Comparing the Country Estate in Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park


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Importance of the Country Estate in Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park

 

 

The world of Jane Austen's novels is a world of the country estate. Her central characters  are members of the parish or landed gentry and their lives and adventures often circle around the local estate and the people who live there. One of Austen's main literary principles was to write only about the things she knew about in her own life, and the world of the landed gentry was one to which she had access. However the country estate in her novels serves a greater purpose than that of a mere background to the lives of her characters. Austen uses the country estate to give the reader an insight into the personalities of her characters, and as a way of discussing political, religious and aesthetic ideas of the period.

 

 

One of the most obvious functions of the country estate in both Prideand Prejudice and Mansfield Park is that of mirroring the character of its owners and Inhabitants and thus of providing a symbolic representation of their values and traits of personality. When Elizabeth Bennet visits Pemberley, she is impressed by what she sees:

 

 

It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; - and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. 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.    (p.267)

 

This description occurs at a point when Elizabeth is being forced to reconsider her opinions of Darcy. She has already read his reply to Wickham's slurs on his character, but still believes Darcy to be a man of excessive pride, a belief which is overturned during her visit to Pemberley, and this view of the estate is the first stage of her transformation of opinion. The information which the author gives us enables us to start challenging our assumptions about Darcy, and follow the process which is occurring within the mind of Elizabeth. This description of the estate gives us information about many aspects of Darcy's character. The beauty of the house and grounds make us feel that perhaps he has justification for any pride he displays.

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Pemberley shows many signs of the healthy estate. 

 

It has a good position, on a hill surrounded by the vital natural resources of water and timber. However, it is the aesthetic taste of the estate's owner that Elizabeth finds most impressive. Both the stream and the rest of the estate are modifications of nature, improvements of the original countryside, and therefore have the potential to cause controversy. But Elizabeth is pleased with the aesthetic choices made during the course of the estate's development, mostly for the reason that they show great moderation. In the description of the flaws avoided by the  landscape,  Austen uses the phrases  'formal' and 'awkward'. These are both flaws which Elizabeth had previously ascribed to Darcy.  The flaws which Elizabeth perceives in Darcy are the very flaws which are absent from his estate. This tells both Elizabeth and the reader that perhaps we have judged Darcy too hastily as his taste seems to contradict our belief in his excessive pride, but it is also possible to read this description of Pemberley as a symbolic description of Darcy's character and thus as a moment of illumination for Elizabeth.  She has previously accused him of excessive pride but in this passage it is implied that any pride Darcy might have is justified by his station in life. The house has literally a high position, 'standing well on rising ground' and the stream is 'of some natural importance'. However, the overall impression of the estate is that it is 'without any artificial appearance' This impression is strengthened as Elizabeth enters Pemberley House to find the housekeeper 'less fine, and more civil' (p.267) than expected and the furniture 'with less of splendour' (p.267) than that of Rosings. These symbolic revelations of Darcy's character are parallelled by the housekeeper's praise of her master and prepare us for the moment when Elizabeth meets Darcy once more and finds him more than content to socialize with the despised Mr Gardiner.

 

 

However, the information about character which we can glean from Austen's descriptions of country estates is not restricted to the owners and residents of the estate; Austen also reveals vital information through her characters' reaction to their surroundings.

 

 

It is generally considered a positive personality trait to be fond of the countryside, the political implications of which I shall examine in more detail later on and in Mansfield Park we certainly learn a lot about the Crawfords from their reactions to the countryside.  We are told that Mary 'had been mostly used to London' (p.74) and that her although her brother owned a large estate in Norfolk he disliked a 'permanence of abode' (p.74).  Mary's true feelings about the countryside are revealed when she amuses the Bertrams with the following anecdote:

 

 

To want a horse and cart in the country seemed impossible, so I told my maid to speak for one directly; and as I cannot look out of my dressing-closet without seeing one farm-yard, nor walk in the shrubbery without passing another, I thought it would be only ask and have.   (Mansfield Park, p.89)

 

She has so little understanding of the country way of life that she does not realise that farming gets priority over luxury use during the busy harvest- time. When Edmund explains the situation, she still does not grasp that she is the one at fault, making a joke about 'country customs' (p.90).

 

 

 On the trip to Sotherton in Mansfield Park Maria Bertram gives a description of the view of the road to Mr Rushworth's estate:

 

 

The rest of the way is such as it ought to be. Mr Rushworth has made it since he succeeded to the estate. Here begins the village. Those cottages are really a disgrace. The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome. I am glad the church is not so close to the great house as so often happens in old places. The annoyance of the bells must be terrible. There is the parsonage; a tidy looking house and I understand the clergyman and his wife are very decent people. Those are the alms-houses, built by some of the family...the situation of the house is dreadful. We go down hill to it for half-a-mile, and it is a pity, for it would not be an ill-looking place if it had a better approach.'   (p.111)


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