The Comforts of a Rumford: A contemporary Gillray satirical print. "...contracted to a Rumford...".
Country Houses in Jane Austen's novels - Northanger Abbey
Northanger Abbey would originally have been built no later than the end of the 15th century as the Dissolution of the Monasteries took place in 1539. From that time on such estates passed into private hands. Since the land was probably more sought-after than the building, the original abbey was sometimes left to fall into ruins while a new building was constructed more in keeping with the needs of the new owners; sometimes the abbey was demolished and the stones were used to build a new house (this was the case with Stoneleigh Abbey which belonged to cousins of Mrs. Austen), and sometimes the original building remained but was extensively modified and added to by following generations. It would seem that this is what happened at Northanger Abbey.
Northanger Abbey was built around a central courtyard which would originally have been cloistered but which 250 years after privatisation Jane Austen describes as a quadrangle (II,5 p.141). There are sufficient passages, galleries, staircases and rooms leading into other rooms to confuse Catherine and suggest that the renovators of many generations had been at work. On his tour of inspection the General points out to Catherine the traces of some monastic cells. We are also told that the fourth side of the quadrangle had on account of its decaying state (II,8,p.160), been removed by the Generals father, and the new wing erected in its place.
Have you ever been inside an old building which has been converted from its original purpose and now fulfils a role quite different from that for which it was originally designed? The experience shows that such buildings either retain some charm of a former time but are uncomfortable and inefficient, or else their former elegancies have all but disappeared to provide the present occupants with comfort and efficiency. Northanger Abbey succumbed to the second of these fates. No wonder Catherine was disappointed. She probably felt the way I did when I entered a building in Oberammagau to find it was now a McDonalds restaurant, and while I was delighted to use the clean rest rooms of that establishment I could not but feel somewhat cheated that efficiency and order had replaced the romance of an earlier period.
Northanger Abbey certainly had efficiency and order and the words comfort, convenience, elegance and luxury are used frequently in its description.
If I were asked to speak on how the Industrial Revolution affected the lives of affluent Englishmen, I think that one of my first points of reference would be to consult the pages of Northanger Abbey. General Tilney had an improving hand (II,8,p.160). He needed to have something bigger, better, brighter and newer than his neighbour. And being sybaritic, he liked not only comfort but luxury, every thing that money and taste could do, to give comfort and elegance to apartments, had been bestowed. (II, 8,p.161).
One of the first things that Catherine sees on entering the common drawing-room is that
Count Rumford had introduced his very heat-efficient design for fireplaces in 1796 and since Northanger Abbey in its first draft, Susan, was begun in 1798, we see how current General Tilneys improvements were.
Catherine also sees that the pointed Gothic arch of the windows remains but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! (II,5,p.141). Such glazing must have happened after 1799 when much improved glass making methods began to make it possible to have window panes of larger sizes that were strong and very clear. The new glazing had found its way not only into the areas in common use but even into the less grand guest rooms such as that which Catherine occupies (II,6,p.141) and the bedroom which had belonged to Mrs Tilney (II,9,p.169). We can presume, then, that Northanger Abbey had been entirely, or largely, reglazed in the last few years. This alone would send General Tilney on a quest for rich wives for his sons!
Catherines room had furniture which was not in the latest fashion, probably moved there when the grand guest chambers were renovated five years earlier, but it was handsome and comfortable. The walls were papered and the floor was carpeted. (II,6,p.140). Wallpaper had become more affordable and readily available towards the end of the 18th century and was available in many patterns as dyes and printing processes improved. The carpet looms which had been set up in factories in Axminster, Winton and Kidderminster in the last two decades of the 18th century made it possible to carpet rooms from wall to wall instead of having rugs on polished boards, and the General had made sure that such comforts had been installed in a house which, because of its age and construction, could not help but be draughty.
