Libertines, West Wycombe Park and Austenland

Summers in Austenland are strange and confusing. No sooner had we passed the temples at West Wycombe Park in the heart of England than a fairground hove into view in the fickle early afternoon sunshine.

Zara has an inbuilt device that hones into bouncy castles. “Bouncy castle, bouncy castle,” she yelled before the inflatable turrets had even revealed themselves above the trees. Soon we saw the fairground in all its glory. Boats with the necks of swans were drawn up in the lake and a merry-go-round turned slowly in front of the façade of West Wycombe House. Pink streamers flew from pink chairs on the hillside. In short everything was pink, which happens to be Zara’s favorite color.

But this pink dream started to unravel before our eyes as we walked up the hill towards the house. Soon it became clear this was not a working fairground but a film set. In other words here was a bouncy castle that was not for bouncing on. In the world of a six-year-old this is the equivalent of presenting a child with a large bar of sparking candy and whipping it away. In most circumstances the whole day would have dissolved into a flood of tears. Fortunately, we had also taken Zara’s cousin James along, and she didn’t want to be seen in fully fledged strop mode in front of her cousin.

We breezed through the fun fair and asked a man dressed in period costume about the movie. It was apparently called Austenland and starred the hairdresser from Legally Blonde. I may be naive and out of the loop but this didn’t sound like an advertisement for an A-list movie. I was hoping he’d at least have said Kate Winslet or Helena Bonham Carter – I’d have settled for Meg Ryan, to be honest. Further research suggests he may have been referring to Jennifer Coolidge whose breakthrough was in American Pie (oh dear).

I would have been slightly more impressed had he mentioned Keri Russell who has won a golden globe and is also in the movie and Jane Seymore, who I have heard of.

The plot of the romantic comedy revolves around a 30-something, single woman who is obsessed by Mr. Darcy-as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. She decides to spend her life savings on a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women.

(pause for Jane Austen to perform a few dozen somersaults in her grave).

Ironically the past of West Wycombe hall probably provides a better plot that this movie. It was built in the 18th century by the notorious libertine Sir Francis Dashwood. It was built in an era when rich young men, known as dilettante returned from an almost obligatory Grand Tour and realized Italy was so much better than England in the rain. They would then set about getting second rate Italian artists to recreate the ceiling of the Sistine chapel back at home and filling the grounds with as many faux Roman temples as they could hold; presumably so as they could smoke as much opium as they could get their hands on and pretend they were back in Tuscany.

(Why does smoking opium always sound a lot more exotic and innocent than "taking heroin?")

Dashwood, who shows up in one portrait in a funny turban with a large glass of claret in his hand, appears to have been a fun kind of guy.

"Sir Francis Dashwood built West Wycombe to entertain, and there has been much speculation on the kind of entertainment he provided for his guests. Judged against the sexual moral of the late 18th century, Dashwood and his clique were regarded as promiscuous; while it is likely that the contemporary reports of the bacchanalian orgies over which Dashwood presided in the Hellfire caves above West Wycombe were exaggerated, free love and heavy drinking did take place there,” Wikipedia states.

Strangely enough the wizened old guide who gave us a tour of the house, neglected to mention sex once, although she was horrified to find some props from Austenland peppered around the house including a furry pink telephone.

“I, gosh… I’ve never seen anything like this,” she complained picking up the telephone with the air of a nun who has just pulled a large vibrator out of her wimple.

When I visit National Trust properties In usually get more pleasure from the grounds than the house itself and this was certainly the case at West Wycombe park, although five-year-old James was starting to get a big frisky for my linking.

“Can I kiss you?” he asked Zara in the Temple of Venus, only to be met with a scowl. There had been too many dubious goings on at the Temple of Venus in the past for my liking. It might not be allowed in Austenland but as soon as I got back to America, I realized I might have to take advantage of the Second Amendment.


  1. I'm not surprised that fair turned out to be fake. It looked too...pretty. Well, I guess fairs in other countries are much more prettier than fairs in the US in general. But that one looks like something out of a fairytale. Lol.

    I'm not gonna lie. The movie sounds like it's not going to be very good. But I'm probably going to watch it at some point in the future. Because I'm obsessed with anything related to Jane Austen. I'm one of Those Women.

    That is really cool that your family got to visit the set. I mean, that's not an everyday occurance for you guys, right? ;)

    Awesome post, as always.

    Let the stalking and bffing resume!

  2. The grounds are indeed beautiful, aren't they! Having the film set also made for a more unusual visit although shame about the bouncy castle. That's not fair!!

    Btw, just a note to say my blog address has changed, it's now

  3. What a stunning post! I had no idea about the history of the Libertines and you are right! Smoking opium sounds so much more glam than taking heroine which is probably why Ed Westwick's character goes off and does it in Gossip Girl.

    I have the jumping castle gene too. Did I spell that right?? Oh well... I'm afraid Zara might not grow out of it: I insisted on a jumping castle at our wedding, supposedly for the children.

    I love that last photo! What are those structures?

  4. I am choking with laughter here. The nun reference sent me over the edge.

  5. Ah! That explains why I had this "Wow, that fair looks so Filliniesque" reaction to the photo.
    And you got to take a tour--how cool!
    Great photos and fun post, David. :)

  6. Wow that fair really does look too pretty to be real. It's kind of cool that you got to check out a movie set though!

  7. This is cool...I do have the merry go round gene ...just that I keep it out of sight as my nephew finds it odd. I loved the last picture...sucker for historic structures even fake opium dens.

  8. Oh dear, poor Zara. That would be quite disappointing, although seeing a movie set seems like a kind of cool thing to do too. I haven't heard of the movie. I would have been more impressed with Jane Seymore too. ha! The grounds are quite lovely there.

  9. Aw, I guess Europe brings out the romantic side in even the most young. Good thing you were there to protect Zara. It's just the beginning. Poor dad.

    I enjoyed this little tour but was disappointed in the fake amusement part too.


  10. Once again, the photos are sublime. The post - even better.


  11. Cool pictures and a fun post. I have an award for you in my latest post.

  12. thanks J - stalk and bff, away (whatever that means) - glad you liked the post. thanks Sarah, have updated your thanks Emm - those are follies and Italian-style temples etc. Always like to induce a chortle Deborah - thanks Jayne, whatever finin-thingy is...thanx Alyson, it was cool albeit sorta flimsy. 4real Rek - but the merrygoround gene can get people into trouble...the grounds beat the house, Daisy. I know eh Robyn, not looking forward to that thanks so much PMT. Cool Tim, I'll check it out now


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