Ahead of the Jane Austen Festival in September, Dr Amy Frost – senior curator at the Bath Preservation Trust – explains how the architecture featured in Austen’s novels has greater significance than you might think.
Architecture is everywhere in Jane Austen’s novels and it plays an important role in the stories she tells. Yet Austen can be very limited in what information she imparts about buildings, often giving only the most basic facts. It is initially very frustrating, as frequently the houses within which events occur in the novels are essential to the plot, and not just in the two novels whose titles are taken from the names of houses within their pages. Close reading, however, coupled with some understanding of British architecture during the 18th and early 19th century, reveals that while she may give little description about buildings, Austen reveals a lot about her characters through the houses they inhabit.
Looking in detail
Her description of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice as “a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground” emphasises a solidity and strength that the reader comes to realise stands for Mr Darcy himself. While in describing Mansfield Park, as “modern built”, she implies that this new or recent wealth has led to the building of a new home, where Austen’s contemporary readers would have made a connection to the plantations in the West Indies, and a modern reader would make a further link to the British slave trade.
Architecture plays a vital role in particular in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, the Bath novels, and not just individual properties, but a wider sense of the built environment. In Persuasion the book travels in scale between the small village of Uppercross, the coastal settlement at Lyme Regis and to the city of Bath. It is also one of the rare examples of an Austen novel where two of the key locations are not fictional. The explanation for this is not just that Austen herself was familiar with Bath and Lyme, but that her contemporary readers would have been as well. While she could create fictional locations and houses, even villages in her work (even if they were loosely based on real places), she could not take as much creative licence with places that were visited and well known to her reading public.
Outside London, Bath was the one place that Austen had to be accurate in her descriptions of, as it continued to hold a place in society as a key resort, even if by the time she was visiting it no longer held the place it once had as the premier destination for the elite.
The class of architecture
In Persuasion characters live in known Bath streets, the location reflecting their status, or the status they wish to project. So Sir Walter Elliot in Bath rented “a very good house in Camden Place, a lofty, dignified station, such as becomes a man of consequence”, although the reader is aware that this is still a large step down in status from the country house he can no longer afford at Kellynch Hall. Austen’s awareness of the areas of the city and how they sit within Bath’s social hierarchy is apparent. She did not need to describe Mrs Smith’s Bath lodgings in detail, because her readers would have known that the Westgate Buildings address was a clear sign of the character’s impoverished status.
In Northanger Abbey the natural environment of Bath, as well the built one, becomes the protagonist, when Henry Tilney delivers his lecture on the picturesque – an aesthetic ideal of perceiving the landscape – to Catherine Morland. The city’s relationship to its natural surroundings was only just being taken advantage of in the late 1790s and early 1800s, as Bath began to grow into the hills of the valley, and villas started to be built up Lansdown Road and Bathwick Hill. This was something that was moved forward further following the bankruptcy of the city in 1793. This shift in architectural style was evolving in Bath at the same time Austen was experiencing the city, and her awareness of the ideas of the picturesque are an insight into her understanding of the architectural climate of her day.
The modern eye
Just like the original readers of Austen’s novels having knowledge of the real places she depicted, we also suffer today from knowing the factual places when confronted with modern adaptations for television and cinema. A Bath resident with an attentive eye watching the 2007 ITV version of Northanger Abbey may question why they don’t recognise any buildings. The answer is because it was filmed in Dublin, and the scenes set in the city were shot against a backdrop of white stone rather than Bath’s golden facades. This slip in the fictional representation of the factual city can be forgiven, however, because the role the architecture plays is just another fictional prop that adds to the image of the characters that Austen so wonderfully created.
Find out more at this year’s Jane Austen Festival, which runs from 13–22 September:
• The Buildings You Don’t Know in Jane Austen Novels, 16 September, 11am, Museum of Bath Architecture
• That’s Not Rosings: What’s Wrong With Locations in Austen Adaptations?, 22 September, 10.30am, No.1 Royal Crescent
Main image: Francis C Franklin