Last month I talked about hedgerows in England- what they are made of and how common they are in the English countryside. This month I want to talk about another common feature in English landscaping: follies.
Follies are items added to landscaping or countryside to add interest. They may be whimsical or fantastic, dark and foreboding, lighthearted or eccentric. In fact they can take just about any form you want! They serve absolutely no function other than to entertain.
In the United States our follies might look like this:
Kind of silly, isn’t it? But in England, follies often look like this:
This is the Walpole folly in Cambridgeshire, England. It was built in the 1700’s and it was intended to look like an ancient and crumbling ruin. For a while the building of follies was quite a fad, and every country gentleman who wanted to make an impression on his tenants or neighbors would have an ancient-looking tower or a run-down abbey built on his property.
In their heyday you could find thousands of different follies in the English countryside, and many of them were highly imaginative. The sky was the limit! Besides the usual temples and towers there were also replicas of Egyptian pyramids and French gardens. There were water grottoes, rockeries, and fake bridges. There was even a fake Turkish tent!
The funniest folly might have been the hermitage built by the Honorable Charles Hamilton, who then advertised for someone to live as a hermit in the newly constructed hermitage for seven years. Yes, a real hermit! The hired hermit was required to stay silent, to avoid cutting his hair, and to stay on the estate for the entire length of his contract. He lasted just three weeks.
For Jane Austen fans the favorite folly would probably be the Temple of Apollo at Stourhead in Wiltshire. See if you can figure out why!
Why would anyone go to so much time and trouble, not to mention expense, just to create such useless features? They weren’t cheap either to build or maintain.
Well, that was part of the point. It was conspicuous consumption. If you could afford to throw perfectly good cash into something silly, like a fake bridge or a replica of a Roman aqueduct, features that never served a useful purpose and never would, you were certainly not hurting for money. Poor people didn’t have the funds or the land to build follies. They were busy just trying to survive. Only rich people had money to throw away on such ridiculous expenses.
Sometimes it was also done to highlight a gentleman’s education and sophistication. A young gentleman often went on a grand tour of Europe to put the finishing touch on his university degree, and when he came back, what could be more natural than for him to build a replica of one of the great sights he had taken in on the continent? If it looked ancient and neglected right from the start, that was even better.
But the primary purpose of follies was to create suitable settings for young female heroines to be lost and rescued by dashing young gentlemen on dark and stormy evenings, particularly in historic romance novels. 🙂 Certainly gothic novels wouldn’t be the same without them!
In my latest novel, An Unexpected Turn of Events, the widowed Mr. Bennet overhears a conversation between his daughter Kitty and an original character, Miss Lucy Masterson, about Longbourn. Miss Lucy has just discovered that Longbourn may not be as impressive as she thought.
“If there is no park at Longbourn,” Miss Lucy asked slowly, “where is the folly you described?”
“The folly!” Thomas exclaimed. He had been watching this exchange with concern, and now he had to speak. “There has never been a folly at Longbourn! Nothing has ever seemed more foolish to me than the practice of creating artificial ruins and replicas of run down castles when England is full to overflowing with them already. I would certainly never pay to have such a thing on my land!” He stared hard at his daughter, who looked helplessly back at him.
Lucy looked between him and Kitty uncertainly. “So there is no folly?”
“No, madam; none at all,” Thomas answered, observing her anxiously.
“Nor a pond, either, I suppose?”
“There is a pond, if you walk in the direction of Sir William Lucas’s!” Kitty exclaimed. “Maria and I saw it many times! On the far side of his land is a pond, and if you stand on the edge of it and look across, you can make out what used to be a barn. It has not been in use for years, and it is quite run down! That was what I meant by a folly overlooking a pond.” Her voice had risen, and she looked defiantly around the table.
Lucy sat back abruptly in her chair, her own face flushed.
Thomas looked at Kitty angrily. “It seems I may have misspoken,” he could not help saying. “I must amend my earlier words. There was indeed folly at Longbourn, but it was not found in any building. There is no greater folly than the efforts of those people who try to make themselves out to be more important than they are.”
Kitty glared indignantly back at him but he did not look away. Earnest likewise observed his wife, his brows knitted in concern, but said nothing. It was Mary who tactfully introduced the topic of dusty roads in the summer, and dinner mercifully concluded not long afterwards.
“What was that all about, Kitty?” Thomas demanded of his daughter after dinner. He had pulled her aside into the kitchens for a private discussion.
“You embarrassed me, papa,” came the surprising and petulant response. “You should not have tried to correct me in front of my guests.”
“I embarrassed you?” Thomas repeated incredulously. “I simply corrected your falsehoods! It is not my fault that your own words came back on your own head! I have no idea why you feel the need to impress Miss Masterson when she seems to like you well enough already.”
“I was not trying to impress Miss Masterson!” Kitty cried. “All I wanted to do was make it easier for her to like you!”
“What?” Thomas stared incredulously. “Of what are you speaking, child?”
“I knew that Miss Lucy was handsome and intelligent, and I thought that if you were to meet her, the two of you might like each other very well! So I made sure to seat her next to you on the night she and Frederick arrived here.”
“Kitty!” Thomas exclaimed. He felt his mouth drop open.
“I told her months ago what a well-educated gentleman you are; I also made sure that she knows you could easily afford to marry again if you wish to do so. And my plan worked! She is quite as smitten with you as you are with her.” Kitty looked at him triumphantly.
“Kitty, I am not—“ he started to protest, then stopped himself. He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. He had been about to say that he was not smitten with Lucy, but realized, at the last second, how false that would be.
“Kitty,” he started again, “your intentions are admirable, but you must cease your interference in my affairs at once. My life is my own to order, and I will thank you not to be involved in it to this degree!”
“I only wanted to help you, papa!”
“Your help is not wanted! If I did have any designs on Miss Masterson—which I am not at all admitting, mind you—you may have just ruined them. You may have raised her hopes for a home which I cannot give her. Longbourn is not a great estate, and you should not have made her believe that it was. She will think that I have been toying with her!”
Kitty looked contrite. “I can speak to her if you want, papa, and make sure she understands.”
“No!” He took an emphatic step towards her. “That would just make it worse. From now on, allow me to shift for myself, and leave Miss Masterson alone!”
I hope you liked this little excerpt! You will have to read the book to find out how the absence of a folly affects Mr. Bennet’s marital prospects. 🙂
And now for the giveaway! I am thrilled to announce the arrival of An Unexpected Turn of Events in audio format! Thank you, Verona Westbrook, for your hard work and talent in producing this audiobook! To my readers: if you comment below you’ll be entered into a drawing to receive one of three free copies! You must comment by midnight EST on November 12th in order to be eligible. Thank you for commenting, and good luck!