that stick in my memory – to stop people sitting on them, each seat has a spiky dried teasel – with a piece of ribbon tied around it to make it look more like a decorative feature, and less like a threat.

After looking at the house, I go back to the bridge. One of the swans is standing on the grass, gleaming in the sunlight. Swans look so beautiful when they’re out on the water, but a lot more imposing close up. More people are there now, and another girl is posing for a photo on the bridge. I’m glad I arrived early enough to read my poems aloud without a baffled audience.

If I miss the bus there won’t be another one for two hours, and although West Wycombe village is pretty, I don’t want to be stuck there on a Sunday afternoon – between the pubs and the traditional sweet shop, I would eat far too much (I recommend the crème brûlée fudge). But I don’t want to leave…

And then a bird swoops across the lake. It’s not an owl (that would be too perfect) but a red kite – one of Britain’s most beautiful birds of prey. It makes a couple of lazy turns over the lake, then soars off over the trees.

Today’s not going to get any better than this. Time to head home.

On the way out the National Trust lady asks me if I found the bridge. She said two other  people today asked her about it as well – probably the girl I saw posing on the bridge – and definitely the guy who was taking pictures of his special edition Labyrinth DVD!

Back I go – bus-bus-train-tube-tube-tube-train-bus. And back into the book.

Marianne is brutally dumped by Willoughby, and becomes physically ill. Brandon reveals that Willoughby had also seduced his ward (possibly he should have mentioned that sooner). But Willoughby, concerned for Marianne, visits Elinor and tells her that although he has had to marry for money, he did really love Marianne.

Marianne gradually recovers, and starts to appreciate the devoted Colonel Brandon, eventually marrying him.
Edward’s mother finds out about Lucy, and demands that he break up with her. He refuses, so she disinherits him in favour of his brother Robert. Lucy then shamelessly marries Robert instead – leaving Edward free to marry Elinor.

It’s not Pride and Prejudice. It’s well observed, and funny in places, but it’s not really romantic (although, Jane Austen’s books are not as romantic as the films which are made of them). Jane Austen had clearly improved as a writer by her next book – just look at how well the characters of the five Bennet sisters are developed, compared to Margaret Dashwood, who might as well not be in this book.

I kept thinking Elinor was going to end up with Colonel Brandon, as they seem to spend more time talking to each other than anyone else. Marianne eventually wants to be more like Elinor, but Elinor seems too good to be true – making up excuses for Edward, putting up with Lucy – wanting to forgive Willoughby?!

And Marianne just seems to settle for Colonel Brandon at the end. I think that the way their relationship develops – stated in text, rather than revealed through dialogue – means it loses something. I kept mentally contrasting it with how well the way Charlotte’s marriage of convenience with Mr Collins is drawn in just a few sentences in Pride and Prejudice

On the way over here, I thought Marianne was a bit of an idiot, but you know what? Spending six hours travelling to recite commemorative poetry in the setting for a work of fiction – Marianne would totally get that.

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Posted by on September 30, 2016 in Books, England, United Kingdom & Ireland


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Hampshire – My Dear Cassandra (Jane Austen’s letters)

I’m heading down to Winchester for a couple of days for a poetry festival. I was going to bring something by Jane Austen (she died in Winchester, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral) but then I came across a second-hand copy of My Dear Cassandra – a selection of extracts from Jane Austen’s letters, that’s slim enough to slip into my handbag.

I do like Winchester. A historic city, with a beautiful cathedral, lots of lovely old buildings. Some of the shops on the high street still have old metal signs hanging outside – a big boot for a shoe shop, parchment and quill for a stationers. Then there’s the statue of Alfred the Great, a medieval version of the Round Table, a butter cross – and Montezuma’s, a shop that sells delicious chocolate.

There are lots of poetical events going on this weekend – including a lady cycling around the town, stopping to recite poetry at slightly bewildered shoppers. I go to a very interesting workshop on self-publishing, and an evening event with poet Christopher Reid. Given that he’s probably best known for A Scattering, (a book of poems about his wife’s death), it’s a lot more light-hearted than I was expecting, He’s discussing things which inspire him, and he’s brought along a beautiful quilt which his wife made for him from second-hand silk ties. He also shows a classic Goon Show sketch – What time is it, Eccles?

