The Estate at Sotherton


by Jenny Simons



Preparing this talk, I re-read Mansfield Park with the plan of identifying everything to do with landscape and gardens.  Sotherton Court’s layout is mentioned many times in the early part of the novel, so I thought I might be able to devise a plan of the grounds (below).  The bits of information didn’t all match and I made slow progress.  Then I read a remark made by John Wiltshire, our great Australian Jane Austen scholar, and editor of the recent Cambridge Edition of Mansfield Park, who said “The geography of Sotherton is not entirely clear.”  However, I persevered.


There were some clues in Mansfield Park to help form the plan: Austen says of Sotherton Court that it is “one of the largest and finest places in the country.”  The party from Mansfield, going there on a visit, approach Sotherton Court by carriage and on horseback.  The road to the Great House runs through Sotherton village.  Miss Bertram, who is engaged to the owner, James Rushworth, knows that the Sotherton estate lies on both sides of this road, and Austen tells us that Maria manages to refrain from saying so even though she is full of pride at the estate she is to marry into.  It is possible that the estate includes the land that the village is built on.


Maria does observe, however:


“Now we shall have no more rough road, Miss Crawford, our difficulties are over.  The rest of the way is such as it ought to be.  Mr. Rushworth has made it [the road] since he succeeded to the estate.  Here begins the village.  Those cottages are really a disgrace.  The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome.  I am glad the church is not so close to the great house as often happens in old places.  The annoyance of the bells must be terrible.  There is the parsonage; a tidy-looking house, and I understand the clergyman and his wife are very decent people.  Those are alms-houses, built by some of the family.  To the right is the steward’s house; he is a very respectable man.  Now we are coming to the lodge gates; but we have nearly a mile through the park still.  It is not ugly, you see, at this end; there is some fine timber, but the situation of the house is dreadful.  We go down hill to it for half-a-mile, and it is a pity, for it would not be an ill-looking place if it had a better approach.”


This gives us a clear idea of the village and the approach to the house itself.


We learn from Austen that the estate consists of 700 acres (283 hectares) plus the water meadows.  It is seven miles (11 km) around.  Compare Sotherton with Mansfield Park: “a park, a real park five miles (8 km) round, a spacious modern-built house, so well placed and well screened.”  So Sotherton Court is far larger than Mansfield Park.


We know that the village and church are not close by, that the lodge is almost a mile away from the house, that there is a stream probably somewhere in front and that the house faces east (Fanny’s observation).  There are “spacious stone steps before the principal entrance.”


Now to the avenue.  “Every room on the west front looked across a lawn to the beginning of the avenue immediately beyond tall iron palisades and gates.”  So where to place the avenue?  You would expect it to be directly behind the terrace, but the knoll is described as being there.  “The knoll would give them directly the requisite command of the house,” Henry said.  So I have placed the avenue to the left.


The lawn was bounded on each side by a wall and planted with garden beds and shrubs.


On the terrace there was a bowling green and beyond that a long terrace walk, backed (presumably on the right), by iron palisades with a commanding view over them into the tops of the trees in the wilderness, we are told.


Somewhere nearby, probably to the right, was the pheasantry from which Mrs. Norris received four eggs, and the dairy which yielded her a cream cheese.


From our knowledge of English estates, we can assume that also in this area would be a farmyard, stables, kennels, a fowl yard and within a large walled enclosure, which is drawn on the map, such gardens as a picking garden (of flowers for the house), a fruit and vegetable garden, a heated grape-house, pineapples, cucumber frames, other hothouses, store houses, and garden workers’ headquarters.


Behind the house is an upper walk on the same level as the house.  After the young people tired of inspecting the ground floor of the house, ending up at the chapel, they saw a door which opened out on to this upper walk and fled outside.


If you walk down the terrace you enter the wilderness by descending a flight of steps and going through a gate.  In the eighteenth century “a wilderness” was a man-made object, the opposite of today’s wilderness, which is a site neglected by man and therefore in what we would call a natural state.


In Mansfield Park Austen says:


A considerable flight of steps landed them in the wilderness, which was a planted wood of about two acres, and though chiefly of larch and laurel [that is, small trees], and beech cut down, and though laid out with too much regularity, was darkness and shade, and natural beauty, compared with the bowling-green and the terrace.


The romantic so-called “natural effect” of wilderness was very popular in the early 1800s.


Austen mentions “beech cut down.”  This refers to the cultivation of beech trees while young, into a hedge, so the wilderness was far from being “natural” in our sense of the word.


It was in the wilderness that Edmund, Mary, and Fanny walked and where Fanny sat when she felt tired on the seat (see sketch).  This freed Edmund and Mary to walk on unencumbered by a third party.  They found a side gate, fortunately left unlocked, left the wilderness and walked to the oak avenue, where they sat down under a tree.  (Fanny, who most of all wished to see the avenue, never did get to see it.)


When James Rushworth, Maria, and Henry Crawford arrived at Fanny’s seat, they were able to look through a gate to a knoll half a mile away.  Henry says that this knoll would give them a good view back to the house.  Unfortunately this gate was locked and their “third party,” James Rushworth, was sent to find the key, allowing Maria and Henry to escape to the knoll—or wherever.  Fanny thought they took an “unreasonable” direction to the knoll.


At the end of the terrace is the park.  It is here that animals, probably deer, would be kept.  Along the edge of the wilderness, and presumably along the end of the terrace, runs a ha-ha.  The ha-ha, a trench or sunken fence, keeps animals from entering an area and is invisible when looking from a distance.  Thus, the view is uninterrupted by any intrusion.  John Vanbrugh introduced the ha-ha in about 1700, as well as the raised terrace walk from which to view the countryside.


