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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Colebrooke Connection to Jane Austen: Part Three

And here is Part Three of the Colebrooke Connection to Jane Austen. In letter 95 dated Nov. 3, 1813, Jane Austen wrote from Godmersham, the estate of brother Edward in Kent, to Cassandra, as follows:

"We dine at Chilham-Castle to-morrow, and I expect to find some amusement, but more from the concert the next day, as I am sure of seeing several that I want to see."

I came across the following extraordinary statement in a website pertaining to Chilham Castle:

“In his meticulous history of Chilham, Thomas Heron, the Colebrookes' successor, gives elephants no mention, but soon after his departure, we are told that Jane Austen wrote to her sister from their brother's home at Godmersham after “a walk to see Mr Wildman's elephants at Chilham”. Until we can track this letter down, the tale remains unsubstantiated.”

That last statement is the understatement of the century, that reminds me of the famous mathematical frenzy set off by Fermat when he mentioned that he had found a solution to a major mathematical theorem (Fermat's Last Theorem, of course), that took 358 years to be solved--by a Brit, Andrew Wiles.

Wouldn't it cause a major wave of excitement if that letter could be tracked down?

But while we're all waiting for that news, I was still very much intrigued to read about there being _elephants_ at Chilham Castle (where JA dined in late 1813 while visiting Godmersham), and to find out why this webpage had come up when I searched "Jane Austen Colebrooke"?

Well, the answer is very interesting in all respects, I think you will agree.

First, it turns out that the scion of the Colebrooke family, the guy who made it all the way to the top of the East India Company, James Colebrooke, had purchased Chilham Castle in 1722, and it remained in the Colebrooke family's ownership until 1774. And it was James Colebrooke's grandson, George, who married the beautiful Belinda, and then died in 1809, leaving his widow and two girls surviving, as I detailed in my earlier post.

The next connection of Chilham Castle to JA is to understand _why_ she was part of the party that dined at Chilham Castle in 1813. By then, the Castle had been in the hands of the Wildman family for over 20 years, and if that name Wildman rings a bell--and it should--it's because the young heir of the Wildman fortune was the very guy who courted Fanny Knight, resulting in her having _very_ mixed_ feelings about him, as documented by JA's early 1817 letters to Fanny, before finally saying "no"!

But it's the elephants I am most curious about.....were there actually elephants at Chilham Castle that JA might have seen during that visit to the Castle?

It turns out that there really were, as would befit the Castle of a colonial magnate like James Colebrooke:

[May 12, 2004 article]

"...Indian elephants, which were imported from the subcontinent to help with logging on the Chilham Castle estate in Kent....Actually, the lodgings only housed two elephants. The stone arches you can see in the wall were the entrances to their quarters. The property was an elephant home until the last animal died in 1900.....Once the elephants died, the property was converted into two cottages for workers on the estate. The cottages were bought three years ago by the current owners, who refurbished it.....And, according to the agents, a small mound found in one corner of the lawn is the burial site for the two elephants, although to be honest, there's no telling what it is..... The elephant house, in Chilham, Kent is on the market now for at £625,000 through Strutt & Parker (01277 451 23). Who knows - if you're really lucky you
could unearth the odd tusk or two."

The claim of a missing JA letter talking about elephants at Chilham Castle, intriguing as it might sound, does not fit the facts, however, which is that Letter 96, written only 3 days after Letter 95 (so there is clearly no missing letter to CEA in between), leads off with JA's brief description of the Ball at Chilham Castle, and there is nary a tusk or trunk anywhere in her description! This does surprise me, you would think JA of all people would make some sort of joke about elephants if she had seen them there, but perhaps the Wildmans were discreet and kept the elephants out of sight during balls! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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