How Higginsbrook became Jane's house

 

A Co Meath house stars as the rectory where Jane Austen grew up in a new film about her youthful romance. Robert O'Byrnereports

Not many of us ever expect our homes to be viewed by millions of cinemagoers around the world, but Christopher and Hanne Gray are prepared for this experience once Becoming Jane opens next week.

Set in the 1790s, the film tells the story of 20-year-old Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) and her romance with an impoverished young Irish lawyer, Thomas Lefroy (James McAvoy), the premise being that this brief liaison would later inspire Austen's fiction, specifically Pride and Prejudice.

Lefroy, who on his return to Ireland married Wexford heiress Mary Paul in 1799, would subsequently become Chief Justice of Ireland and sufficiently wealthy to buy Carriglas, a Co Longford estate until recently owned by his descendants.

Much of the story of Becoming Jane takes place in and around the Hampshire village of Steventon, where Jane Austen's father was the rector and where she lived for the first 25 years of her life.

Unfortunately Steventon rectory was demolished in 1824, seven years after the novelist's death and in any case, the film was shot last spring in Ireland, making it necessary to find a suitable location here.

This turned out to be Higginsbrook, owned by the Grays and located a few miles outside Trim, Co Meath. The couple were both delighted and surprised at the news that their home had been chosen. "I'd sent details of the house to an Irish location manager, Manus Hingerty, back in 1998," says Christopher, "and though there were various nibbles of interest afterwards, nothing seemed to come about."

In the 1970s, a great-aunt had given him the house, which dates from the first half of the 18th century, but it was 20 years before Higginsbrook became the Grays' permanent home. From the exterior, the five-bay building with its central pediment looks deceptively substantial: in fact, Higginsbrook is only one room deep throughout.

This impression of diminutive grandeur obviously appealed to the film-makers; the Rev Austen (James Cromwell) was not a wealthy man and surviving drawings show Steventon rectory to have been a modest-sized house.

Nevertheless, it took some time for Higginsbrook to be selected for the role of Jane Austen's childhood home. "The process did seem incredibly attenuated," Christopher Gray remarks. "A number of people came to see us in June 2005 and took some photographs, but then we heard nothing so by August I'd decided the whole thing was dead. Then in January last year I got a phone call saying they were still interested and more people came to look at the house; at one point, we'd 20 of them in the place. I suppose for us, the strangest thing was never knowing how keen they were."

Eventually Higginsbrook was chosen and the Grays had to move into alternative accommodation - at the expense of the film-makers - for almost two months. Actual on-site shooting only lasted for a couple of weeks, albeit with breaks in-between. The Grays had ample opportunity to observe what was going on inside their home during this period because they were also given the job of acting as extras in one party scene, together with their son Aidan, daughter Camilla and her husband Tim. "We were 'atmosphere people'," says Christopher, explaining this is the current term for extras. "I had to recruit about 17 people for that scene and then they asked me to find 159 more for a crowd scene!"

At one point, he was also mooted to appear as the Austen's gardener but since he admits to "not knowing a hoe from a rake", it's probably as well this didn't come about.

'It was all repainted in Farrow & Ball'

Curiously, Jeffrey Lefroy, a direct descendant of Jane Austen's inamorato, also appears as an extra in the film. While the Grays and their friends struggled into 18th century costume, Higginsbrook was also being given a period makeover.

The house retains many of its original features and this presumably influenced the film-makers' selection. Nevertheless, a lot had to be done before it was ready to double as Steventon rectory, including such obvious work as concealing all light switches and electric sockets.

Internally a couple of rooms were divided in two to make them smaller; some of the Gray's own furniture and pictures painted by their children when young were retained, but most of their possessions had to be stored elsewhere to make way for temporary props.

In the small library, for example, which became the Rev Austen's study, the shelves were entirely filled with leather-bound books - all of them in Swedish.

The windows were all given a veneer of grime and soft furnishings made to look rather ragged; anyone who saw the house in its temporary guise would come away with the impression that Mrs Austen (Julie Walters) was not especially house-proud and that young Jane didn't trouble to keep her bedroom tidy.

Outside, while the lawns and flowerbeds in front of Higginsbrook were left largely untouched, elsewhere in the grounds a new vegetable garden was created, pig pens, a chicken coop and beehives installed and a corrugated-iron barn covered in slatted wood. Most significant of all, an old greenhouse to the rear of the building was demolished and replaced with a rather smart conservatory. Because only required for a week's filming, no plans were made to give this addition permanent foundations but it got them thanks to Christopher Gray and a friend who undertook the job one night. As a result, the family now enjoys an attractive legacy from Becoming Jane.

Otherwise, all the alterations made to Higginsbrook were reversed once filming had ended. "Though they hadn't been involved in taking it all out," says Christopher, "the people who put everything back were very willing and spent a great deal of time and trouble. And they repainted the entire house, even areas that weren't used, in Farrow & Ball colours that we had chosen." Obviously, the Grays were financially rewarded for allowing their house to be used, and while unwilling to mention a specific sum they say the amount offered made the experience "worthwhile".

Would they do it all again? "Certainly," remarks Christopher, "it was fun and terribly interesting." So much fun, in fact, that last autumn they agreed to Higginsbrook appearing in another Austen-inspired film, Northanger Abbey, scripted by Andrew Davies and due to be screened on ITV television later this year.

"We were a distressed rectory again," laughs Christopher Gray - but he must be worrying about the risk of his family home becoming typecast.