When James Rushworth was away finding the key, Henry encouraged Maria to escape with him by squeezing round the edge of the gate—avoiding falling into the ha-ha—after which they set off.  There is probably a path along the top of the ha-ha.


The park originally was an area of land which the king permitted a landholder to enclose for the sake of chasing deer.  Then “park” came to mean a closed-in area, landscaped with trees to present a pleasing picture.  Having a park showed that you were a gentleman.  It advertised that you had both the means to withdraw otherwise productive land from cultivation for purely aesthetic appreciation, and that you had the leisure to enjoy it.


Rushworth, who had recently inherited Sotherton Court, is full of ideas for the improvement of his estate.  “Improvement” was a buzz word in the 1800s.  Henry Crawford, at 21, remodelled his own property, Everingham, and was invited to visit Sotherton Court to make suggestions for its improvement.  Henry also offered to help with improving Edmund’s Thornton Lacey.


Rushworth’s head is full of “improvements” since staying with a friend who employed Humphry Repton to refashion his grounds.  Repton, in fact, remodelled Stoneleigh Abbey, the Warwickshire home of the Leigh relatives of the Austen family.  Austen was even able to quote the fees Repton charged the Leighs—five guineas a day.  After visiting his friend Smith:


Mr. Rushworth was returned with his head full of the subject, and very eager to be improving his own place in the same way; and though not saying much to the purpose, could talk of nothing else.


He mentions that two or three fine old trees that grew too near the house were cut down, “‘and it opens the prospect amazingly,’” which leads him to think that “‘Repton, or anybody of that sort, would certainly have the avenue at Sotherton down; the avenue that leads from the west front to the top of the hill, you know.’”  This raises again the question of where it was placed, with its iron palisades and gate.


Rushworth also says of Sotherton, “‘It wants improvement . . . beyond anything.  I never saw a place that wanted so much improvement in my life.’”  Fanny Price is appalled at the idea of cutting down an avenue.  She says:


“Cut down an avenue!  What a pity!  Does it not make you think of Cowper?  ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”


So Cowper was very much “au fait” with the current move towards improvements.


Edmund Bertram says of Sotherton Court:


“The house was built in Elizabeth’s time and is a large rectangular brick building—heavy but respectable looking and has a good many rooms.  It is ill placed.  It stands in one of the lowest spots of the park; in that respect, unfavourable for improvement.  But the woods are fine, and there is a stream, which, I dare say, might be made a good deal of.  Mr. Rushworth is quite right, I think, in meaning to give it a modern dress.”


Thus Edmund is agreeing, in principle, to the notion of improvements.  But Edmund would, he says, avoid professional “improvers” and do things in his own way at his own property, Thornton Lacey, and would reject Henry Crawford’s advice to him.


Other improvements mentioned in Mansfield Park were undertaken by Mrs. Norris who did improving and planting at the vicarage:


“We did a vast deal in that way at the parsonage; we made it quite a different place from what it was when we first had it.  You young ones do not remember much about it, perhaps.  But if dear Sir Thomas were here, he could tell you what improvements we made.”


Dr. Grant improved the parsonage at Mansfield by carrying on the garden wall and by making a plantation to shut out the churchyard.


Mrs. Grant made “a choice collection of plants and poultry” and turned a hedgerow into a shrubbery much admired by Fanny, who said there was “a quiet simplicity in the plan of the walk.”


Lady Bertram recommends a shrubbery to Mr. Rushworth when he undertakes his improvements.


Mary Crawford, when speaking of improvements, requires “shrubberies, flower gardens and rustic seats innumerable.”  Apparently flower gardens were now back in fashion after Capability Brown had abolished them.


And finally, Mary Crawford mentions improvements at her uncle’s Twickenham cottage, which included a gravel walk and benches.


Mary also uses the word “improvements” in her own wickedly amusing way in the chapel scene.  Mrs. Rushworth mentions that the late Mr. Rushworth left off having prayers read in the chapel.  Mary says, “‘Every generation has its improvements,’ with a smile to Edmund.”  That was before she found out he was planning to become a clergyman.


The only property in the novel Mansfield Park that is not in the way of improvement is Mansfield Park itself.


A visit to the estate of Sotherton Court is of importance in Mansfield Park for several reasons: first it shows us what Maria Bertram has opted for in marriage—a grand estate and wealth, which will be her compensation for a loveless marriage.  It allows the unhappy Maria a trial “escape” with Henry Crawford, whom she desires but who will not marry her, when they flee into the wilderness before James Rushworth returns with the key.  The wilderness offers Mary the chance of escaping with Edmund and flirting with him under an oak tree.  In the wilderness also Fanny suffers on her own and everyone’s behalf—her pivotal role in the novel is demonstrated.  In presenting Sotherton Court, Austen embodies views of change (the Sotherton improvements) and stability (Mansfield) among the themes of her novel.


I find it extraordinary that the three films of Mansfield Park completely ignore the Sotherton part of the novel.  The 1983 BBC television production, however, does deal with it quite well.




Plan of Sotherton Court





My warm thanks to Lyn Hall for preparing the sketch of my version of Sotherton Court and to Marlene Arditto for preparing my PowerPoint presentation.

This article was first published in the newsletter of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, the JASA Chronicle, in June 2010, pages 16-18.  The JASNA website edition was published in January 2015, with kind permission from JASA.