The reference Jane Austen makes to Kempshott Park is from her January, 1799 letter– familiar to many of her fans:
“Charles is not come yet, but he must come this morning or he shall never know what I will do to him. The ball at Kempshott is this evening and I have got him an invitation . . . . I am not to wear my white satin cap to-night, after all; I am to wear a mamalouc cap instead,..”
Kempshott was an out-the-way manor in Hampshire’s Basingstoke Hundred, and not far from Miss Austen’s residence in Steventon. The logistics of nearby toll roads and rather good hunting combined to make this corner of England greatly desired during the Regency and Kempshott came to the notice of the Prince of Wales, who conceived a fancy for the estate as his hunting box.
HRH leased the commodious house from a man named Crooke, who was then residing at Stratton Park, the mutilated house mentioned in this blog’s previous post. The course of the house’s history during this time is well-documented at Kempshott Park: a Prince’s Retreat. At various times the Prince entertained both Mrs. Fitzherbert and Princess Caroline of Wales at Kempshott.
By the time Miss Austen was summoned there, Prinny had left for the Grange–the one whose fabulous art collection was bombed by the Luftwaffe (see previous post). Then Kempshott was leased to Lady Dorchester. It was her ball Miss Austen immortalized in her letter, living on after countless others have been forgotten.
Alas, Kempshott House did not live on. We are lucky one Constance Hill, author of Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends (1904), was able to visit the mansion in its waning years. It had come into the hands of the Rycroft baronets, after undergoing some alteration since the Regency, sporting a fine Italianate exterior that had been added in the 1830s. Miss Hill was able to discover the ball-room of Jane Austen’s day and noted that it had been divided in later years to form a drawing room.
Presumably Miss Hill had her sketchbook with her, for she includes a fine pencil drawing of the ballroom’s intricate door frame in her volume.
World War I led to a long period where the house was vacant, its fixtures gradually dismantled and sold. One dealer attempted to capitalize on the house’s impressive connections, for a chimney piece like the one pictured below was plundered from Kempshott. This was sent on to America where it was joined with odds and ends from unknown origin, to form the centerpiece of a room puffed off as if taken from the house wholly intact–what some would later call a spoof.
Kempshott House was about to be demolished when visited by author John Harris in the 1960s.
“We found a brooding house, dark and gloomy, its stucco crumbling, deserted, abandoned to agricultural use…potatoes inside, and bales of hay, and an end wall had been broken open at ground floor level to shelter a tractor.”
— No Voice from the Hall by John Harris (1998)
One wonders what Jane Austen would have thought of potatoes piled where she once danced.