in his article “Houses” in The Jane Austen Companion, J. David Grey over-generalizes when he says that “All of Jane Austen’s houses are homes” (214). In Mansfield Park, for example, Fanny Price, one of the sensible characters in the novel, does not accept Portsmouth as a home:
When she [Fanny Price] had been coming to Portsmouth, she had loved to call it her home, had been fond of saying that she was going home; the word had been very dear to her; and so it still was, but it must be applied to Mansfield. That was now the home. Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home. (431).
Fanny makes this discovery in a very personal and rather painful way. However, the differences between these two houses (Portsmouth and Mansfield) serve to identify some of the features of Jane Austen’s conception of a home. Neither Portsmouth, nor Northanger Abbey, nor Kellynch Hall in Persuasion can be regarded as homes. In these houses the main characters feel no attraction for their dwelling places. Obviously, Grey’s remark cannot be applied to all of Jane Austen’s houses.
At Portsmouth, Fanny hopes to experience the family love and affection that she missed at Mansfield, but as her slovenly home increasingly disgusts her, she realizes that she cannot be happy there. Measuring Mansfield in terms of Portsmouth, she finds that Mansfield has qualities of a home, and that it is better than Portsmouth in almost every consideration. But even if Mansfield seems attractive to Fanny, that does not mean Mansfield is an ideal home to Jane Austen. It lacks the liveliness of a home, for the members are not open and free; and the failure of the guardians to impart moral lessons to the young people produces a crisis in respect of the preservation of values in the family circle. Because of such shortcomings, Mansfield fails to retain its charm as a home, and cannot equal in dignity either Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley or Mr. Knightley’s Donwell Abbey. Austen ranks Pemberley and Donwell Abbey above Mansfield as homes, inasmuch as these two houses have, like Mansfield, external charms; yet unlike Mansfield, they preserve traditional values and virtues. The inhabitants of both these houses live in happiness and security. It seems that the novelist’s idea of a home finds its closest representation in these two houses.
In her presentation of houses – the centers of her fictional world – Jane Austen lets her readers know what she thinks a home should be like. M. A. Austen-Leigh points out a truth about Austen’s appreciation of houses: “Whether we examine her writings or her memoirs we are equally led to believe that no one knew better than Jane Austen, both by observation and experience, the meaning of the word ‘home’ in its fullest and best sense” (129). In each work, Austen uses a few houses to depict the domestic life of the Regency period and the idea of a home. She examines the various features of a home and does not indiscriminately endorse all of her houses as homes.
As Peter W. Graham argues in “From Mansfield Park to Gosford Park: The English Country House from Austen to Altman,” Jane Austen’s idea of a home was greatly influenced by Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurt” (published 1616):
Through the bourgeois genre of the novel, an aristocratic literary motif is “opened to view” for the commercial classes (especially female readers) who dream of rising, in fact or in fiction, to the country house level. Thus when we turn to Austenworld, that ethically and aesthetically coherent realm constituted by the places and people of Jane Austen’s six published novels, we find that the general pattern delineated in Jonson’s “To Penshurst” endures but that some nuances are distinctive. (214-15)
Graham points out that “To Penshurst” sets nearly all the standards by which subsequent literary country houses are measured. Penshurst presents what Henry James memorably calls “the great good place,” a cultural icon signifying grace, tradition, hospitality, closeness to nature, and harmonious relations between the social classes (Graham 211). But Jane Austen’s novels incorporate more than these attributes: Austen’s novels present rural and city houses, but at the same time they show both the importance of the rising professional classes and the increasing influence of other classes.
The traditionally presented spacious rural houses like Penshurst are of no value to Jane Austen as homes, if moral values are not practiced there. In Mansfield Park, Austen makes it clear that physical facilities become useless if moral values are not properly cultivated. Although the houses like Rosings, Sotherton Court, and Northanger Abbey are spacious and magnificent, these are not worthy of consideration as homes. In contrast, the small-sized house of the Harvilles in Persuasion is a home because it exemplifies orderliness as well as other virtues, and the members of the family are always full of life and spirit in their house. Similarly, the Crofts turn their rented house—Kellynch Hall—into a home, a feat that Sir Walter, the owner of the estate, failed to perform; hence, his departure for Bath. What Jane Austen suggests is that physical facilities will be charming only when there is a correspondence between outward beauty and the inner life. Pemberley unites these qualities, and that precisely is the reason why it is a home, whereas some of the great houses are not.
