Touring Austen’s Country Houses

Touring Austen’s Country Houses

The housekeeper came; a respectable-looking, elderly woman, much less fine, and more civil, than she had any notion of finding her. They followed her into the dining-parlour. It was a large, well-proportioned room, handsomely fitted up. Elizabeth, after slightly surveying it, went to a window to enjoy its prospect. The hill, crowned with wood, from which they had descended, receiving increased abruptness from the distance, was a beautiful object. Every disposition of the ground was good; and she looked on the whole scene — the river, the trees scattered on its banks, and the winding of the valley, as far as she could trace it — with delight. As they passed into other rooms, these objects were taking different positions; but from every window there were beauties to be seen. The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendor, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings. 

Touring Pemberley’s Interior (Sudbury Hall, Pride & Prejudice 1995)

In Jane Austen’s time, it was an established matter of hospitality that great country houses could be petitioned by the public for access to their grounds and public rooms. Such tours served as a means of additional income for the housekeeper and groundsmen, who one can assume were inclined to accept or reject such requests not only in deference to the family’s convenience, but also based on the seeming affluence (and likelihood of tipping) of the applicant. Obviously, Elizabeth Bennet and the fashionable Gardiners are welcomed kindly to Pemberley, the same manner in which they were presumably greeted at the many other houses they are said to visit during their time in Derbyshire. It is during the tour that Elizabeth’s feelings towards Mr. Darcy begin to undergo a radical change. His good taste and the testimony of Mrs. Reynolds in his favor all act to increase her opinion of his character. Indeed, throughout Austen, a man’s home reflects who he is and what he values. We are privy to three thorough house tours in the six main novels, each of which illuminates the strengths and failures of their owners.

Pemberley is perhaps such an idealized place because Mr. Darcy, despite his crusty introduction, proves to be such an ideal man. In his late-father’s favorite room, we see that Mr. Darcy has preserved it in his honor, even thought this means keeping a miniature of George Wickham, certainly distressing to both him and his sister, on display. We also observe his affection for his sister, both in the new pianoforte he has purchased for her, and in the care taken in having the room she favors redecorated: “On reaching the spacious lobby above, they were shewn into a very pretty sitting-room, lately fitted up with greater elegance and lightness than the apartments below; and were informed that it was but just done to give pleasure to Miss Darcy, who had taken a liking to the room when last at Pemberley.” Upon the tour’s conclusion, Elizabeth has an entirely new notion of Mr. Darcy, as revealed when she seeks out and studies his portrait:

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (Pride & Prejudice, 1995)

There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth’s mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance. The commendation bestowed on him by Mrs. Reynolds was of no trifling nature. What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant? As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship! — How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow! — How much of good or evil must be done by him! Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to his character, and as she stood before the canvas, on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and softened its impropriety of expression. 

What a very different notion we receive of Mr. Rushworth, when his mother conducts the guests from Mansfield Park about Sotherton Court! We already know him to be rather trifling. As Edmund Bertram succinctly puts it, “If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow.” We also can judge him by the fact that he is happy, maybe even relieved, to entirely turn over the task of improving his estate to a near stranger, Mr. Crawford. Certainly, Mr. Darcy would never treat the grounds of Pemberley in so cavalier a manner. It further diminishes Mr. Rushworth’s dignity that the man in whom he confides this trust is a rival for his betrothed’s hand, but these damning facts aside, let’s just examine what actually happens on the tour and how it reflects the man:

The whole party rose accordingly, and under Mrs. Rushworth’s guidance were shewn through a number of rooms, all lofty, and many large, and amply furnished in the taste of fifty years back, with shining floors, solid mahogany, rich damask, marble, gilding, and carving, each handsome in its way. Of pictures there were abundance, and some few good, but the larger part were family portraits, no longer anything to anybody but Mrs. Rushworth, who had been at great pains to learn all that the housekeeper could teach, and was now almost equally well qualified to shew the house.

Two major points are here revealed. The first is that Mr. Rushworth entirely concedes the tour to his mother’s direction, much in the same way he does his life. As mistress of the house, it is fitting that Mrs. Rushworth lead the tour, but a more engaged landowner would surely have something substantive to contribute. Secondly, we learn that the house and furnishings were once the property of another family, who presumably sold it off lock, stock, and barrel after falling upon hard times. That the Rushworths’ have added no portraits of their own to the collection suggests they have no familial history of which to brag, indicating low origins supplemented by wealth, presumably gained through trade. Austen is not so terribly elitist that a made fortune renders a family unworthy (Mr. Bingley and Captain Wentworth are both prime examples of her egalitarianism), and Mr. Rushworth is obviously at least a few generations removed from the “taint” of trade, but it does, nevertheless, further weaken an already flawed character. The man and house are also diminished by its low situation, devoid of the fine prospects to be commanded from each of Pemberley’s windows:

Pemberley’s Exterior (Lyme Park, Pride & Prejudice 1995)

The situation of the house excluded the possibility of much prospect from any of the rooms; and while Fanny and some of the others were attending Mrs. Rushworth, Henry Crawford was looking grave and shaking his head at the windows. Every room on the west front looked across a lawn to the beginning of the avenue immediately beyond tall iron palisades and gates.