There’s also a guided tour of Winchester, discussing its literary links – but that’s fully booked. Apart from the Austen connection, Watership Down was set nearby, and Keats composed his ode To Autumn (“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”) while walking here. Next day I get a leaflet with details of the route – but it runs beside a river, and the weather is not looking promising, so maybe not this time. Instead, my sister and I head off to nearby Alton, and Chawton Cottage, where Jane Austen spent the most creative years of her life.

It’s the right choice – by the time we reach Alton, it’s pouring down. Luckily, just across the road from Chawton is a little coffee shop, appropriately named Cassandra’s Cup. We head inside for coffee and cake, and chat until the weather clears. I’m also tempted by some raspberry and lavender jam.

Lavender seems to be a recurring theme today. Once we get inside Jane Austen’s house there are little bunches of it on the furniture, and you can make your own lavender bag in one of the outbuildings.

The house has been restored to how it would have looked when Jane lived there. The sitting room door still creaks – Jane liked it that way, as it warned her when people were entering, giving her time to put her writing away. (Cassandra would most of the household chores, allowing Jane more time to write). Her writing table is so small – when I think of the hours of enjoyment I’ve had from the work she produced on it…

There are some of her letters on display – such tiny writing! – she then turned the letter upside down, writing again between the lines. Common practice back then, as postage costs depended on the size of the letter, and it was the recipient who paid – but I don’t think I could write that small, legibly, with a quill pen.

The bedroom the two sisters shared is so small – if the room my sister and I shared for so many years had been this small, I doubt that we’d still be friends now. The library has more books about Jane Austen than I ever knew existed, and copies of her works in all manner of languages.

It’s a good thing we came early. This little house is now full of visitors – five of the women (and one brave man) are in period costume. Nice to see men here – I’m always trying to persuade more men to read Austen. Her work isn’t simply romantic fluff – she has such a wonderful way of observing people. Mr Collins has to be one of the most memorable characters in literature – deliciously grovelly.

And the museum isn’t just for the ladies – two of Jane’s brothers were in the navy, so there is naval memorabilia as well (brother Frank was disappointed to miss the battle of Trafalgar).

It’s quite sunny now, so we go out into the garden. It’s smaller than it would have been in Jane’s time, but thanks to a high hedge (and the fact that a bypass takes most of the traffic away from the village) it’s still very quiet. Jane’s little donkey cart is on display – it must have been fun, going for a ride around the grounds. The garden also has some activities for children, such as word magnets, and signs with information about the birds which live here. I could sit here and write all day.

Then there’s the gift shop. More Mr Darcy merchandise than anyone could ever need. Most of it looks like Colin Firth (from the wonderful 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice) – he must just cringe at some of it. (Personally, I always preferred Mr Rochester – he has more of a sense of humour).

And what about the book? Published in 1990, selections chosen by Penelope Hughes-Hallett.
There are extracts from Jane Austen’s letters, mainly to her beloved sister Cassandra, but also to other relatives, friends – and even an unco-operative publisher. There are relevant passages from her novels, and illustrations from the period, so you get a better idea of what the clothes, the carriages, looked like.

There is talk of balls and bonnets, buying fabric for dresses. There are descriptions of visits to Bath and Lyme Regis (later to feature in Persuasion), and of going to art exhibitions, trying to find portraits that look like her characters. She gives advice to her niece Fanny, who also wanted to be a novelist.

(I love where she describes Pride and Prejudice as “My own darling child” – I felt the same way when I first had a poem published.)

I always wondered what Jane Austen would have been like to meet in person – these letters show her to be just as mischievous as Elizabeth Bennet. And a moving letter written by Cassandra after Jane’s death shows that she was a beloved sister.

There are probably more complete books of Jane Austen’s letters, for the academically inclined – but for the average reader, this is a treat.

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Posted by on October 22, 2014 in Books, England, United Kingdom & Ireland