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Penshurst Place

Maybe it’s the return of Downton Abbey that has me following this little trail of memory….

In 1990, when I was leading a summer study tour in England, I visited Penshurst Place in Kent for the first time. Our coach driver grumbled a bit at having to take us so far off the beaten path, on narrow roads clearly not meant for modern motor-coaches, but I was excited to see the place. It was the ancestral home of the Sidney family — the great Renaissance poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney was born there — and had eventually passed to another branch of the family, the Shelleys — yes, as in the poet, though unlike Sidney, Percy Shelley never lived there. The place held a good deal of literary romance for me.

Among English country houses it’s not one of the biggest: when in the seventeenth century Ben Jonson wrote his famous poem about it, he noted that it was not built to overawe; rather, it was to be celebrated for its history, its graceful proportions, and the beauty of its setting. But it’s big enough, with its old Great Hall at the center.

And its gardens are exceptionally beautiful and varied in their styles.

Having toured the house, on an utterly perfect summer day, I was standing on the lawn looking out over the gardens when I was approached by an elderly couple. The lady was small and wiry, dressed in elegant pastels; the man short, stout, and wearing what was obviously a very expensive black pinstriped suit. “I understand you are leading this group,” the man said. I agreed that this was the case. “This is my house,” he said.

The man who had approached me was William Philip Sidney, 1st Viscount De L’Isle and fifteenth Governor-General of Australia, and it was indeed his house. He had a spot of food on his lapel; he and Lady L’Isle has apparently just finished lunch in one of the newer wings of the house, not open to visitors, and for some reason had decided to check out the visitors.

I tried to remember how, precisely, one should address a Viscount — “My Lord”? Was that too much? Was it inappropriate for an American to say? — and not being able to decide, merely inclined my head in a manner that I hoped would appear respectful but not servile.

“Tell me,” he said, in a gruff voice but with the expected plummy accent, “Why did you choose to come to Penshurst? There are many country houses you might have visited. Why did you come here?”

I began by explaining that we were on a literary tour, so the associations with Sidney were especially important, but went on to say that the house and grounds were even more beautiful than I had imagined they would be. The Viscount smiled at this, and said, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Then he paused for a moment, thinking, and said, “Of course, if the Communists had their way there wouldn’t be any houses like this.” I agreed that this was so. But then — remember, this was 1990 — he beamed and exclaimed, “But I’ll bet we’ve seen the last of them!” I agreed, and expressed my fervent hope that this was so, which pleased him.

The Viscount and his lady looked at me, apparently expecting a little more, so I praised the house in more detail. I commented that Ben Jonson was right to celebrate it for its modesty, and quoted the first lines of “To Penshurst”:

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,

Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row

Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;

Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,

Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,

And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.

At this the Viscount beamed still more, and Lady L’Isle spoke for the first time: “Goodness,” she fluted, “these are learned people!”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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