Pride and Property:
On the Homes of Jane Austen
Phyllis Richardson on the Manors, Rectories, and Cottages That Influenced Austen's Domestic Writing
Jane Austen’s life, like that of her fictional characters, was lived in and around the houses of the very wealthy and the middling members of the educated classes. Born in 1775, the seventh child and second daughter of a clergyman and his wife (who was marginally his social better), she grew up in a lively household. Her parents went on to have another son after Jane, and to this brood were added half a dozen or so school-age boys whose fees as boarding students provided a much-needed supplement to the Reverend George Austen’s income. Nevertheless, they lived in a sort of modest gentility. George Austen, while not profligate, was never quite able to live within his means and often borrowed from relatives to keep his large family in good circumstance. However, despite the fact that they could not afford the trappings of wealthy society, their standing was such that they still moved comfortably within it, and were well acquainted with families that boasted grand houses and substantial property, all of which had an impact on Austen’s fiction.
The first property that had any importance to Jane Austen was, of course, the house she grew up in: the rectory at Steventon in Hampshire. This was a plain sturdy structure, built in the early seventeenth century and renovated in the 1760s for the Austen family. It had seven bedrooms, a central hearth and a pretty, trellised porch. The house was surrounded by fields, where her father farmed, and by gardens, where Mrs. Austen grew vegetables. There were also many trees—elms, firs, and chestnuts; Jane’s characters often take note of such things. Overall, the aspect is not so unlike her final, beloved home at Chawton or Mrs. Dashwood’s Barton Cottage, or the famously unglamorous rectory to be taken over by the noble Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park. Austen clearly had a fondness for a well-kept cottage, as she did for a well-appointed mansion.
The sprawling rooms at Steventon accommodated not only all of the Austen children and their boarders, but also, later, brothers returning from university with friends and relatives, who stopped for days or weeks at a time. During these visits, it was not uncommon for the family and guests to perform plays, either of their own creation or those that were popular at the time. Unlike the production so heavily frowned upon in Mansfield Park, these theatricals were greatly enjoyed by family and friends, all of whom were avid readers of any new fiction or drama. Though the rectory is no longer standing, some sketches exist and, in any case, it is almost better to imagine this house full of bright, competent children, tumbling through the halls and practicing their fine sense of wit and their stage personas on one another, all diligently rehearsing their lines against their improvised sets and backdrops.
The rectory at Steventon has another point of significance: it was where Jane Austen lived when she entertained the one suitor about whom she expressed any sincere emotion, or rather, a giddy sense of being in love. Sadly, Tom Lefroy the young man in question, was quickly sent away from Steventon before any promises could be exchanged. He too was from a modest, but aspirational, family, and when his parents got wind of the blossoming courtship they acted quickly to remove him from danger, having decided that he should marry a woman of greater means than a clergyman’s daughter, however clever she may be.
The rectory was also the home that she lost when her eldest brother James became a vicar and her father decided to hand over his living and the family home to his son. In 1801, when Jane was 25, George Austen took his wife and daughters off to rented accommodation in Bath, where it was supposed Jane and her sister, Cassandra, might find husbands. Jane Austen never recorded her thoughts on leaving the rectory, but stories exist that she nearly fainted on hearing the news of their move. And her fiction writing, which was inspired by her life there—she had begun her first three novels, and probably finished drafts of at least two—seems to have slowed considerably after the family’s departure. Although her letters from this time were not preserved, perhaps there is something of her feeling in Marianne Dashwood’s grief at being forced to leave her childhood home: “Oh! happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence perhaps I may view you no more! – And you, ye well-known trees!”
However plain or snug, it is the rectory, and perhaps her final home at Chawton cottage, that influenced the sanctuary Austen described for her female heroines. Although Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse end up marrying into rich estates, Austen had a penchant for settling her heroines into cottage parsonages. Arriving at Mansfield Park as a child and poor relation, Fanny Price finds that “the grandeur of the house astonished, but could not console her,” for her homesickness. The rooms are “too large for her to move in with ease,” and, worried lest she damage some expensive item, “she crept about in constant fear of something or other.”
Luckily, Fanny gets to live with Edmund Bertram in the parsonage at Mansfield. Catherine Morland (with Henry Tilney at Woodston) and Elinor Dashwood (with Edward Ferrars at Delaford) also find their happy endings shrouded in the cozy familiarity of Austen’s own beginnings. The Dashwood ladies find respite at pretty Barton Cottage, which Mrs. Dashwood intends to enlarge, though it already has four bedrooms, two garrets and two parlors. It is not a parsonage; in fact, Austen cheekily admonishes it for not being picturesque enough: “As a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honey-suckles.” A few additions, Mrs. Dashwood concludes, “will make it a very snug little cottage”, though “I could wish the stairs were handsome”.