For Jane Austen, the characters she likes love to live in an environment where fresh air and the natural beauty are available. Fanny wants to go back to Mansfield Park in the hope of enjoying fresh air and other bounteous gifts of nature. Natural beauties surround not only Mansfield but also Austen’s other preferred houses—Pemberley and Barton Cottage, for example. In describing the landscape surrounding these houses, Austen distinguishes between “highly cultivated” gardens and hills, woods, rivers, and sky. Charlotte Brontë in a letter to G.H. Lewes calls Jane Austen’s houses “elegant but confined,” and describes the country house in her novels as “[a]n accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common place face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen . . . ” (179-80). The objection raised by Charlotte Brontë is not justified. Her observation is based on a hasty generalization, so very characteristic of the romantic temperament.
In Jane Austen’s novels, what the parents and guardians do is very important in the making of an ideal home. When a house loses its charm and dignity for the activities of the spoilt children, she censures the irresponsible parents who are indulgent, or idle, or irresponsible. The rude and selfish fathers like General Tilney and Sir Walter fail to make their houses places of peace and happiness. Fathers like Mr. Bennet, Sir Thomas Bertram, and Mr. Woodhouse fall in another group. As persons they are not unacceptable in society, but they are negligent of their duties as fathers. Mr. Bennet passes his time in the library and does not take care of his children. Sometimes his remarks and behavior puzzle his wife and daughters, and do not suit as a father. The ultimate result of Mr. Bennet’s carelessness brings disaster in the family. However, he grows aware of his responsibility after Lydia’s elopement: “‘It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it’” (299).
Sir Thomas Bertram, the most upright and powerful person in Mansfield Park, fails to establish intimate relationships with his children and cannot uncover their deficiencies. In his absence, Mansfield Park loses the charms of a home and turns into a house quite unfit for the sensible and righteous to live in. In Emma, Mr. Woodhouse gives his daughter freedom to do whatever she likes. This freedom makes her willful and snobbish. Mr. Knightley finds faults with her, and his efforts as a guardian rectify her behavior. Emma’s example is significant in the sense that although both intelligent and clever, she needs a sensible guardian to lead her along the right path. Mr. Knightley corrects her ideas and fancies, and brings her back into her senses.
Jane Austen’s dignified homes are always provided with admirable guardians who are very conscious of their duties. By his direct supervision, Darcy retains peace and order of Pemberley. Talking with Elizabeth, Wickham, not a friend of Darcy, acknowledges in his own way Darcy’s ability as a guardian: “‘He has also brotherly pride, which with some brotherly affection, makes him a very kind and careful guardian of his sister; and you will hear him generally cried up as the most attentive and best of brothers’” (82). In Austen’s homes, the guardians are active, and they shield their wards from the evil world outside. Guardians treat young people strictly but not without kindness.
For Jane Austen, the ideal home needs reciprocal love, understanding, and basic respect amongst its inhabitants. If the members of a house are equally good, amiable, and sweet-tempered—like the Gardeners, the Crofts, and the Harvilles—a homely atmosphere is likely to prevail. In Persuasion, the Crofts’ exemplary and happy conjugal life has been made possible by their mutual understanding. To Anne Elliot, “there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved” (64). Anne measures the Crofts’ happiness with the unhappiness and misunderstanding of her sister Mrs. Charles Musgrove with her husband. Mary always complains against Charles although he is “civil and agreeable” (43). Observing their relationship, Anne Elliot could believe that “a more equal match might have greatly improved him.” Here, in the observation of Anne Elliot, the novelist focuses attention on the “equal match” as a precondition for a couple’s achieving mutual understanding in a home. Similarly, at Longbourn Mr. and Mrs. Bennet fail to interact properly as a couple, because “Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper” (5).
Jane Austen does not approve of the way Mr. Bennet puts his wife to shame in presence of their daughters. He deliberately humiliates his wife and thereby sets up a bad example that inspires his daughters to disoblige their parents. Elizabeth Bennet has never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behavior as a husband. She considers her parents’ marriage “unsuitable,” and holds them responsible for destroying the peace and happiness of Longbourn as a home. Elizabeth has tried to keep the house animated and lively by entering into conversation with her father, but the home atmosphere is affected by the foolish, silly, and vulgar behavior of Mrs. Bennet and Lydia.
