Ashdown House is an exquisite 17th century house, situate in Berkshire, not far from the border of Berkshire with Oxfordshire. The house was designed for William, 1st Earl of Craven, most possibly by the Dutch-born architect Capt William Winde, in 1663. The Earl of Craven had intended it to be used by the object of his admiration, Elizabeth of Bohemia- The Winter Queen– who was the then impoverished sister of King Charles I, He knew of her desire to live in quiet in England, after living for many years in exile at the Hague in Holland. Sadly, it was not to be and before the house was completed Elizabeth died suddenly in February 1662, while visiting her nephew King Charles II in London.
The Craven family lived in Ashdown House until it was donated to the National Trust by Cornelia, Countess of Craven in 1956. The public has restricted access to the house: namely to the magnificent staircase which runs the height of the building and is rather like a magnificent picture gallery, and then up onto the leads and cupola from which spectacular views of the surrounding Berkshire countryside can be viewed. The rest of the house is leased from the National Trust,and recently the lease has changed hands, and has been sold to the musician, Pete Townsend of The Who. The contents of the house assembled by its old tenant are to be sold by Sotheby’s in another attic sale, to be held at their Bond Street premises on the 27th October this year.
So why should this interest us? Merely because Jane Austen’s family had some albeit distant contact with this chap. Lord Craven(the 1st Earl of the second creation) was a kinsman and patron of the Fowle family of Kintbury: and it was on the ill-fated expedition to the West Indies in 1795, when he accompanied Lord Craven as his chaplain, that Tom Fowle, Cassandra Austen’s then fiance, tragically died. Lord Craven also was a source of gossip for the neighbourhood, and this is evident in Jane Austen’s letter to Cassandra Austen of the 8th January, 1801:
Eliza has seen Lord Craven at Barton & probably by this time at Kintbury, where he was expected for one day this week.- She found his manners very pleasing indeed.- The little flaw of having a Mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park seems tobe the ony unpleasing circumstance about him…
At this time, by my calculations, Lord Craven,was involved with the very famous courtesan, Harriette Wilson.
She does not mention living with him at Ashdown Park in her memoirs but what she does say about him is calculatedly cutting and rather dismissive:
I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven. Whether it was love, or the severity of my father, the depravity of my own heart, or the winning arts of the noble Lord, which induced me to leave my paternal roof and place myself under his protection, does not now much signify: or if it does, I am not in the humour to gratify curiosity in this matter…
I resided on the Marine Parade, at Brighton; and I remember that Lord Craven used to draw cocoa trees, and his fellows, as he called them, on the best vellum paper, for my amusement. Here stood the enemy, he would say; and here, my love, are my fellows: there the cocoa trees, etc. It was, in fact, a dead bore. All these cocoa trees and fellows, at past eleven o’clock at night, could have no peculiar interest for a child like myself; so lately in the habit of retiring early to rest. One night, I recollect, I fell asleep; and, as I often dream, I said, yawning, and half awake, “Oh, Lord! oh, Lord! Craven has got me into the West Indies again.” In short, I soon found that I had made a bad speculation by going from my father to Lord Craven. I was even more afraid of the latter than I had been of the former; not that there was any particular harm in the man, beyond his cocoa trees; but we never suited nor understood each other.
( See: The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson Written by Herself, Volume 1, Chapter 1, Page 5).
Harriette was born on 22nd February 1786: she would therefore have been 15 years old in 1801. So it was most probably her to whom Jane Austen alluded in her letter, residing in immoral splendour at Ashdown Park. Lord Craven of course knew much about cocoa trees , I should imagine, as he had had first hand experience of them. He had visited the West Indies, as we know, in 1795 as Colonel to the 3rd Foot Regiment- The Buffs. He was sent to the islands as part of the convoy commanded by Admiral Hugh Christian escorting General Sir Ralph Abercromby’s 19,00 strong force to subdue French interference in the islands. Poor Lord Craven was obviously explaining to the bored Harriette of his battles on the islands She, a little like Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, seems only to have heard and understood one word in ten of his conversations. And she wasn’t bored for long: she soon ran away from Lord Craven’s delights and his tales of cocoa trees to the protection of Frederick Lamb (1782-1853), later 3rd Viscount Melbourne.
Happily, Lord Craven eventually found his soul-mate:
In 1805 Lord Craven saw Louisa Brunton (?1785-186o), daughter of John Brunton (a greengrocer turned actor and theatre manager in Norwich), and now making a name for herself as a Shakespearean actress at Drury Lane-her principal parts included Celia in As You Like It, Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII, and Lady Anne in Richard III… Fanny Kemble’s mother remembered Louisa Brunton as ‘a very eccentric as well as attractive and charming woman, who contrived, too, to be a very charming actress, in spite of a prosaical dislike to her business, which used to take the peculiar and rather alarming turn of suddenly, in the midst of a scene, saying aside to her fellow-actors, “What nonsense all this is! Suppose we don’t go on with it.” This singular expostulation my mother said she always expected to see followed up by the sudden exit of her lively companion, in the middle of her part. Miss Brunton, however, had self-command enough to go on acting till she became Countess of Craven, and left off the nonsense of the stage for the earnestness of high life.”Miss Brunton, at the beginning of December 1807, with characteristic modesty, made her final curtsey on the stage’- and married Lord Craven in December his town house in London. Later gossip-writers recalled her as ‘tall and commanding and of the most perfect symmetry, and her face the perfection of sweetness and expression’.
(See Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye, page 512)
And this woman is the same Lady Craven whose opinion of Emma was collected by Jane Austen in 1816. She admired Emma very much, but did not think it equal to P&P. Don’t you find it interesting to think of the many characters who lived at Ashdown Park, in that beautiful House…I know I do, and I’m sure yet again the allure of such a house and its associations will add to the pieces of the lots of this sale. Time will tell and I’ll report back after the sale takes place on October 27.