Full as it was, the life of the family was hardly confined to the beloved rectory. One of the first grand houses on the list of Austen touchstones is The Vyne in Hampshire, now in the care of the National Trust. It was built during the reign of Henry VIII for his Lord Chamberlain, Lord Sandys, and was visited several times by the king before being passed to the Chute family, who owned it for more than three hundred years. The house is indeed a grand affair, with a soaring portico flanked by rambling wings. The interior is full of (now restored) neoclassical panelling, pristine coffered ceilings, halls lined with busts of historic figures, all befitting 18th-century classical revival. There is a long gallery, covered in honey-toned oak, which is the oldest such room in England. There is also a rather magnificent dining parlor that, in Austen’s time, could have doubled as a ballroom. The house’s grand staircase was added in the mid-eighteenth century by John Chute, a close friend of Horace Walpole and prominent member of Walpole’s “Committee of Taste.” Though the Austens belonged to a lower social set than the Chutes, the Austen brothers were friends with Thomas Chute, who also knew, and danced with, Jane and Cassandra. They probably danced together at Basingstoke, but possibly also at The Vyne, which had ample room for such entertainments.
It was Thomas Chute’s older brother William who, in 1790, inherited the grand house, making him a very good catch indeed for any woman who could lure him away from his bachelor pursuits towards a more settled existence. Austen began writing Pride and Prejudice in around 1796 or so; her oft-quoted observation that “a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” is widely believed to have been inspired by William Chute’s arrival at The Vyne. He is mentioned in her letters, but usually in her ironic, offhand fashion: “Wm. Chute called here yesterday. I wonder what he means by being so civil.” His accession to the fortune must certainly have generated a flurry of speculation among her social group but the new lord of the manor was more interested in fox hunting than in social events, and he chose his wife from among the daughters of his political hunting pals, rather than from his or his brother’s dancing partners. It is unlikely that the young Jane Austen ever fancied herself a potential candidate for the title of Mrs. William Chute (she was only 15 at the time), but the circumstances of his inheritance and marriage were among the significant events in her social circle that helped to forge the social topography of her stories.
For Austen was well aware of the fact that, for most women, the only route to property and financial security was through marriage. Things could become interesting for a widow left in charge of her own fortune, as John Dashwood’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Ferrars, demonstrates. It is she who arranges the marriage for her son Edward, a marriage he refuses, thereby losing his right to the family inheritance and “the Norfolk estate, which, clear of land-tax, brings in a good thousand a-year.” For families like the Dashwoods, it was the male heir who was usually charged with maintaining the women of the family. But he did not always keep his promises, as John Dashwood demonstrates, and as one of Jane’s female ancestors had learned the hard way.
When her husband, a man of some property, died, Jane’s great-grandmother Austen (née Elizabeth Weller), found herself an abandoned widow with young children. Though her husband had charged his own father (who had inherited everything on his son’s death) with providing for his wife and family, the deal soon fell apart. The father objected to looking after his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, and his neglect eventually led to them living in penury. George Austen’s own father, and his siblings, only received an education because their mother, showing some of the tenacity that Austen herself would inherit, rented out her family home, and took a job as a housekeeper at a boys’ school, which earned her a living, as well as tuition for her sons. Her only other means of salvation would have been to find a suitable husband willing to take on a woman with children who brought no income with her, not an easy task.
When George Austen retired in 1801, Jane (25) and Cassandra (28) were whisked off to live in Bath. It could hardly escape their notice that their own mother and aunt had been taken to Bath in similar circumstances—as marriageable young women whose relations hoped to snag a suitable husband from among the visitors in the popular spa town.
Most of Austen’s letters from this period were destroyed by her devoted but censorious sister, but in Northanger Abbey we can get a glimpse of what Austen thought of her new home. Here, she allowed herself some rather wonderful moments ridiculing the social niceties and changing fashions of Bath, which had become much less fashionable by the time she and Cassandra were brought there. Mr. Tilney sums up the monotony of what passes for social etiquette when he says to Catherine Morland: “I have hitherto been remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether.” We do know that the Austens lived at three addresses before George Austen died. However, it seems the sisters had little affection for the place. “It will be two years tomorrow since we left Bath for Clifton,” Jane wrote to Cassandra in 1808, “with what happy feelings of Escape!”
