First published in JALF online journal: Pride and Possibilities: https://janeaustenlf.org/pride-and-possibilities-articles/2017/5/6/issue-12-looking-for-elizabeth-a-stay-at-hunsford-parsonage
ON OUR SEARCH FOR HUNSFORD PARSONAGE (TEIGH OLD RECTORY), MY HUSBAND AND I SET OFF FROM LEICESTER ON A BRIGHT SUMMERS DAY. AS WE MADE SLOW PROGRESS ALONG THE NARROW COUNTRY ROADS, THE SKY ABOVE BECAME DARKER AND DARKER BY THE MINUTE.
Just as we reached Hunsford’s gates, the skies ripped open and a full-blown storm crushed down on our heads with all its might. I jumped out of the car, trying to find a bell by the gates, but my efforts were in vain – there was no bell. We didn’t dare to open the gates ourselves and bring the car to the yard in front of the parsonage, so we abandoned it in the deserted street and ran to the front door, covering our heads with our hands – a gesture of habit rather than practicality.
The door had a bell! Indeed, I remembered it from the episode where Mr Darcy walks away after his ill-fated first proposal. Now it occurs to me – could they have such a bell-button in 1814? I am curious about it now, but, of course, when we were standing there in the rain such trivialities did not even remotely enter my head – I pressed the bell-button hoping that the owner of the parsonage would be waiting for us inside. Once, then again, and again… to no effect.
Believe me, only the sense of wet-through desperation made us eventually push open the front door and let ourselves into a tiny vestibule with a bench, some coats and wellington boots, and further doors to both sides. To our cries of “Hello?”, the only answer was a loud cheerful barking of a dog somewhere within the house, who, judging by the displayed vocal enthusiasm, must have been a Jack Russell.
I pushed the door on the right open and… I was in Mr Collins’ dining room. The glass cabinets on either side of the fire, the windows overlooking the driveway (“I expected at least that the pigs had got into the garden…”) – my breath stuck in my throat. I WAS at Hunsford Parsonage! But I stepped back and pulled the door shut – I still wasn’t a proper guest there, but an intruder, who hadn’t made herself known to the owner of the place.
The door on the left led us into what looked like a present day dining room, but I recognised it at once as the Parsonage’s entrance hall. It was also empty, but for the joyful voice of the Jack Russell (“he’d better be one”, I thought, after I started referring to him as such) that was coming from the room next door. “Hello?” shouted my husband with all the might of his lungs, and a figure emerged from the dark passage at the far end of the room.
She was a slender lady, with grey hair neatly cut, rubber gloves on her hands and water all over her clothes.
“Oh, hello,” she said brightly. “I was trying to clear the pipes. With this terrible rain everything is flooding and water gets all over the place.”
That is how we met Victoria.
All in all, it was a promising start! Three wet shirts – my husband’s, Victoria’s and mine – but no Mr Darcy in sight. Good job I was not looking for him – I was looking for Elizabeth.
While my husband ran back to the car to get my bag, Victoria gave me a key to my (Elizabeth’s!) room, pointed up the staircase – “neither too steep, nor too shallow” – and with the words “you know where you are going, I better go and change into something dry”, sent me on my way.
I climbed the stairs with Mr Collins’ voice singing in my ears every step of the way, and found a door on the right that led into a small landing with another door – and there it was. A “very pleasant room” with a very special closet. (By the way, if you watch that episode again, you will notice that Mr Collins opens the wrong door! Elizabeth’s room is on the right – and that’s how I always imagined it – but in the series he opens a door straight-ahead.)
Naturally, the first thing I did upon entering the chamber was to go straight to the famous closet and fling its door open. “Shelves in a closet! Happy thought indeed.” Alas! Only one shelf survived the years, and upon mature consideration, I found it a good thing too. For Lady Catherine’s kindly bestowed solicitude in the matters of interior design was terribly impractical. Shelves in the only closet in the room might at the time have seemed to her like a bold innovative idea in home planning, but, pray, where was a young lady travelling alone supposed to hang her coat and gowns? Of course, if only Lady Catherine had ever learned the art of home decoration, she would have been a true proficient (and so would Anne), but we all know that she never took the trouble. And poor Elizabeth was left to struggle with all these shelves and no hanging space.
Soon my husband arrived with a suitcase, wished me a pleasant stay, and rushed back to find his way to Leicester before dark, where he and our son were staying. This stay at Hunsford Parsonage was for me only – my birthday present from him.
I changed into dry clothes and went to explore the house. I remembered that the Rectory’s website mentioned “the parlour” and I couldn’t wait to see it.
It was only a few steps down from the door of my room to the next landing. I opened the door slowly – and my jaw dropped. Literally. Later, I tried to replicate that look in a selfie, and, I think, I managed to do it just fine – the emotion of seeing that room for the first time stayed with me for a while and that mouth just didn’t want to shut.
Charlotte’s small parlour… perhaps, the most important room in the whole story – the place of the ill-fated but pivotal first proposal, Lizzy’s rebuke, her tears and Mr Darcy’s agony. It was right in front of me – with its wallpaper and the fireplace, the corner display cabinet and two windows overlooking the garden – all there, empty, mine to enjoy. Needless to say, I spent the rest of that rainy afternoon in the parlour – moving from seat to seat, trying to experience the room from every angle, taking picture after picture, trying to satisfy my desire to take it all in, to become – if only a tiny part – of that story myself.
In the evening, with the rain not showing any intention to stop, Victoria asked me what I was going to do for dinner. My head was too full of much more romantic ideas and no thought of food entered it at all. “I’ll walk to a local pub,” I replied carelessly, only to be told that there were no pubs within an easy distance, especially in such weather. Being a kind hostess, Victoria offered me a bowl of soup made of tomatoes from her own garden with some bread and wine and we spent a pleasant evening in the dining room that had been used as Mr Collins’ entrance hall in the series. Remember? “My dear, the time. – Oh, my dear, why did you not say before?”
We talked of the village life, the church which the rectory stood next to, of visitors who come to stay at Victoria’s B&B – either on their own, or with the Classic British Drama Tours (@classicbritishdramas) – and, of course, of the days when the iconic BBC adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was filmed here in 1995. Apart from Lizzy’s room, the parlour, the staircase and this dining room (playing “the hall”), the filming crew used the library as a breakfast room, and the garden and the driveway outside for many scenes of people arriving and departing from the parsonage. In the parlour, Victoria had a photo album with many unique pictures from the filming, new for me, and I enjoyed perusing it after dinner.
The next morning was bright and cheerful, with no sign of the storm of the previous night.
Myself and two other guests of the B&B gathered around the table downstairs for breakfast, after which they went for a long walk. Victoria decided to drive to the shops and I was left in the house entirely on my own. I walked around the garden, visited the church, and sat in the parlour to await my husband, practicing “you find me all alone this morning, Mr Darcy” under my breath. When my husband and son arrived to pick me up, they found me bearing the solitude very cheerfully.
But it was time to go and, of course, I was sad to leave my “very pleasant” room with its one and only closet, and the small parlour with its instantly recognisable wallpaper. To cheer me up, my husband agreed to do a “Mr Darcy” in the corner of the parlour’s sofa, and – with this photo on my phone – I left the parsonage feeling quite content with my situation.