In the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries, Longbourn is shown as a pretty stock Georgian house. Its interiors are 1760s-1790s-ish, its exterior symmetrical, if quite plain. It feels right, for the home of a family with an income of two thousand a year.
In the 2005 movie, Longbourn looks reasonably right enough on the exterior, although it is strangely portrayed as being in the midst of a farmyard. Inside, however, it looks as though someone whose favorite decorating style is shabby chic has been allowed to run amok with chalk paint.
With those two examples before me, I had always preferred the 1995 house, but in the course of my last trip to England, I began musing over whether Longbourn was really a Georgian house. What started this was the library at the Jacobean Ham House, While the remainder of the house was too large and too grand to be Longbourn, its library felt exactly right, and the darker feel of the house was also beginning to feel more right.
After all, why should we presume the Bennets had the money to do extensive redecorating? The decor we see in the 1995 P&P would have had to be done in the era of Mr. Bennet or his father. Now, perhaps Mrs. Bennet did redecorate and spent money that should have been set aside for the daughters, as this seems a very Mrs. Bennet thing to do. But I believe it is also possible that she was only able to do a few of the most important rooms in the house, and this is what I saw at Eyam Hall, where my theory really took shape.
The houses that tend to have been preserved are usually so because they are exceedingly grand, because they have important art collections, or because famous people lived in them; sometimes, all of the above. That means that while there are plenty of opportunities to visit Pemberley-like houses, there aren’t very many that feel more like Longbourn in their scale. The hall, however, is but a side attraction for Eyam (rhymes with dream), the village that quarantined itself during a 1665 outbreak of the plague. It serves as a sort of base for the National Trust, which does excellent walking tours of the village, and in my case was the perfect thing to do when the day’s drizzle grew worse.
In the same way I had when I went through Kedleston Hall, which very much felt like Pemberley to me, I found myself feeling very much that I was in Longbourn as I went through Eyam Hall, built in 1671, after the plague. There were timber beams visible in the ceiling, dark paneling in many of the rooms, and more dark woodwork to be seen elsewhere.
It was a place that would have felt old-fashioned, to the characters who had known more “modern” houses. Surely the Bingley sisters would have sneered over the woodwork and the non-sash windows, just as they sneered over the Bennet sisters’ more provincial dress. And even though Mrs. Bennet had been allowed to update the dining-room, the telltale wooden beams above would have been a far cry from the tall, intricate plaster ceilings Mr. Darcy had at Pemberley.
That is not to say that Pemberley did not have “bones” as old as Longbourn. It was very common that new facades were put on older Elizabethan buildings and the interiors entirely updated – Chatsworth and Osterley Park being two examples. These houses still retain some of their old footprint, but they look decidedly different.
Imagining Longbourn as a Jacobean manor house, with only marginal updates to the decor, also begins to clarify something that had always perplexed me a little about Longbourn, and that is that Austen twice references Longbourn village:
They returned therefore in good spirits to Longbourn, the village where they lived, and of which they were the principal inhabitants.
The village of Longbourn was only one mile from Meryton; a most convenient distance for the young ladies, who were usually tempted thither three or four times a week, to pay their duty to their aunt and to a milliner’s shop just over the way.
Again, because most of the surviving examples tend to be the most grand, we are accustomed to thinking of these old houses as situated within vast grounds, artfully landscaped by someone like “Capability” Brown. But here Longbourn is said to be a village. We get no further clues in its name, unlike Netherfield Park, which must clearly be located within a park of enough substance to have merited the name. And we do get a clue from Lady Catherine:
“You have a very small park here,” returned Lady Catherine after a short silence.
“It is nothing in comparison of Rosings, my lady, I dare say; but I assure you it is much larger than Sir William Lucas’s.”
If there is one common theme in the evolution of English architecture from medieval times, it is an increase in privacy. In a medieval house, the lord and lady slept in the same room as many of their servants. Over time, the lord and lady began to get their rooms to themselves, servants moved to sleep elsewhere, and eventually separate staircases began to be incorporated so that servants could come and go as unobtrusively as possible.
The same evolution can be seen in the placement of houses. The tale that is not always immediately apparent, when you look at some of these artfully landscaped grounds, is that often whole villages were moved to improve the vista, and presumably to increase privacy. Occasionally you can see vestiges of this, such as at Kedleston, where the rest of the village has been moved, but the old church remains tucked away behind the house.
Eyam Hall certainly shows this proximity to the village, and at Tissington I found an even more dramatic example of the old fashion. Tissington Hall, a large Jacobean manor house, sits in the midst of its village, and many of the inhabitants are still tenants farming the Tissington estate.
Unfortunately the house was not open for visitors when I came through Tissington, so I don’t have any interior pictures. But this is now how I envision Longbourn’s situation (although I think the house would be nearer Eyam Hall in size), sitting amidst a small village mostly comprised of tenants of the estate, their farms radiating out in different directions.
What do you think? Was Longbourn an older Jacobean house? Was it situated like Eyam and Tissington Halls?