After George Austen’s death, Mrs. Austen and her daughters lived a peripatetic existence, moving from temporary accommodation to long visits with relatives. The Austen boys contributed towards the upkeep of their mother and sisters, but not in a way that alleviated the need for the women to hone their habits of frugality, or, in Jane Austen’s words, practice “Vulgar Economy.” Her letters from this period are full of references to the prices of cloth, thread and foodstuffs, and of remaking worn-out clothing. Some change in the family fortunes came when her brother Edward, who had been adopted by wealthy, childless cousins, inherited their substantial fortune and estates, becoming Edward Austen-Knight. One of these, Godmersham, became his family home. His mother and sisters were often invited for extended visits, many of them during or shortly following the birth of yet another of Edward’s children. (He and his wife Elizabeth had 11 altogether; she finally expired with the birth of the last, in 1808, at the age of 35.)
In Edward Austen’s day, Godmersham had 5,000 acres of land (today it still has 2,000). The house was built in 1732 by the Knight family, who added two wings in the 1780s before Edward inherited the property in 1797. It still has several wings and was built in an elegant Regency Italianate style. It is closed to the public, but a public footpath through the property affords a view of its immense space and grandeur. It is sometimes speculated that the more famous Chatsworth was the inspiration for Pemberley, since Austen has Elizabeth Bennet visit there, but it was at Godmersham that Austen had personal experience of living in such a large house, with its many rooms, servants and large entertainments. She spent many hours writing letters in the library, and the vicarage, still extant on the property, is thought to have inspired Mr. Collins’ house. As Pevsner pointed out, Austen does not provide an overabundance of interior description of her fictional houses, but she makes clear what is important.
Certainly her time at Godmersham, and at Goodnestone House, another large property belonging to Edward’s in-laws, informed her discriminating eye. Elizabeth Bennet admires Pemberley not because it is overly grand, but because it is just right. She enjoys the “lofty and handsome rooms” not because they are lavish but because they afford a view, “from every window there were beauties to be seen.” She approves of Darcy’s taste in furnishings because it “was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendor, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings.” By contrast, Mr. Collins praises the extravagant interiors of Rosings “with a rapturous air,” particularly the chimneypiece, for which Lady Catherine de Bourgh has paid £800. It is an extravagant sum, as Pevsner relates, given that suitably grand chimneypieces were acquired in the mid-18th century for Woburn Abbey and Longford Castle for between £200 and £300. Here Elizabeth (and Austen) is taking a moral sounding from the degree of household extravagance to determine the depth of Darcy’s character.
Whether or not the décor at Godmersham showed “real elegance,” the place was luxurious to Austen. Writing in 1813, she described a sense of contentment there: “We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every Eveng.” Later, she says, “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey.” Though she was a welcome visitor to Godmersham, she was very much the poor relation—note her mention of a fire every evening, which would have been a significant expense in her own household. Fanny Price is not allowed a fire at Mansfield Park, and must shiver alone in her “little white attic” room until Edmund Bertram insists on the extravagance of a little warmth. (Later, Jane Eyre’s loitering in the upper floors of Thornfield Hall would recall Fanny’s consignment to the marginal spaces of the house.
Austen’s perception of life at Godmersham was one of noticeable ease. In 1813, she wrote, “I have no occasion to think of the price of Bread or of Meat where I am now; – let me shake off vulgar cares & conform to the happy Indifference of East Kent wealth.” By contrast, writing from the rectory in 1798, she complained: “People get so horridly poor & economical in this part of the World, that I have no patience with them. – Kent is the only place for happiness, Everybody is rich there.” At another quiet moment in the library at Godmersham, Jane enumerated her household blessings: “At this present time I have five Tables, Eight and twenty chairs & two fires all to myself.”
A few days later, Austen remarks again on the comfort of her surroundings: “Having half an hour before breakfast – (very snug, in my own room, lovely morng, excellent fire, fancy me).” She was treated kindly at Godmersham and, though she may have bristled, she was offered the hand-me-downs or lesser articles belonging to her wealthy sister-in-law. So it is easy to see how she could write of the finer lifestyle while sympathizing with poorer relations, such as Fanny Price. However, Austen often enjoyed her time at Godmersham, making trips into Canterbury and attending dinners and parties at nearby Goodnestone. But it is doubtful that she envied her sister-in-law, for she was witness to the hardships of Elizabeth’s almost continual state of pregnancy. Furthermore, Jane Austen did have her own chance to be lady of the manor, but she turned it down.
Excerpted from The House of Fiction by Phyllis Richardson. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Unbound. Copyright © 2021 by Phyllis Richardson.