Ethics and Estates

February 1, 2009 § 5 Comments

“My dearest sister, now be serious. I want to talk very seriously. Let me know every thing that I am to know, without delay. Will you tell me how long you have loved him?”

It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”

This important exchange, brief though it is, is the key to the most crucial plot development in Pride and Prejudice and is often overlooked, and more often, misinterpreted. Jane Austen did not write profuse descriptions of the experience of love. When her heroes and heroines declare themselves she simply lets the reader understand that they love, and are suited, to one another. When Elizabeth Bennet enlightens her sister Jane about her engagement to Darcy and her feelings for him, she jokes, a little but as ever with Austen, it is not all a joke. The couple’s potential for happiness and respectability is very great. Elizabeth’s assertion that her visit to Pemberley enlightened her as to her feelings for Darcy has been flippantly interpreted as a desire for Pemberley, for the position, prestige and income attending such an estate,  presuming on a hidden ambitiousness in Elizabeth’s character that is not supported by the text. To understand Elizabeth’s statement, the reader must understand the true delicacy of it’s author.

Great estates such as Pemberley were not infrequently subject to improvements in the late 18th century by those who inherited. Landscapes and prospects were of particular interest to the Georgians. There have been occasions when landowners have  shown little feeling for the history, the social obligations and true respectability of these great houses. Large estates were intertwined with the county not only via domestic employment, the leasing of residences and farmland and the produce of food but they affected too the spiritual well-being of the community, holding as they did the parishes within their gift. In Austen’s texts there are several pairings of anti-heroes and improving schemes:  Henry Crawford’s keen eye for improvements and the eschewing of tradional morality at Everingham,  Sotherton and Thorton Lacey, in Mansfield Park to name one example.

It is the non-improvers however, the humane trustees, whom Austen presents to the reader as the most worthy characters,  honouring the Knightly family’s ‘old neglect of prospect’¹ and their estate’s ‘abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up’ at Donwell Abbey in Emma and highlighting Darcy’s integrity in his stewardship of Pemberley:

“She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.”

Alistair M. Duckworth wrote² that estate improvements in Austen’s texts ‘go beyond an aesthetic meaning to suggest the nature and quality of an individual’s response to the social, ethical and religious values he inherits, and that ‘in Pride and Prejudice the aesthetic taste evident in the landscape of Pemberley permits Elizabeth and the reader to infer the fundamental worth of Darcy’s social and ethical outlook’.

Related Topics on (Grey Pony): Austen and the Picturesque

¹ ‘neglect of prospect’, ie deliberately not decimating natural growth in order to create a view from or of a house, such as the plan to fell an old avenue of trees at Sotherton in Mansfield Park

² Mansfield Park and Estate Improvements: Jane Austen’s Grounds of Being by Alistair M. Duckworth, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jun., 1971), pp. 25-48


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§ 5 Responses to Ethics and Estates

  • Thank you for a most illuminating post. John and Fanny Dashwood were cast in a negative light when Jane described their plans for the Norland Estate. She had a definite point of view about enclosures as well, I suspect.

  • Jonnie Comet says:

    The Augustan sensibility about ‘improving’ nature, and by extension, estates, was always tempered with a fundamental understanding of good taste. In ‘Mansfield Park’ JA openly commends landscape architect Launcelot Brown for respecting limits and knowing how far to go. The Palladian architect James Gibbs once made the point that those contracting a new house or renovations to an existing one could overstep the bounds of good taste, citing an actual case (with which surely JA would have agreed) of a new-home owner whose lack of good sense resulted in a structure so garish that he had to have it pulled down directly and rebuilt merely to regain friends lost over such folly. Mr Rushworth’s indecision about remodelling his house comes directly from his awareness that a false step might be his last social gaffe… and he cannot risk it, for he desperately needs friends fast.

  • Sylwia says:

    I enjoyed your series on picturesque, but I wouldn’t say that either Darcy or Knightly are non-improvers. Pemberley is a show of picturesque in itself, and though it looks natural, it certainly didn’t grow on its own. There are obvious references to improvements, and there are in fact only two possibilities: either the house and grounds are very new, and so the Darcys abandoned their old house, or the old house and grounds were totally remodelled. Donwell Abbey is very Reptonian, with improvements kept in reasonable limits so that they wouldn’t destroy what was already there, without any possibility of creating a fully picturesque estate. Knightley isn’t even rich enough to attempt bigger changes. But there are picturesque spots instead, that must have been achieved by human intervention, i.e. breaking an avenue.

    Mr. Rushworth has neither talent nor taste, and he totally misunderstood Repton, so his improvements will only ruin the estate, and Crawford would have improvements made without any consideration to Edmund’s income. So, as you said earlier, Austen doesn’t criticise picturesque. On the contrary, she was a great fan of Gilpin, and good improvements are a testimony to the excellent characters of her heroes. But she criticises fools who follow fashion without taste or good judgement.

    • Thanks for your comment Sylwia. I do agree with your assessment of Donwell and it’s owner as Reptonian, the same could be said of Pemberley. When using the term improvements, I refer to alterations that go beyond maintaining and running an estate properly, that go beyond efforts to highlight the natural beauty of a place. Though I’m not entirely sure there is evidence in either texts that points to extensive remodeling, the idea is well worth doing more research on. Thanks for your feedback!

      • Sylwia says:

        Though I’m not entirely sure there is evidence in either texts that points to extensive remodeling, the idea is well worth doing more research on.

        I hope you’ll write about it. I’d love to read it.

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