Jane Austen – Provincial Life & The Cultivation of the Mind

Jane Austen, a portrait discovered by Dr Paula Byrne

The English provincial life, as led by English novelist Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) and some of her heroines, was one of modesty in a house containing the unavoidable hallmarks of interiors where the opportunities for acquisitions were severely restricted.

The characteristics were a well furnished bookcase, a folding writing desk with sloping top with storage space for paper, pens and ink. The garden vista was modest, but well planned and planted.

It was quite simply all about the cultivation of the mind.

My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company’.

While her image may seem to reveal otherwise, there was nothing really plain about Jane.

Her novels, which have become classics in their own right, allow us today to share the memory of the robust society in which she lived and its privileges of rank.

‘Good-humoured, unaffected girls, will not do for a man who has been used to sensible women. They are two distinct orders of being

Watercolour of Jane Austen by her niece Cassandra

Watercolour of Jane Austen by her niece Cassandra

Hers was a colourful, turbulent and seemingly romantic world in the process of rapid evolution and Jane liked writing about young women fighting the battles of the heart to win the prize of marriage upon the field of courtship.

They belong as much to her times as do the list of battle honours won by those involved in the era’s most significant war campaigns.

During Jane Austen’s lifetime in England,  and later in America, emerged the smallish self-contained and especially designed family house in the country, one that suited the landed gentry who increased in numbers. It is very noticeable that ‘correct taste’, as dictated by earlier patrons in eighteenth century England, gradually began to deteriorate.

The strict classical order, which had governed the development of decoration in interiors from the beginning of the Palladian style era around 1730 to the end of the Neoclassical style period around 1792, gradually gave way to a new form of what can only be described as artful chaos.

Kedleston Hall, the South Front Facade by Robert Adam, inspired by the Arch of Constanine at Rome

At this time an English gentleman, was expected to grant permission for a casual visitor to walk in his grounds and be conducted by the Housekeeper through the house admiring and criticizing it as they saw fit.

Indeed Elizabeth Bennett first encountered the many attributes of Mr Darcy’s lovely house Pemberley in just this manner.

Hospitality then became the means that allowed the ideas of interior decoration and landscape gardens to filter down from the aristocracy, through the country gentry to the burgeoning middle classes who sought to emulate them.

‘Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us

Middling people…?

Jane’s family were wealthy merchant class on her father’s side and solid aristocrats on her mother’s side. This meant she was on a firm footing with the leisured classes, although not really one of them.

She excelled at witty, clever conversation and her early formal education was enhanced by her own appetite for reading gained through the extensive contents of her father’s bookshelves. Both the locals and the landed gentry welcomed her father, a respectable rector, a ‘gentleman’ of sorts.

Established standards for excellence in taste and style was well recognized by Jane and her peers and most especially by the burgeoning middle classes, who wished to emulate them. They lived in houses owned by the country gentry, who supported the ruling and upper classes. They cultivated an ambiance of politeness, with a keen though delicate sensibility, well balanced by common sense. This was reflected in how they dressed, dined, performed and were entertained in a selection of social settings.

Jane Austen’s mother wrote in 1806 of her ancestral home Stoneleigh Abbey: that she did

not fail to spend some part of very day in the kitchen garden, where the quantity of fruit exceeds anything you can form an idea of. This large family, with the assistance of a great many blackbirds and thrushes, cannot prevent it rotting on the trees. The gardens contain four acres and a half. The ponds supply excellent fish, the park excellent venison; there is a great quantity of rabbits, pigeons and all sorts of poultry. There is a delightful diary, where is made butter, good Warwickshire cheese and cream. One manservant is called the baker, and does nothing but brew and bake; the number of casks in this strong beer cellar is beyond imagination; those in the small beer cellar bear no proportion though, by the by, the small beer might be called ale without misnomer’.

The interior designs of the rooms, complete with colour, texture and appointment of furniture described by Jane often in her novels presented a sublime world. From the socially competitive atmosphere of London’s elegant drawing rooms to Bath’s well known assembly’s rooms.

As well as the robust attractions of the period’s most popular coastal resorts, established standards for excellence in taste and style was recognized by Jane and her peers and most especially by the burgeoning middle classes.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the British were at war with America, France and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Despite the high inflation caused by these wars, London was facing great expansion. This gained momentum as the Industrial revolution picked up pace.

The Regency style was characterized by its growing interest in antiquity, in particular the motifs of ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece. Furniture gradually developed on more monumental forms taken from such antique sources as ancient Roman chariots.

Regency Style Tilt Top Table with Chinoiserie decoration

At this time George, the Prince of Wales mind it seems, was not strengthened by political philosophy, remaining on the whole unnourished.

He became obsessive about everything, changing his mind, clothes and houses constantly.

