Jane Austen’s Haunted Emma

The environs of Jane Austen’s Emma boast some spectral incidents. Set in Surrey “the most misunderstood English county,” the novel features picturesque Box Hill and surrounding villages serving as the backdrop for a subtle complexity of romantic misunderstanding.

All quotes are from the novel.

“Emma had never been to Box Hill; she wished to see what everyone found so well worth seeing..”

Box Hill itself contains the grave of a man buried upside down. Major Peter Labilliere, not surprisingly a somewhat eccentric man, was a particular friend of the 5th Duke of Devonshire. He spent a good deal of his time wandering the hill. His ghost has yet to quit the area, according to reports.

“Let everybody on the Hill hear me if they can. Let my accents swell from Mickleham on one side, and Dorking on the other.”

The road from Box Hill to Dorking passes through the village of Westcott, the location of Stowe Maries, a Grade II listed sixteenth century timbered house once owned by the actor Leslie Howard. Reports of a ghostly horseman abound. One witness saw the roadside bushes part as if pushed aside, accompanied by the sound of a horse trotting by.

“I didn’t chase women, but I couldn’t always be bothered to run away.” — Leslie Howard

The ruins of old Betchworth Castle to the east make it difficult to imagine this medieval fortification had been renovated into a fine Regency-era house. It became part of the grounds of nearby Deepdene, acquired by colorful banker Thomas Hope. His well-developed craze for the Gothic style led him to turn a destructive eye toward old Betchworth. He had the house deliberately reduced to a picturesque ruin. Ironically, his Regency masterpiece Deepdene was destroyed to make an office building.

Betchworth Castle still remains, said to be haunted by a ‘Lord Hope.’ His ghost wanders in perpetual grief over the accidental killing of his son. A spectral black dog prowls the ruins at night as well.

Old Betchworth lies along the River Mole. Spooky, yeah? Photo by Ian Capper via geograph.org.uk

To the west of Dorking is Silent Pool, situated near the old estate of Henry Drummond, one of the wealthier men of Regency England and a rival banker to Sarah Sophia, Countess of Jersey. The body of water has a blue opalescent color. It is said to be haunted by a woodcutter’s daughter who drowned there to escape King John’s embrace.

Mystery writer Agatha Christie mysteriously disappeared near Silent Pool, where her car was found abandoned.

Jane Austen wrote Emma while staying with relatives in Great Bookham, on the outskirts of Dorking. Richard Sheridan, Regency-era playwright and one of Lady Bessborough’s lovers, lived in the neighborhood for a time at Polesdon Lacey, an old manor later remodeled into a villa and fine example of the era’s architecture. The grounds of this house and nearby Cotman Dean heath (Little Bookham Common) long had the reputation of being haunted by the spirit of an old woman.

“..ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls..”

The villagers had almost forgotten their local ghost until some boarding school boys resurrected her. They used a dark lanthorn (lantern with sliding black lens) and carried it around the place at night. The villagers were not familiar with this relatively new device. Thus they grew convinced the light moving swiftly around the heath, point to point, could have only been carried thus by spectral means.

The fun ended when the boys were discovered and thrashed within an inch of their lives.

Bookham Commons via nationaltrust.org.uk


Regency furnishings: Egyptian

“Mr. Chawleigh had fallen victim to the fashionable rage for the Egyptian…”

— A Civil Contract, Georgette Heyer (1961)

“..chimney piece of Mona marble, or verd antique, and decorated in the Egyptian style. ” —Ackermann’s Repository, Vol. 14, December, 1822

In 1798, Britain scored a major triumph over Napoleon in the Battle of the Nile. Naturally, the Egyptian motif was in order, recalling the Nation’s exploits in a land most had never seen, but assumed was covered in sphinxes and other sorts of ancient artifacts.

A recent trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London confirms a lot of furnishings in the Egyptian style had been made during the Regency. Certainly a good deal of the stuff managed to survive two hundred years.

Egyptian chair, by Thomas Hope — Victoria and Albert Museum

Much of this was due to Thomas Hope (1769-1831), a wealthy merchant of Scot and Dutch extract. As a young man, he traveled extensively throughout the Ottoman Empire. He used these experiences, and the vast collections he had acquired, to establish himself as an interior decorator to the Regency.

You can still purchase his 1807 book, Household Furniture and Interior Decoration.

They called him ‘the costume and furniture man.’ Thomas Hope, by Beechey (1798)

His London house was in Duchess Street, Cavendish Square. It acted as a sort of showroom for those who sought eclectic ideas to freshen up the neoclassical style that had been the vogue for some time. His country house, Deepdene, had a resort-like reputation. Guests would relax in rooms equipped with personal libraries and enjoy excellent advice on all things fashionable.

One could get carried away with the Egyptian style, as is often the case with anything that becomes all the rage. In one sentence, Heyer tells us of Mr. Chawleigh’s excessive predilection for the Egyptian.

We know his character better than if she’d described it several.

Hope’s possessions were dispersed by descendants. His son demolished the town residence and British Rail replaced the country mansion with an office block of ‘unsurpassed mediocrity.’  Only his mausoleum survives, on the grounds of vanished Deepdene.

Even this structure was forgotten, buried beneath a huge mound of earth, until it was discovered and restored. Now it can be seen along the public walk outside Dorking. If newspaper accounts are to be believed, a variety of persons and organizations hand a hand in this, including the Lottery Fund, an intrepid Council worker and Julian Fellowes.

The Hope Mausoleum. Resurrected like an ancient Sphinx from the desert sands that buried it.