Country Houses in Jane Austen's novels - Emma
In Emma, Jane doesnt give us any lengthy, detailed description of Hartfield and its grounds, and the reason for this comes very early in the book. Emmas father is a valetudinarian, which the dictionary defines as a person unduly anxious about health. These odd humours of Mr Woodhouse plus his advanced age precluded the holding of major events, such as dances, balls or large picnics at Hartfield, so there was no point in describing the grand rooms that a house three times the size of Randalls would have had available for these events. But throughout the novel - sometimes from just a sentence or paragraph - we are able to glean quite a bit of information about the Woodhouse residence.
The house is sixteen miles from London and half a mile from the centre of Highbury, a large and populous village almost amounting to a town. In good weather it is a pleasant walk to the shops, church and friends homes for Emma and for visitors coming from the village to Hartfield.
We will start our short tour of the house at the front gate. When Frank Churchill rescued Harriet from the gypsies and escorted her to Hartfield the great iron sweep gate opened. A great iron sweep gate would need something very solid to be bolted to, so we can be sure it was set in a suitable size brick or stone wall. We havent very far to walk down the gravel drive to the house - the iron gates and the front-door are not twenty yards asunder.
But before we go inside we will have a look at its design. During the strawberry-picking outing to Mr Knightleys, his Donwell Abbey is described as larger than Hartfield, and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling and irregular, and this gives to me a picture of Hartfield having the neat, straight lines of Georgian architecture.
|'the neat straight lines of Georgian
architectureand the iron gates and the front-door are not
twenty yards asunder.
Is this your Hartfield? The west front of
Claydon House, Buckinghamshire.
The only general description of the interior of the house and garden I could find comes from Mrs Elton.
Well there we have praise indeed. Mrs E finds Hartfield as splendid as Maple Grove!
There is very little said about the furniture in the house, though Im sure it would be of a good quality, most likely inherited by Mr Woodhouse from his father. But we do know that in the dining room there is a large modern circular table which Emma had introduced at Hartfield, and which none but Emma could have had power to place
Now we will leave the house and have a look at what lies beyond the lawns, shrubbery, and laurel trees.
So it certainly wasnt a commercial farm. But the notch would have to contain at least a dozen acres or so, for the extensive grounds must have also included fruit trees, poultry, pigs (a whole hind quarter of pork was sent to the Bates family), and the horses, cows and perhaps some sheep would need large fields to graze in.
Hartfield is a comfortable home for Mr Woodhouse. The fireplaces and their chimneys would always be kept in perfect order. The windows and doors would close tightly to keep out those cold, damp drafts of air that play havoc with ones health. It is a handsome residence, worthy of a gentleman, at the top or second top of the social ladder in Highbury. When Emma is fuming over Mr Eltons arrogance to dare raise his eyes to her we get from her stream of thoughts
While her fathers fortune came from other sources. No doubt one day, the script writer of the recent movie on Mansfield Park will write one for Emma, in which Mr Woodhouses fortune from other sources will loom large!
The name Donwell leads one to an allegorical approach in describing the house. It is or has Done Well, and it is an Abbey, a place therefore representing centuries of worship, spirituality and care for and of the neighbourhood. We know that it is old when we hear it described through Emmas eyes
The fact that it is low lying, and hidden from sight tells us that this is an old establishment built at a time when it was prudent to be hidden from would-be marauders in times of war. From the 18th century buildings were built with a prospect. Donwell can be seen in contrast with Northanger Abbey: Donwell maintains tradition whereas modernisation is the order of the day at Northanger. Jane Austen valued tradition, as we are made aware in Mansfield Park and the description of Sotherton, where traditions such as family prayers have been discontinued and beautiful trees may be torn down. By contrast Donwell has
Donwell Abbey is fruitful, providing physical as well as spiritual nourishment for the community it serves. Donwell in fact is a representation of an ideal world best summed up in Emmas thoughts
References from the Chapman edition
9 August 2000