Eudora Welty once remarked upon Jane Austen’s gift for capturing those abrupt changes of fortune that play out within the confines of a the drawing room: “Jane Austen was born knowing that the interesting situations of life can, and notably do, take place at home. In country parsonages, the dangerous confrontations and the decisive skirmishes can be very conveniently arranged.”
Parsonages were very much like the therapist’s office today — a place for confiding long held secrets — while in family parlors, all the major plots of life unfolded.
Romances were kindled, hopes dashed, alliances formed and dynasties established.
The moral: Don’t underestimate the intrigue at the whist table, the sensual nature of the loveseat or the intimacies readily concealed by a pair of damask drapes!
Naming a House
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen names her houses carefully to reflect the flaws and foibles of their residents. The Bennet home, Longbourne, alludes to the protracted suffering of its residents: Mr. Bennet’s for having taken an uneducated and shrewish wife. Jane’s for losing the handsome Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth’s for being far too clever for her own good. The entire family’s disgrace when the youngest Bennet daughter runs off with a soldier and lives in a state of debauchery (i.e. without a ring, a title or a home).
Throughout the novel, Austen also uses place names to hint at the fate of their inhabitants.
Netherfield — the country home just down the road —- is occupied by a bachelor of wealth and standing, who remains tantalizingly out of reach.
Meryton, the village that serves as headquarters for a British garrison, is known for its lively parties and last minute flirting, providing some consolation for the soldiers who are heading off to the Napoleonic wars.
Pemberley, the well-manicured estate belonging to the enigmatic Mr. Darcy, is described with the kind of rapture most romance novels reserve for the physical endowments of the hero.
The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of its proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine.
“And of this place,” thought (Elizabeth), “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…”
While Elizabeth has taunted Darcy for his pride and haughtiness, the house attests to his fine character. Uncomfortable in society, Darcy is wholly at ease at Pemberley where he cares for his younger sister and earns the devotion of his household staff.
Austen is clearly having fun, giving a young woman brash enough to turn down one of the wealthiest bachelors in the country, her comeuppance. Yet there is a deeper truth here that has to do with a man’s feeling for a place. Seeing Darcy in context, Elizabeth understands that he is neither self-centered nor mean-spirited. He is simply one of those people ill at ease at social functions and more at home in the privacy of his own parlor. Darcy, the visitor, may be priggish and remote but Darcy, the householder, is admirably courteous, generous and kind.
A Man’s Home Reflects His Character
This is what Jane Austen might say were she writing in the digital age: Ladies, if you are considering a mate, be sure to explore his living quarters. This will tell you so much more about his personality than his posts on Facebook, how many likes he has, and the photos of his favorite restaurants on Snapchat or Instagram. Take a look at how he keeps his rooms, how he treats his possessions, and how he regards the people — from waiters to house cleaners — who care for his wellbeing, day to day.
Once you’ve had the domestic tour, you can judge him like a Regency heroine: You’ll know who he is when no one’s looking — what portion of himself he chooses to reveal in the privacy of home.
In 1802, Harris Bigg-Wither, a neighbor, and family friend proposed to Jane Austen—the only real offer of marriage she would receive in her lifetime. He was 21, while she was 27, and by then, considered an old maid. Austen accepted immediately but by the following morning, she had changed her mind. We can only speculate what road her imagination traveled to move so quickly from the grateful yes to the sober no. But it may have had something to do with the meaning of his name..
Remember this is a woman who lived and died by the word. Perhaps she feared that being known as Mrs. Bigg-Wither might have an unkind effect upon her prose. Then there’s the name of her suitor’s household, Many Down. She might have felt this inauspicious, too, hinting at a depressed energy, a lagging spirit. Finally, her mind may have altered as she considered leaving the comfort of her brother’s estate where she had a cosy place to write, shared the household duties with her loving sister, and enjoyed a window seat overlooking the main road.