Having visited many more rooms than could be supposed to be of any other use than to contribute to the window-tax, and find employment for housemaids, “Now,” said Mrs. Rushworth, “we are coming to the chapel, which properly we ought to enter from above, and look down upon; but as we are quite among friends, I will take you in this way, if you will excuse me.”

They entered. Fanny’s imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above. “I am disappointed,” said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. “This is not my idea of a chapel.” 

Even Fanny Price, who barely dares offer criticism elsewhere, can speak confidently about Sotherton’s deficiencies. The house is as opposite Pemberley’s perfections as it could be, both “gaudy” and “uselessly fine,” as made clear by the abundance of windows. Those descriptives are intended to juxtapose Pemberley’s “real elegance” to that of Rosings Park, which, interestingly, is the only other house in all of Austen whose description invokes a reference to the window tax, a property tax determined by how many windows a house possessed. In Mansfield Park, Austen dismisses Sotherton’s many and prospectless windows as mere pretension. In Pride and Prejudice, it is Mr. Collins who displays an absurd pride in Rosings “by his enumeration of the windows in front of the house, and his relation of what the glazing altogether had originally cost Sir Lewis De Bourgh.”

Hugh Bonneville (aka the Earl of Grantham) as Mr. Rushworth (Mansfield Park 1999)

Such pretension seems the perfect introduction to Austen’s third house tour: Northanger Abbey, home of the insidious General Tilney. This is the most complete and detailed of the tours (appropriate, as the novel takes its name from the place), revealing much about the General’s character. As Mrs. Rushworth’s dominant presence during the Sotherton tour reflects her relationship to her son, so does General Tilney’s usurpation of his daughter’s right to conduct her guest about the house and grounds demonstrate the total authority he seeks to yield over his children: “Something had been said the evening before of her being shewn over the house, and he now offered himself as her conductor; and though Catherine had hoped to explore it accompanied only by his daughter, it was a proposal of too much happiness in itself, under any circumstances, not to be gladly accepted.” Yet even Catherine Morland’s enthusiasm for an abbey is totally overwhelmed by the General’s determination to show off his possessions, and indeed, it is he who provides all the desired admiration he intends to excite:

They set forward; and, with a grandeur of air, a dignified step, which caught the eye, but could not shake the doubts of the well-read Catherine, he led the way across the hall, through the common drawing-room and one useless antechamber, into a room magnificent both in size and furniture — the real drawing-room, used only with company of consequence. — It was very noble — very grand — very charming! — was all that Catherine had to say, for her indiscriminating eye scarcely discerned the colour of the satin; and all minuteness of praise, all praise that had much meaning, was supplied by the General: the costliness or elegance of any room’s fitting-up could be nothing to her; she cared for no furniture of a more modern date than the fifteenth century. When the General had satisfied his own curiosity, in a close examination of every well-known ornament, they proceeded into the library, an apartment, in its way, of equal magnificence, exhibiting a collection of books, on which an humble man might have looked with pride. 

Stoneleigh Abbey, believed by many to be the inspiration for Sotherton Court

As the tour proceeds, we see that unlike Mr. Rushworth, General Tilney has taken a managing hand in everything pertaining to his home. His pride in his work is so acute that he cannot perceive how little such details matter to his audience, and he is determined, with military precision, to account for every dimension and each improvement:

From the dining-room, of which, though already seen, and always to be seen at five o’clock, the General could not forgo the pleasure of pacing out the length, for the more certain information of Miss Morland, as to what she neither doubted nor cared for, they proceeded by quick communication to the kitchen — the ancient kitchen of the convent, rich in the massy walls and smoke of former days, and in the stoves and hot closets of the present. The General’s improving hand had not loitered here: every modern invention to facilitate the labour of the cooks had been adopted within this, their spacious theatre; and, when the genius of others had failed, his own had often produced the perfection wanted. His endowments of this spot alone might at any time have placed him high among the benefactors of the convent. 

His persistence in flouting his family’s prosperity is so complete that General Tilney totally misses the fact that modern conveniences mean absolutely nothing to Catherine, who would far prefer it were the Abbey in some half-ruinous state, more in keeping with her notions of Gothic grandeur.

With the walls of the kitchen ended all the antiquity of the abbey; the fourth side of the quadrangle having, on account of its decaying state, been removed by the General’s father, and the present erected in its place. All that was venerable ceased here. The new building was not only new, but declared itself to be so; intended only for offices, and enclosed behind by stable-yards, no uniformity of architecture had been thought necessary. Catherine could have raved at the hand which had swept away what must have been beyond the value of all the rest, for the purposes of mere domestic economy; and would willingly have been spared the mortification of a walk through scenes so fallen, had the General allowed it; but if he had a vanity, it was in the arrangement of his offices; and as he was convinced that, to a mind like Miss Morland’s, a view of the accommodations and comforts, by which the labours of her inferiors were softened, must always be gratifying, he should make no apology for leading her on. 

