Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Guest Post: Jane Austen and the Regency House by Phyllis Richardson

Today I welcome Phyllis Richardson to my blog. She is currently funding House of Fiction, a book exploring the intertwining links between novels and their settings and in many cases, the connection the author shared with these locations. Settings definitely play an important part in the novels Phyllis explores, with the buildings often being seen as a character in their own right. House of Fiction celebrates these expressive and historic buildings and the integral role they play in some of the most important novels, making it the perfect book for lovers of literature and architecture alike. (I actually wrote a post about the locations in Pride and Prejudice and how important they are - read that here!)
Of particular interest to us Janeites will be Chapter 3, “The Golden Age of the English Stately Home”, where she explores the beautiful homes of Jane Austen’s world in great detail.
Phyllis is funding her book with Unbound, a crowd-funding publisher dedicated to bringing readers and authors together. Supporters can subscribe to a book, and have their name in the back of the book, a method used by Charles Dickens and other writers in the 19th century.  You can read about it here.

Invitation to a Ball

Jane Austen and the Regency House

By Phyllis Richardson
“And of this place,” thought she, “I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted! Instead of viewing them as a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own…” (P&P 236)
Lyme Park - Pemberley 1995
My interest in houses in fiction probably started with Jane Austen. Of course there’s Pemberley, and there’s the desire of many Austen heroines to marry well and have a house of her own, even though it often amounts to no more than a modest rectory cottage. I have always been fascinated by the houses Austen describes in so much detail – Mansfield Park and Sotherton, Norland Park, Netherfield, Hartfield, Northanger Abbey – I did wonder what kept her returning to the subject of families and where they live, and in what style. What I found were a couple of strands of interest that had Jane Austen, the unmarried sister and daughter, firmly entwined with issues of house and home.
Firstly, there is the circumstance of her own domestic situation. Though Jane’s father, the reverend George Austen, was not wealthy, the family were well regarded socially and regularly mixed with people above their ‘set’. Jane and her sister were no strangers to a ball in a grand house. Writing to her sister of one ball she attended, she said she must have had twenty dances in one evening. Of another such dance in1800 Jane wrote to her sister: “There was a scarcity of Men in general, & a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much – I danced nine dances out of ten … Lady Portsmouth had got a different dress on, & Lady Bolton is much improved by a wig.”
The Vyne
One of Jane and Cassandra’s dance partners was Tom Chute, who was a friend of the Austen brothers and whose father owned the grand country house called ‘the Vyne’, in Hampshire. Built during the reign of Henry VIII for his Lord Chamberlain, Lord Sandys, the Vyne was visited several times by the Tudor king. It then passed to the Chute family who owned it for 300 years. Tom Chute’s older brother, William, a wealthy young bachelor, inherited the Vyne around 1790. Some Austen scholars believe that this event, which happened so close to home, inspired Jane to write the lines ‘a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’.
Jane also visited Oakley Hall, Hurstbourn, Kempshott House, Manydown House and Hackwood Park. In 1806 she made a particularly important visit to Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, when it was inherited by her mother’s cousin the reverend Thomas Leigh. The Leigh family were considered to be of a higher rank than the Austens and when Jane’s mother married her father, it was thought to be a step below her possibilities. Jane’s father had always kept himself and his family in a lifestyle above his means (and borrowed from his wife’s relations to do so) and there was an acute awareness of the greater wealth and standing of the Leighs.
Stoneleigh Abbey
Stoneleigh had been an abbey since the twelfth century and had fallen to ‘a roofless ruin’ by 1561 but was enlarged with a massive new wing by Edward, the third Lord Leigh after his return from the Grand Tour in 1711. The new West Wing was built in the Baroque style, took six years to complete (beginning in 1720) and cost the princely sum of £3,000. Jane’s mother was clearly taken with the place when she arrived with her cousin in his race to claim the title for it. In August 1806 she wrote to her daughter-in-law Mary that ‘the house is larger than I could have supposed. We cannot find our way about it - I mean the best part’. She goes on to list the number of beer casks in the cellar, ‘beyond imagination’, and the number of windows (45), the number of bed-chambers (26), and man-servants (18). And she describes the large and small sitting rooms, the gallery, the entrance and the state bed-chamber,  ‘an alarming apartment, with its high, dark crimson velvet bed, just fit for an heroine.’  It’s not hard to see where Jane got some of her excitable notions about houses.
A view toward the lake from inside Stoneleigh Abbey,
reputed to be Jane Austen’s favourite view
For a number of years after her father died, Jane, along with her mother and sister, Cassandra, moved from place to place without a real permanent residence they could call their own. Having grown up in the Rectory in Stevenage, in what seem to be happy, if somewhat modest circumstances, Jane moved to Bath with her parents and sister in 1801, after her father decided to retire and make over his position and house to his eldest son James. So, at the age of twenty-five, Jane was forced (without being consulted or considered) to vacate the home she had always known, leaving behind the rooms where she had begun her first three novels, and probably finished drafts of at least two. Jane and Cassandra (now twenty-eight) were whisked off to live with their parents in small, rented accommodation in Bath. It could hardly escape Jane’s notice that her own mother and aunt had been taken to Bath in similar circumstances–as marriageable young women who hadn’t yet managed to snag a suitable husband.
A sketch of Jane Austen’s House drawn by the author
No such men were found and after Mr Austen died, Mrs Austen and her sisters moved from place to place, being housed where family would have them, often with one of the brothers. Finally, in 1808, Jane’s brother Edward, who had been ‘adopted’ by distant and very rich relations who had no heir, offered them one of his houses to live in, the cottage on his estate at Chawton. (Edward reserved the much larger Chawton House for his own use, even though he also possessed the ample estate at Godmersham in Kent). Though very few of Jane’s letters survive, it is generally acknowledged that at Chawton, now the Jane Austen House Museum, she finally felt she had a home, and it was here that she completed or wrote all of her novels.
Jane’s story, sadly, is not unlike that of many women of the period, who could do very little without the help of a male relation. There were exceptions of course, but the tales of women needing husbands (because it might allow them a degree of independence—depending on the man’s benevolence) or of families being moved out of their homes (e.g., the Dashwoods) because the property is subject to an entailment, were based on a hard reality. Entailment was an ancient legal device that tied property to the nearest male descendent, and Walter Scott also commented, through novels like Waverley, on the harsh circumstances this could force on women who were powerless to object.
So, to my mind Jane Austen’s obsession with grand houses, while it provides great fodder for costume dramas, is also about a yearning for another life, something beyond the limits of familial control. When we look now at the parlour at Chawton Cottage and think of Jane sat at that very small writing table casting her eye toward the great house down the road, perhaps we should imagine that small sense of freedom, if only in her imagination, rejoicing in the idea at least, of a room of her own.
 Phyllis Richardson is currently crowd-funding her book House of Fiction through Unbound. You can support here book here. http://unbound.co.uk/books/the-house-of-fiction
Your affectionate friend,
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  1. I love the idea of this book and of course the specific chapter that references Jane Austen. The descriptions of the homes always made me wonder if they were real places. Thanks for sharing. I'm putting this book on my list.

  2. Hello, and thank you for having me on your wonderful site. What an amiable collection of Austen-worthy material.


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