Country Houses in Jane Austen's novels - Sense and Sensibility
Norland is a substantial estate in the county of Sussex. While neither approaching the grandeur of Pemberley nor producing an income of £10,000 a year, it is nevertheless a more than comfortable home and at £4,000 a year it is twice the size of Colonel Brandons Delaford estate.
In the first chapter of Sense & Sensibility we learn that Norland has been the home of the Dashwood family for several generations, and the family is well respected within the local community. By the end of chapter 2 it is apparent that the high regard in which the name of Dashwood is held will decrease. Norland too is diminished by the actions of its new owners. For Jane Austen it is the bad face of a changing England.
Norland has had the misfortune to be bequeathed to an unworthy owner. John Dashwood does not have the same level of social conscience as Mr Darcy at Pemberley, nor does he show the good stewardship of Mr Knightley at Donwell. He will not be a good custodian of the estate for future generations. John Dashwood is an example of the increasing number of gentry who feel they have no obligations towards their extended family or the neighbourhood.
He made a promise to his father on his death bed to provide for his stepmother and stepsisters, but apart from allowing them to stay at Norland for six months after Mr Dashwoods death (during which time they are made to feel like visitors in what had been their own home), he does nothing to help them. With the assistance of his wife he finally comes to the conclusion that his promise to his father means he has to do no more for them than give them gifts of fish and game when they are in season. He even manages to convince himself that it would be highly indecorous to do more than this for the widow and children of his father.
When the Dashwood women finally leave Norland for Barton in Devon he says he regrets not being able to be of assistance to them with moving their belongings. Assistance has been rendered impossible by their moving so far from Norland, which means their household goods will be transported by water. His regrets do not reach as far as his pocketbook - he does not offer them any money to assist with the cost of moving. The only real regret he has at their departure is the loss of china, linen and plate which Mr Dashwood was free to bequeath to his widow and which moves with her to Barton.
It is also safe to assume that long serving, loyal servants at Norland will fare no better than Mrs Dashwood and her daughters. If John Dashwood will not provide for relatives, he certainly wont provide for retired servants once they can no longer work. Fanny Dashwood will make sure of that: after all she has her mothers experiences with superannuated servants as an example of how odious and inconvenient obligations to others can be.
Once Norland has excluded dependent members of its extended family, it goes about excluding the local community as well. 1793 to 1815 saw the second major wave of Enclosure acts in England. As part of this movement, by enclosing Norland Common, John Dashwood forces small landholders and tenant farmers off the land. Their consolidated holdings became too small to be economic to farm, especially when coupled with the loss of traditional grazing rights and other rights associated with common land. Like many other men John Dashwood is not slow to profit from the misfortunes he has helped to create for others. It has been to his advantage to enclose Norland Common, and now he has the opportunity to add other smallholdings to his estate. Indeed, he feels it is his duty to purchase East Kingham Farm when it becomes available.
John Dashwood is intent on changing his local community, tearing apart the way of life of generations for his own benefit. However he is not interested in anyones welfare other than that of his own immediate family. He is enlarging Norland at the expense of others but he will never be a model landlord like Darcy. It is impossible to believe he will go to the expense of building a model village for his tenants as some landlords did.
In another break with the habits of generations, the John Dashwoods are not permanent residents at Norland - in his first year as owner John Dashwood signals his intention to be an absentee landlord. In the midst of vast change for the local community, the family that should be leading and protecting that community packs up and moves to London for a season of fun and frivolity. John Dashwood is not a hands-on farmer and landlord in the mould of Mr Knightley. His farming is done for him by his steward.
On the estate the only improvements he is interested in carrying out are those of the fashionable and superficial kind. It is imperative that Fanny Dashwood has a flower garden and greenhouse. To do this he has torn down walnut trees which are decades old to build a greenhouse which could be replaced once it has reached the end of its fashionable life. Norland has a master and mistress for whom a fashion-statement greenhouse which can be seen from many parts of the park is more important than trees which provide shelter and food and timber.
Norland is an estate in decline - it does not provide for its dependants, it is in danger of becoming less and less respected in the neighbourhood, its owners have no real attachment to the house, the land or the community - they are only attached to it to the extent that it can show off their wealth and position in society. Norland is in very great danger of becoming useless rather than useful.
Duckworth, Alistair M, The Improvement of the Estate, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994
Lane, Maggie, Jane Austens England, Robert Hale Limited, London, 1986
|Godmersham: Janes brother Edward Knights country seat. Worthy of being in any book of gentlemens seats. This building is possibly of much the same standard as Norland. From Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, by JP Neale.||
16 August 2000