In her works, Jane Austen examines the nature of hospitality of different houses to assess them as homes. Northanger Abbey, impressive from the outside though it is, fails in this regard. General Tilney’s fake hospitality incurs shame to the house. In Norland Park, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are badly treated, but Sir John Middleton gives them friendly reception in Barton Park. Sir John is almost unparalleled in displaying warm hospitality towards his guests. Like Sir John, Mr. Darcy, the Palmers, the Harvilles, and a few others show true hospitality towards their guests in their houses. But in Sotherton Court, Norland Park, Rosings, and Kellynch Hall the masters are mechanical in their behavior and fail to be ideal hosts. In the homes Jane Austen likes, people express their liberality of mind and generosity of heart through their hospitality. Darcy’s hospitality at Pemberley helps Elizabeth Bennet measure his character properly and inspires her to think of him afresh. She particularly highlights the hospitality of the Harvilles, who win the hearts of their guests and establish good relationships with them by displaying this virtue of their home.
Display of wit and humor is an interesting feature of Jane Austen’s idea of a home. In her novels the home atmosphere becomes lively and animated by the flashes of witty conversation of the inmates. The influence of the home atmosphere of the Austens is indeed reflected in the homes she draws in her novels. All the members of Jane Austen’s family were also notable for their sense of fun and humor. Maggie Lane points out that Jane Austen “grew up then in the midst of a large, affectionate family, notable for their sunny natures and their loyalty, their love of books and sense of fun, their sharp intelligence and lively interest in the world about them” (37). Austen’s family background provided her subtle insight to portray the foolish persons and to show that wealth is important but that it cannot ensure family peace and happiness unless the owner is intelligent. In Mansfield Park Maria Bertram marries an amiable stupid person, but her marriage does not last. Austen’s intelligent heroines do not consider their marriage in terms of security and wealth only.
Charlotte’s marriage with the silly Mr. Collins did not turn the parsonage at Rosings into an attractive home, but the sensible Mr. Darcy finds happiness by marrying the intelligent Elizabeth. Their home becomes the home for other members as well: “Pemberley was now Georgiana’s home; and the attachment of the sisters was exactly what Darcy had hoped to see” (387). Jane Austen’s homes are populated with witty and intelligent characters who are fastidious and discriminating in their speech and behavior, and are able to display their gaiety and love properly. They can make their homes lively and animated; and retain the charm and serenity of a home.
Jane Austen’s homes are rich in cultural activities that distinguish the sincere from the vulgar. She appreciates the houses where young people undertake careful training to acquire the skills in various accomplishments. She implies that people should be discriminating in selecting materials for recreation; otherwise, idleness and frivolity would harm the moral strength of a home. She is critical of the selection of the play Lovers’ Vow in Mansfield Park, as it is a sudden desire of a few spoilt young men who were amusing themselves without thinking of the consequence of their activities. She, in fact, feels the need of principles in all affairs, and admires those who can restrain their impulses in upholding their principles. Jane Austen idealizes her homes as moral worlds, where the ceremonies of life as well as the traditional values and virtues are observed. David Monaghan in his Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision examines elaborately the importance of the ceremonies of life in her works. W.B. Yeats likes a house of the type suggested by Jane Austen, and prays for such a one for his daughter in his famous poem “A Prayer for My Daughter”:
“And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
And then the poet poses the question:
“How but in custom and in ceremony
Art makes Jane Austen’s home graceful and attractive; in turn, the home is the source of great enjoyment as well. Both fine and useful arts as well as architectural beauty and natural surroundings are frequently displayed in the presentation of her homes. In her houses, useful art, like furniture, has both an aesthetic and a utilitarian dimension. Elegant furniture enhances the grace of a home, and at the same time reveals the taste of the inhabitants. The proper arrangement of the furniture in a house is important to her sensible characters. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood’s furniture and other articles—her legacy—“was all sent round [to Barton Cottage in Devonshire] by water” (26). At the cottage, the mother and her daughters settle in, “busy[ing themselves] in arranging their particular concerns, and endeavouring, by placing around them their books and other possessions, to form themselves a home. Marianne’s pianoforte was unpacked and properly disposed of; and Elinor’s drawings were affixed to the walls of their sitting room” (30). It is because of their artistic enterprise that the small cottage gets one of the features of a pleasant home. In Pemberley, Elizabeth Bennet observes that the owner, who cares for the elegance and beauty of a house, could not be a bad man. Pleased to find herself in the house where display of art and architecture is attractive, Elizabeth begins to see Darcy in a new light.
Apart from the display of useful art, Jane Austen uses fine art in the novels to enhance the grace and dignity of a home. Visual art like painting, auditory art like music, and verbal art like recitation are among the fine arts she makes use of in her novels. The novelist not only presents the performances of her characters but also passes critical judgments as a great connoisseur in matters of their taste for art. Along with art the awareness of the changing fashion and of its elegant use adds grace and makes the home attractive and lively.
