November 2016 meeting: Austen’s grand homes

December 9, 2016

Talking about the grand homes

We started with a member suggesting that she considered two approaches to preparing for the topic:

  • check out the novels for the houses described therein; or
  • look at her bookshelves for relevant books!

She chose the latter and found Nigel Nicolson’s The world of Jane Austen which lists every house Austen was known to visit. Houses, Nicolson argues, symbolise status and wealth. Austen’s heroines (unlike those of contemporary novels) are never seen in kitchen, or in bed! Another writer, Clare Lamont, notes that none of Austen’s heroines live in old homes, which caused us to discuss the age of the various houses in Austen’s novels. Many are described as “modern”, including Rosings for example, but Lamont quotes the argument that “modern” can mean “classic” rather than, say, baroque. There are very few houses, in fact, which Austen specifies as old, Northanger Abbey and Donwell Abbey being the main ones.

We liked Austen’s description of the village of Uppercross (Persuasion):

Uppercross was a moderate-sized village, which a few years back had been completely in the old English style, containing only two houses superior in appearance to those of the yeomen and labourers: the mansion of the squire, with its high walls, great gates, and old trees, substantial and unmodernized, and the compact, tight parsonage, enclosed in its own neat garden, with a vine and a pear-tree trained round its casements; but upon the marriage of the young ‘squire, it had received the improvement of a farm-house elevated into a cottage for his residence; and Uppercross Cottage, with its viranda, French windows, and other prettinesses, was quite as likely to catch the traveller’s eye, as the more consistent and considerable aspect and premises of the Great House, about a quarter of a mile farther on.

Nicolson argues that life in Austen’s houses run too smoothly. Servants don’t fall ill or create dramas, meals arrive on time, there’s little pain or real sickness (though we all could point to some exceptions – Louisa Musgrove’s fall, Marianne’s illness, Mrs Smith’s sickness). It’s a sanitised world, and one that ignores industrialisation, focusing instead on villages which have the large house, and the rectory.

We also discussed the fact that some critics complain about there not being enough description of exteriors and interiors in Austen’s novels, but we argued that there is quite a lot of description. However, we also noted that Austen was writing for a contemporary audience which knew the houses of the time, so Austen could use her house descriptions to support her commentary on social values and character. Historical fiction writers like Georgette Heyer, on the other hand, need to provide descriptive detail to enable their readers to understand the historical period being written about.

“Houses … acquired the qualities of their owners”

Lyme Hall

Lyme Hall, used for Pemberley in the 1995 miniseries (By Editornumber24 [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons)

Nicolson discusses how Austen manipulates her house descriptions to reflect an attitude to the inhabitants: we are encouraged to not like Rosings but to like Pemberley (Pride and prejudice) even though both homes are similar in style and status, to not like Sotherton (because it belongs to the absurd Mr Rushworth) but like Mansfield Park (because Fanny loves it).

We discussed the fact that Mansfield Park and Sotherton are not equal in standing: Mansfield Park is the home of new money, of a man of commerce, while Sotherton reflects old money. Austen’s readers would have known the difference. Rushworth, in marrying Maria Bertram, was gaining an alliance with new fortune, which the older families often needed.

The Musgroves (Persuasion) are described through comparison with architecture:

The Musgroves, like their houses, were in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement. The father and mother were in the old English style, and the young people in the new. Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated, and not at all elegant. Their children had more modern minds and manners.

And, of course, we all remembered how description of Pemberley works also as a metaphor for its owner – “a large, handsome stone building … without any artificial appearance … its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned …”

Interestingly, Nicolson argues that Emma’s Donwell Abbey was Jane Austen’s ideal home. Here is Emma on it:

… she viewed the respectable size and style of the building, its suitable, becoming, characteristic situation, low and sheltered; its ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight — and its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up. The house was larger than Hartfield, and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling and irregular, with many comfortable and one or two handsome rooms. It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was; and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding.

Life and times, and Austen’s novels

One member compiled a chart of the variety of houses described in Austen’s novels, and noticed that a wider variety of homes are described in the later novels – Emma and Persuasion – than in her earlier ones, reflecting that Austen was starting to include a wider range of social classes in her fiction. Sanditon, the last unfinished novel, is the only one, however, which discusses construction, even though the 18th century saw an enormous craze for building and for renovating (“improving”) old homes (which latter we do see in the novels).

Of course, you can’t talk about grand homes without talking about social structure and income – and we did, because one of our members had done the research. In 1790, 25,000 families were part of the landed gentry and peerage. We were surprised to discover that the great landowners numbered only about 400 families, and were worth £10,000pa plus (which is Mr Darcy’s income). Around 4-5,000 families were worth £1,000-5,000pa, and the rest worth less. All rather eye-opening when we remember that Marianne Dashwood saw £2,000pa as a very moderate income! (The unrealistic view of youth!)

We also shared historical facts, such as the window and glass taxes, which can deepen our understanding of the novels. Then, as now, there was a conspicuous aspect to wealth (such as, for example, the number of windows you had) and to loss of wealth (how many were boarded up!) At Rosings, Mr Collins draws attentions to the number of windows.

Some real houses

Kedleston Hall

South front, Kedleston Hall (By DrKiernan (Own work) [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, we had to discuss actual homes in England – those that have been used in the various adaptations, those which might have been Austen’s models for her houses, those that remind us of her houses. One member, for example, suggested Kedleston Hall as Pemberley – and then entertained us with multiple pictures of houses which she argued, convincingly, could work as Austen’s various houses.

Another member researched Kenwood House, where part of the 1999 version of Mansfield Park was filmed. This was an appropriate choice because it was the home of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield whose rulings moved England towards the abolition of slavery, who “adopted” Dido (as fictionalised in the feature film Belle), and whose name some argue was the inspiration for the title Mansfield Park.

Word of the day

One member worried she was deblateratng (which, we soon learnt, means “babbling on”). We assured her that she wasn’t.

Lesson of the day

Who doesn’t love a grand home!

Some sources

  • Brewer, John (1997) The pleasures of the imagination, Harper and Collins
  • Gornall, JFG (Dec. 1967) “Marriage and property in Jane Austen’s novels”, History Today, 17 (2)
  • Hopwood, Graham (1983) Handbook of art, Graham Hopwood
  • Lamont, Claire (2005) “Domestic architecture” in Jane Austen in context (ed. Janet Todd)
  • Lane, Maggie (1997) Jane Austen’s World, Carlton
  • McCalman, Iain, ed. (1999) An Oxford companion to the Romantic Age
  • Nicolson, Nigel (1992) “Jane Austen’s houses in fact and fiction”, Persuasions, No. 14
  • Nicolson, Nigel (1991) The world of Jane Austen, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
  • Wilson, Patrick (2002) “Where’s where in Jane Austen … and what happens there”, Sensibilities


There were two main business items:

  • Schedule for 2017: We decided that we would revisit both novels which celebrate their 200th publication anniversary, Northanger Abbey (in the first half of the year) and Persuasion (in the second half). We agreed to start meeting again in February.
  • Christmas do: We confirmed that we would meet at Pialligo Estate at 12.40 for preloading with French champers before entering our pavilion for lunch at 1pm.