From his early Francophile taste he also embraced the fanciful style Chinoiserie with customary zeal.

This cultivated craze for pseudo Chinese furniture saw the use of much decorative japanning. Wing pagoda and dragon motifs, black and gold lacquering and imitation bamboo was widely used.

The ultimate outcome and expression of a peculiar preference for pagodas, porcelains and priceless possessions passionately pursued in England and Europe for over four centuries, the Chinoiserie style had a complete lack of pomposity also using clear bright colours.

It had both amusing and fantastic qualities, which offered everyone a rest from the formality and relentless perfection demanded by the classical repertoire of ancient Greece and Rome.

It became popular because it was about having fun, which the Prince of Pleasure embraced wholeheartedly.

Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight inherited Godmersham Park in Kent. Two of her other brother’s Francis and Charles had distinguished careers in the British navy. Francis received a knighthood and the coveted order of Bath.

Jane from her writing enjoyed ‘life a la Godmersham. In 1813 she commented “at this present time I have five tables, eight and twenty chairs and two fires all to myself”.

The Royal navy was winning great victories, and for the leisured classes war was something that happened in the newspapers or far out at sea. Although her brothers were involved, for many these events were remote. That meant for ladies like Jane they had time to pursue activities such as music, painting, playing games and writing

Country houses, and their parks, were not simply the expressions of a wealthy ruling class for Jane and her contemporaries. They also represented an ideal civilization. They combined a mixture of self-esteem, national pride and uncompromising good taste.

They also represented the unequal structure of a society where a third of the nation’s population faced a daily struggle to survive. From the monarch down there was a pyramid of patronage and property. It is in this circle that Jane and her family moved.

Chawton House c1840 very snug

They went to live in the village of Chawton in 1809, where she spent the last seven and a half years of her life. Here she observed village life in relation to the life in the city, towns and resorts.

She had first hand experience of visiting manors belonging to the landed gentry, as well as what are now known as the Great Treasure houses of England. It was during this time that she spent the most productive years of her writing career.

Chawton cottage was a part of her brother Edward’s inherited estate. And, when she moved there she was clearly pleased with her new surroundings, expressing her delight in an amusing verse written for her brother Francis

Our Chawton Home how much we find
Already in it, to our mind;
And how convinced, that when complete,
It will all other houses beat,
That ever have been made or mended
With rooms concise, or rooms distended.

It did not really ‘beat’ all the other houses but it was certainly snug.

Securing adequate sums of money allowed a gentleman to go in pursuit of a perfect house in the country as well as in the town. Jane Austen’s creative genius leaves us with an enduring memory of the period. Throughout her novels it is clear she never exceeded the conventional boundaries of the society in which she moved.

Engraving of Cassiobury Park Library c1800

Mr. Bennett, the father of Jane’s heroine Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice certainly enjoyed his library. It was a place where he was always sure of tranquility. And though prepared to meet folly and conceit in every other room in the house, he was used to be free of them among his precious books, papers and periodicals.

Mr Bennett is intelligent, educated and decisively opinionated, but always seemingly ‘at leisure’ in his library. He escapes there after breakfast each day and is there for most of it. This is a place however where his daughter Elizabeth, whose mind he has a high opinion of, is always welcome.

Libraries had become large rooms of great activity by this time and were arranged for comfortable study of the antique or for reading by the fire. And, because the acquisition of knowledge was viewed as a long-term investment in a family and its future, they were symbolic of status.

Books were read from aloud from at all sorts of social gatherings. They were perused for good lines and words that could be introduced into polite conversation and, were also a subject of polite conversation themselves. A library offered a peaceful place for study and hours of quiet contemplation, especially desirable in a woman of Jane’s status.

Regency style library…

A new desire for comfort meant the sofa was arranged by the fire, the sofa table piled with books placed in front of it, to be used by the student. Portraits were used decoratively so that your ancestors imbued a sense of continuity in their eternal gaze.

Classical ornament was used decoratively on the fireplace and busts looking down from the tops of the bookshelves attested to the fact that you were content in your investigation of the antique world.

The expansion of knowledge revealed that ancient artists and writers had free expression in their work, with religion and honour being paramount to society’s daily existence.

This revelation began to affect the social and moral values of most European societies.

The excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii in Italy, which had begun in 1738 and 1748 respectively were daily providing archaeological evidence of an advanced Roman civilization.

They were an inspiration to a European community in search of truth and knowledge, which was fast becoming the true wealth of any nation and culture.

Reading-Jane-Austen-1When Jane Austen died in 1817 she left the world on the brink of unprecedented change at the height of the Regency of George Prince of Wales, on behalf of his father George III.

She had on her own part ensured, that by now the cultivation of the mind had become as important as the cultivation of wealth.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2015


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