The mingling of nature and art in enhancing the beauty of the houses is highlighted in Pride and Prejudice. Nature stands for beauty, continuity, and worth, and these qualities are expressed through the characters that appreciate nature.
Jane Austen seems to agree with Mr. Darcy when he says, “‘I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these’” (38). The family library that sometimes becomes the work of many generations helps to preserve an ideal home environment by developing liberal faculties and by imparting the lesson how to analyze, examine, and accept the teaching of a book. Family libraries appear in almost all of her novels, though they are not equally efficacious to the members of a family.
Jane Austen stresses the necessity of manners and morals in the making of a pleasant home. In her novels, ill-mannered and immoral characters (e.g., Lydia) affect the home atmosphere. To Jane Austen, morals are of greater importance than manners. She seems to be sympathetic with those who are not agreeable in their manners but are good in their principles and morality. Darcy is a case in point. Despite Darcy’s supercilious behavior, Austen holds him up because of his high principles and morality. Of course, it is true that Darcy changes his manners. As Tony Tanner points out, “Jane Austen composed a novel in which the most important events are the fact that a man [Darcy] changes his manners and a young lady [Elizabeth] changes her mind” (103). Darcy’s change in manners makes him suitable for a home.
Economy is another important foundation for Jane Austen’s homes. Austen, in her own way, considers the role of economic determinism in the making of a home. She admits that a modest income is necessary for the preservation of moral worth as well as family happiness, but she rebukes the craving for anything more than a sufficiency. It is to be noted that wise and proper use of wealth is important in Jane Austen’s home. Kellynch Hall breaks down as a home because of Sir Walter’s extravagance. “While Lady Elliot lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy, which had just kept him within his income; but with her had died all such right-mindedness, and from that period he had been constantly exceeding it” (9). Consequently, Sir Walter, running into heavy debt, leaves his own house for Bath to live in a rented house there. But the economically shaky baronet chooses a house in “Camden place, a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence” (137) as his temporary lodgings in Bath. In this connection, Keiko Parker points out in “What Part of Bath Do You Think They Will Settle In?” the importance of special topographic characteristics of Bath to symbolize the actual social hierarchy in Persuasion. The article aptly comments on how Jane Austen uses geography metaphorically: that is, the location of the houses and various characters mirrors the ranks and aspirations of society. Camden place was on the north of Bath and was inhabited by nobility and gentry; they “could literally look down on almost everyone else”(169). Realist as she is, this feature of topography did not escape Jane Austen as she set out to describe the houses in Persuasion.
From Sense and Sensibility to Persuasion, Jane Austen demonstrates the gradual changes of her society, of which the theme of home is significant. The rise to prosperity of the professional middle class and the financial decline of the aristocracy demonstrate in Persuasion that, regardless of size, homes (as opposed to houses) have an aura of orderliness and virtue. The country houses of the gentry, the small-sized house of the Harvilles, and the rented house of the Crofts—all may be considered as homes if they are orderly and their inhabitants virtuous. The inhabitants of these houses live in peace and happiness, and they are full of life and spirit in their lively conversation to each other.
Indeed, Jane Austen is very ardent in her presentation of the theme of a home. Her love for the home at Steventon was so deep that when she was told in 1801 that the family would leave for Bath, she fainted for the first time in her life (Vipont 83). The dazzling display of the great houses does not impress her. On the contrary, a small rented house can have the charming features of an ideal home. Austen brings into sharp focus almost all the characteristics of what she considers to be an ideal home. In fact, the novels reflect her experience of life—her visits to houses in Bath and London as well as her observations of her brothers’ houses and the houses of her kinsmen. Jane Austen speaks of the houses of several classes, particularly highlighting those of the gentry and the professional middle class. Her houses seem natural because they reflect the real world. Most of the houses fail to turn into ideal homes as it is very difficult for their inmates to acquire and practice all the qualities a home would require them to do. Therefore, the view that all of Jane Austen’s houses are homes cannot be accepted.
In the early 1990s, I came in contact with the JASNA. J. David Grey encouraged me to go on with my research on Jane Austen and helped me in many ways. I am greatly indebted to him. I have taken the present theme of this article from his “Houses,” in The Jane Austen Companion. If he could have known that he has inspired me to analyze his own writing, I think he would have been glad. I dedicate this article to the memory of J. David Grey.
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