In the common-drawing room the furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. (II,5,p.140) In the last decade of the 18th century furniture had become much lighter, smaller and more portable. Cabinet makers such as Sheraton published books and catalogues of their designs and it became popular to have many more pieces of furniture in a room than before, and have them arranged more informally. An old-fashioned house such as Catherine would have been used to would have had a few heavy pieces of furniture, probably made locally of oak or beech, which would normally have been lined up against the wall except when in use. The light, elegant furniture of the period was possible because of improvements in construction techniques and because transport was easier and furniture was able to be made in larger, centralised factories. Small occasional tables, library steps and library tables, chiffoniers, writing desks were all likely to have found their way into Northanger Abbey because they were fashionable, ingenious, elegant. They were probably made from lighter woods than traditional oak or mahogany. Rosewood and satinwood were the latest fad and the terms light and cheerful are often used in the descriptions of the Abbey.
The General is very proud of the amount of gilding in his house (II,5,p.141), which at the turn of the century was both fashionable and expensive. It was confined to his most important rooms but there would have been plenty of it to admire in the drawing room and the best guest bedrooms.
As well as the pretty English china on the mantelpiece in the common drawing-room we know that the breakfast set is also from the newly improved potteries of Staffordshire (II,7, p.152). Kiln construction and chemistry associated with pottery making were among the great advances of the Industrial Revolution and General Tilney was sufficiently satisfied with the results that his intention was to continue his fashionable patronage of the English product.
We also know that there were flowers in the house hyacinths in the breakfast parlour (II,7,p.151). This again was a new fashion. The extension of the outdoors inside was increasingly acceptable and young ladies were encouraged to take a genteel interest in horticulture, e.g. growing bulbs.
This brings us to the gardens. Notice that the General takes Catherine on a tour of his kitchen gardens rather than his flower gardens. Landscape gardeners such as Gandy and Loudon were publishing work in the first decade of the 19th century promoting convenience and neatness over the picturesque. General Tilney had obviously embraced this utilitarian approach to agriculture with much vigour, particularly as it also supported his love of food. Pineries and orangeries were more to his taste than hothouses for exotics such as chrysanthemums. Improved designs for such buildings had come with the surge of inventions during this period, and General Tilneys hothouses were efficient. He is actually boasting when he complains of having no more than 100 pines in the last season (II,7,p.156). Many people in England would not have seen a pineapple at this period in history*.
The efficiency of his garden design is also seen in the approach to the house a smooth gravel road unromantic but very practical (II,5,p.140). And across the park there is a tea house (II,7,p.156) very fashionable and perhaps even made of cast iron which was just being used for outdoor structures. It would have been painted green, the only colour considered suitable for such structures at the turn of the century.
The very efficient if unromantic fourth wing of the building filled with offices was the headquarters of the vast army of domestic servants needed to run such an elaborate establishment -- storerooms, the housekeepers rooms, the butlers rooms and rooms such as a livery room, a lamp room and a post room.
The domestic convenience at Northanger is shown particularly in the kitchen, with new stoves and hot closets, and close to the dining room rarely considered important in house design until very recent times.
Catherine was disappointed to find herself in such a modern, comfortable, efficient environment but she was probably very relieved that Northanger Abbey was so up to date. Cold, dark and draughty rooms are for sightseeing, not for daily use. General Tilneys osten-tatious display of wealth and his sybaritic devotion to luxury, not just comfort, is, indeed, an indictment of his character, but on a cold and stormy night wouldnt you prefer a heating system that worked?
*Member Lois Caw comments that the gentleman General Tilney must therefore have been growing his pines for a comm-ercial market - two pines every day, spread over the full year would be impossible for the household to consume. Thats a different slant on the Abbey and its owner!
Parissien, Steven Regency Style London, Phaidon, 1996
|Pamela Whalan suggests spatial relationships in Northanger Abbey. Based on a sketch in Regency Style by Steven Parissien, 1992, Phaidon Press.||
9 August 2000