NO matter what its dilapidated condition, or discreet debt surrounding it — an 18th century family seat plus a mention in Debrett’s Peerage, marks you out as a person of influence. Just as Molly Keane spied on her tribe, Jane Austen gives us an intimate insight into a lost and flawed world of balls, broken hearts, the limitation of behaviour and the meticulous art of climbing through the ranks.
Themes of position, unsanctioned romance, exhausting (if hilarious) social jousting and the horrifying spectre of being caught fraternising with inferiority, is explored in all of her books. Even her disrupting heroes and heroines cling to the accepted privileges and exquisite hypocrisies which came with having a big, old house, the stones firmly cemented with the pedigree of its inhabitants.
Jane Austen may have moralised about judging others on social status alone, but she acknowledges those degrees of influence at every turn. The place and importance of property is everywhere. Younger members of the family knew they had better behave, find an appropriate peer as a match, or lose it all.
Elizabeth Bennett, Austen’s most beloved, self-realised and progressive of her ladies, takes a wobble on her kitten heels when she beholds Pemberley, the ancestral home of Mr Darcy — “And of this place... I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted!” (Pride and Prejudice, 1813). Elizabeth judges Darcy first by his ‘countenance’, but interprets everything she needs to know in terms of his true worth and taste from a trip up his avenue.
Young, poor and also not well connected, Eleanor Dashwood at 27 was approaching the age of spinsterhood and in a vulnerable position in Sense and Sensibility (1811). She stoically laughs at whimsical Marie Antoinette-like idealising of the quaint and roomy Barton Cottage into which primogeniture sends them from their familiar Norland Park.
Austen fans obsess over the identification of this little house, elements of which may have been taken from Jane’s first home in Steventon in Devon. Barton cottage was under the patronage and protection of the Dashwoods’ cousin Sir John Middleton, making it doubly respectable as a gentlewoman’s roost.
We forget how brief, cold and downright dirty life was in the 1800s. One cruel winter in a damp peasant hovel (not the four bedroomed dream house in Sense and Sensibility) was an unforgiving environment that could spirit away children and vulnerable adults with a mere sniffle.
The cliff-edge leading to poverty, financial ruin and social exclusion is never far away especially for women widowed or not manoeuvred into the safety of a good marriage at an early age. The anxious, religious Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (1814), extracted from a hovel in Plymouth and moving in with her cousins to the ‘fine prospect’ of their manor house, sees her personal prospects instantly sky rocket in a flattering setting.
Behind the sharp ironies and rip roaring fun of every Jane Austen story is the spectre of that fall — it terrorises and teases the characters (often those of dubious ascent), into some of their most outrageous pronouncements.
Mr Collins’ fawning over Lady Catherine’s fabulous windows and chimney surrounds at Rosings is the running gag of Pride and Prejudice. Still, it emphasises the weight of grandeur delivered by a spectacular estate — the place had punch, it mattered, it worked. Having money enough for hundreds of windows and a blazing fireplace tended by servants was a vision of material paradise.
Better members of this gilded clique, including Mr Knightly (Emma 1815) recognise kindliness to all as a responsibility of this wealth. For the more superficial — keeping up with the Joneses wasn’t enough, you had to be the Joneses. Anne Elliot in Persuasion (1817) visits her old school friend in the wrong part of Bath, sending her father and hideous older sister into a seething tantrum.
The threat to their position by glancing off the wrong set of surnames and streets illuminates their own social insecurities, now renting while they pay off the debt on their country seat — “A mere Mrs Smith, an every-day Mrs Smith, of all people and all names in the world”.
The fact that Mrs Smith is a respectable, genteel widow in poor health makes no difference. The puffed up booby detects the whiff of an imprudent marriage. Sir Walter rails against having his daughter’s social station stormed by society’s losers. Anne was a chattel, with a duty to improve his financial situation. Consumed with self-interest, he sees a slip in etiquette could cost her her own household and God forbid his.
Even tenancy in a proper house, might save the day when dangerous behaviour had stripped you of all standing. Matriarch, Mrs Bennett, again in Pride and Prejudice, fusses about the situation of Lydia, her disgraced giddy daughter, scanning her knowledge of estates in the area where the chit and her bounder of a husband might settle — “Haye Park might do — if the Gouldings could quit it — or the great house at Stoke, if the drawing-room were larger; but Ashworth is too far off!... as for Pulvis Lodge, the attics are dreadful”.
The state of Lydia and Wentworth’s potential attics were not the real problem and her mother knew it. Still, properly established behind the walls of a caste-sanctioned fortress with an adequate retinue of servants, she speculated that the scandal might blow over with a little local networking.
In Emma, the deliciously stupid and bullying Mrs Elton trumpets her notions about herself and her background as soon as she arrives in the parish with her clergyman husband (an honest but not top flight catch.) Describing Emma’s home she tries too hard. “So extremely like Maple Grove! ... People who have extensive grounds themselves are always pleased with any thing in the same style.”
The truth is, Mrs Elton has of course been packed off from her family home as it went directly to her brother in the established tradition, but she’s ensuring everyone knows she is an alpha in her new society of friends — her birth, her former home demand it.
Whether you like or loathe the film versions of the novels, many show case what life in Georgian surroundings would have been like, at least for the upper set (class was not a word really used at this time). Emma Thompson in the Ang Lee-directed 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and BBC’s 1995 adaption of Persuasion remain two of the best. Austen was always more interested in dialogue, in character, than describing a lime-trimmed ride or a set of dishes, and for that, you have to love her.