A PACKAGE of letters over 200 years old have been given to National Trust property The Vyne.

The six letters, dating from 1795 to 1798, were written by Mrs Elizabeth Chute, the wife of William Chute, who owned the Sherborne St John house until 1824.

The letters were all written to Elizabeth’s sister, Augusta, who was linked by marriage to the author Jane Austen (Augusta’s daughter Emma married Jane’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh).

They build up a fascinating picture of the trials and tribulations of a marriage, bringing vividly to life the personalities of family members, and Elizabeth’s private views about friends and society acquaintances.

William Chute and his wife Elizabeth were an odd match. She was a talented artist and a cultured woman, and her letters reveal a great wit and intelligence. They also build up a vivid picture of her husband who, although a gentleman and the MP for North Hampshire from 1790 to 1820, preferred hunting to politics and London life.

Elizabeth was also very fond of music. She wrote: “At eleven we got to Winchester & went immediately to the Concert, which consisted of a selection from Handel, not performed at the Cathedral, as the band is not large enough to fill such a space, it was in the ball room, which did much better, except for the choruses, which wanted the organ;”

Although Elizabeth socialised locally, and made trips to London, her letters give the impression that she is often lonely. She talks about her ‘solitude’, and in one letter, she refers to herself as ‘the Widow’ because her husband has been away, returning in a rather dilapidated state.

When her husband was away, Elizabeth often rode herself and inspected the estate: “I rode yesterday or more properly walked on my horse for some hours in a copse, marking what trees should come down for the good of the rest.”

Elizabeth took great interest in the workings of the estate and was well aware of how important good weather was for the crops, but even poor weather she writes about with wit: “I despair of any settled weather this year. We have just got our wheat in, and the hop garden is a pretty sight, a few days more will finish picking. Weeds are in such plenty here from all this rain that I could save you any sort you liked if you wanted a supply.”
Her letters show a passionate appreciation for the natural world around The Vyne, which today is little changed since Elizabeth’s time.

Chute seemed to glory in making no profit from his farms, whereas his wife was conscientious and meticulous with the household accounts. In fact, Chute got into the habit of borrowing money from her, sometimes as much as a year's working capital (£100).

Indeed, Mr Chute was prone to let money run through his fingers, much to his wife’s angst, but her pity also. In one letter, she recalls how he pays 19 guineas up front for “a very fine horse” instead of having it on trial, only to find the next day that the horse has declined suspiciously in the night and is too ill to be ridden.

In the same week, Mr Chute leaves his great coat in a hackney coach: “… with his usual philosophy he joins in the laugh at his own credulity, but I am a little vexed at the loss of nine or ten guineas, whilst I have grudged spending the couple of guineas it might have cost me to go to dear Stoke (Stoke Park in Wiltshire, the home of her parents), to enjoy a week’s amusement.”

Elizabeth entertained regularly at The Vyne, but some guests were harder work than others: “The two Spensters(sic) are yet with me, nor do they talk of going yet. We have not quarrelled, as you say, this is not the weather for it, for there is no getting away.” 

A regular guest was William Chute’s younger brother Thomas. Traditionally, male members of aristocratic households often made their careers in the navy or army. Tom was in the militia and regularly stayed at The Vyne in order to recruit in the Basingstoke area.

The Vyne’s House Manager, Carolyn Aldridge, said: “These letters are a very exciting addition to The Vyne’s collection of papers, and bring vividly back to life an important family member’s voice, through her own writings.

“It’s often the minutiae of day-to-day life that people find so fascinating when delving into the past, and these intimate letters reveal so much wonderful detail.

“We’re really looking forward to sharing these stories with our visitors.”
To find out more, call 01256 883858.