Liam Cunningham (aka Sir Davos) as General Tilney (Northanger Abbey 2007)

We see that the General not only has no notion of what might please Catherine, but that he also has formed entirely faulty conceptions of what she values (later, he proves similarly mistaken in her monetary value). Surely, after it’s suggested, Catherine can acknowledge that modern conveniences in the kitchen and offices greatly benefit the staff that must toil within them, but it does not decrease her sense of loss for what was swept away to make room for such accommodations:

The purposes for which a few shapeless pantries and a comfortless scullery were deemed sufficient at Fullerton, were here carried on in appropriate divisions, commodious and roomy. The number of servants continually appearing did not strike her less than the number of their offices. Wherever they went, some pattened girl stopped to curtsy, or some footman in dishabille sneaked off. Yet this was an Abbey! — How inexpressibly different in these domestic arrangements from such as she had read about — from abbeys and castles, in which, though certainly larger than Northanger, all the dirty work of the house was to be done by two pair of female hands at the utmost.

Let us stop to note what Catherine misses in her chagrin with the General’s improvements: the rather suspicious activities of the many maidservants and inappropriately attired footmen. The General may pay scrupulous attention to the accoutrements of his house, so much of which he claims is for the benefit of his servants, but the morality of his staff seems beyond his notice. It is in keeping with the way he presents a false picture to the world, concealing his true character: domineering, materialistic, and rapacious.

Northanger Abbey (Lismore Castle, Northanger Abbey 2007)

They returned to the hall, that the chief stair-case might be ascended, and the beauty of its wood, and ornaments of rich carving might be pointed out: having gained the top, they turned in an opposite direction from the gallery in which her room lay, and shortly entered one on the same plan, but superior in length and breadth. She was here shewn successively into three large bed-chambers, with their dressing-rooms, most completely and handsomely fitted up; everything that money and taste could do, to give comfort and elegance to apartments, had been bestowed on these; and, being furnished within the last five years, they were perfect in all that would be generally pleasing, and wanting in all that could give pleasure to Catherine. As they were surveying the last, the General, after slightly naming a few of the distinguished characters by whom they had at times been honoured, turned with a smiling countenance to Catherine, and ventured to hope that henceforward some of their earliest tenants might be “our friends from Fullerton.” She felt the unexpected compliment, and deeply regretted the impossibility of thinking well of a man so kindly disposed towards herself, and so full of civility to all her family.

The gallery was terminated by folding doors, which Miss Tilney, advancing, had thrown open, and passed through, and seemed on the point of doing the same by the first door to the left, in another long reach of gallery, when the General, coming forwards, called her hastily, and, as Catherine thought, rather angrily back, demanding whether she were going? — And what was there more to be seen? — Had not Miss Morland already seen all that could be worth her notice? — And did she not suppose her friend might be glad of some refreshment after so much exercise? Miss Tilney drew back directly, and the heavy doors were closed upon the mortified Catherine, who, having seen, in a momentary glance beyond them, a narrower passage, more numerous openings, and symptoms of a winding stair-case, believed herself at last within the reach of something worth her notice; and felt, as she unwillingly paced back the gallery, that she would rather be allowed to examine that end of the house than see all the finery of all the rest.

Excessively gracious one moment and cold and forbidding the next, the General’s tour of the Abbey portends much of what we learn of him (and his eldest son) as the novel progresses. Like his home, he has gilded his exterior to hide the decay beneath. Even the innocent Catherine can see there is falsity behind such display, though she imagines him guilty of even worse than his real and rather commonplace sins. It is all there for the divining reader to uncover in the house tour.

Many other country houses feature prominently in Austen’s novels and most provide an accurate reflection of their owners’ personalities. Prosperous Donwell Abbey is the embodiment of Mr. Knightley, just as the forsaken Kellynch Hall symbolizes Sir Walter Elliot’s failures as a father and landowner. Yet it is in her three house tours that Austen really draws concise correlations between estates and their masters, capitalizing upon these scenes to provide complete character sketches of the gentlemen in question. It is a brilliant use of narrative, but I admit I am rather relieved the authoress can’t knock on my door and request to inspect the premises. One can only imagine what devastating conclusions she would draw! On that note, I think I’ll go clean my bathrooms …

14 Responses to Touring Austen’s Country Houses

  1. Great post! I’ve never looked at the houses that way before – as reflections of their masters – but of course it makes perfect sense. It’s lovely to see them through the eyes of the heroines as well.

    Also this has got to be one of my favourite quotes from Austen’s pen: “If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow.” Thanks for including it and making me smile. 🙂

    Beverlee

  2. What a great post Alexa. I definitely think Pemberley surpasses all the others (I may be a little biased here). It is definitely where I would choose to live given the chance.
    At least the maids would come in handy as I’m afraid housework comes way below reading in my list of priorities.

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