Country Houses - Essay | Norland
| Northanger Abbey | Rosings &
Pemberley | Hartfield & Donwell Abbey | Sotherton & Mansfield Park | Kellynch
JASA's Country House Weekend
31 March to 2 April 2000
Springwood is a pleasant spot, usually quiet and peaceful, but from 31 March to 2 April
the hills of Springwood were ringing with the discussion and laughter generated by a
happy, busy, and very noisy group of JASA members.
We were gathered there to consider what country houses were like during the time of
Jane Austen, how she wrote about them and how her description of a country house shed
light upon the character of the owner and furthered the plot of the novel. Our committee,
under the guiding hand of Meg Hayward, organised a programme of diverse activities to aid
us in our consideration, cogitation and musing so that we came away with new insight into
the genius of Jane Austen.
After the Friday evening meal we gathered in the meeting room to view a video on the Treasure
Houses of England. This was a useful and most entertaining video because of the
repeated references over the weekend to Chatsworth or Longleat or Blenheim or one of the
other houses featured in the video when it was necessary to illustrate a point.
On Saturday morning the slide projector worked hard during Meg
Haywards potted history of the English Country House entitled Last night I
dreamed I went to Pemberley again - an interesting introduction to the weekend topic.
The session after morning tea had nine different members speaking about nine different
houses from the novels. We learned about their lands, the furnishings, the dimensions of
the houses and the way in which they were managed, and how this reflected either credit or
discredit on the owner. The houses considered were Northanger Abbey, Norland, Rosings
Park, Pemberley, Hartfield, Donwell Abbey, Mansfield Park, Sotherton Court and Kellynch
Hall. The texts of these talks are all online.
Anne Harbers spoke of her recent trip to Austen country and illustrated
her talk with slides. Had a travel agent appeared at that moment many bookings would have
been made to follow in Annes footsteps. Instead we made do with watching a
documentary, just come to hand, in which the English and the American devotees of Austen
were contrasted. It seemed to me that this documentary had been put together by people
with little appreciation or understanding of Jane Austens works, trying to
sensationalise the unsensational. The saving grace of the video was an attractive shot of
Anne emerging from the house in which Jane Austen died - the film crew having caught up
with the JA tour of which Anne was a part.
There was some free time in the afternoon so that we could recruit our
strength for the rigours of the evening when we once more gathered in the meeting room to
be At Home with Miss Austen. We were decorously coached in the art of the country
dance by Naida Holliday so that next time any of us is asked to join in a Prince of
Orange or a Gallopede we will be able to do so with assurance and grace. The
rest of the evening was given over to needlework, witty conversation and similar genteel
behaviours except for a riotous group of card players in one corner of the room who
somewhat lowered the tone of the evening and gave Mr Collins some cause to expatiate on
the evils of gambling. He was however restrained from reading Fordyces sermons and
the card players remained unchastened.
On Saturday we had looked at the country house from the point of view
of the owners and visitors. On Sunday morning Susannah Fullerton showed it to us from a
less comfortable angle - the view of the outsider. We learned about poachers - who they
were, why they poached, what punishment was meted out and how this sad phenomenon
reflected upon the stewardship of the land of the occupiers of the country house.
This grim reminder of the dark side of Regency England was followed by
a video of the opening of Pemberley House in Sri Lanka. What a beautiful country house
this is, set in an old tea plantation, beautifully furnished and equipped. It will truly
be a haven for scholars.
The last session of the weekend was full of activity. There were games of 20 questions
in which objects to be found within houses in the various novels were the answers, and
then we broke up into groups in which we could either come up with a detailed description
of a room in one of the country houses, based on the text (it was suggested that Mr
Knightleys bedroom might be a desirable room to discuss), or we could indulge in
what the butler saw, and report on the activities of those above
stairs as a person who resides below stairs. The reports were hilarious,
from a dramatisation of the servants hall at Mansfield Park (where it was considered
that the old trout Mrs Norris should be fried), to the musings of Sir Walter
Elliots valet (thanking providence that the senna pods!! had worked), to a rousing
chorus in praise of Jane Austen (to the strains of Waltzing Matilda).
This was a very successful, thoroughly enjoyable weekend, in a very
pleasant venue. We all came away with a little more understanding of the works of Jane
Austen, an even deeper admiration for her genius, and memories of very happy encounters
with friends who share a common interest. Warmest congratulations to the organisers!