Finding Pemberley: We Are But Visitors

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The landscape was romantic, with fountains overflowing and naiad statues decked on marble.  Garlands of roses laced up the archways, catching the light in the pockets of warmth and cast into shadow when the sun poked behind the slurs of gray clouds.  It was a painting I could touch, an interactive landscape.  Penshurst is an antiquated estate surrounded by lavish gardens extending from the impressive stone manor.  As our Wheaton in England group toured the grounds, I was struck by the thought that this place was reminiscent to the posh estates depicted in Austen’s novels.

When Pemberley is described in Pride and Prejudice, the narrative describes the estate saying, “…and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound.  It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills…”

We are but visitors.

Suddenly, I found myself in the same context as Elizabeth Bennet, stepping onto the grounds where the private life was made public for visitation.  In Jane Austen’s day, it was common for people to tour grand estates in the countryside, especially places that had historic or cultural value.  Landscape design was always of significant importance to the British aristocracy, since it represented wealth, class and also fashionable taste expected of the upper class.

In her writing, Austen used landscape and lavish households to illustrate character values and family status, especially with Pemberley and Rosings in Pride and Prejudice, but also with Sotherton in Mansfield Park.  The lavish property typically represents a lifestyle which her characters are outside of, namely Elizabeth from Pemberley and Fanny Price from both Mansfield and Sotherton.  The heroines are outsiders, visitors, spectators, there to observe the lifestyle that it is not quite theirs.

Like Penshurst, Pemberley was noted to be grand in architecture and design, but even more awe-inspiring were the exquisite grounds, with long terraces of flowers, open parks, ponds with multicolored fish, statues and trees with every blossom.  The gardens were an artistic display.  In the far courtyard of Penshurst, there were two hedged bushes pruned to bear the shape of the family crest, one a bear and the other a porcupine.  Every detail was planned with precision, creating a labyrinth of unending elegance, but at the cost of grand sums of money and long hours.  The fact that a family continued to live here almost seemed impossible; I was reminded of my own suburban home, so simple compared to the well-cultivated extravagance before me.

Perhaps this was how Jane Austen felt in going from her own cottage to Chawton House where her brother Edward was adopted into wealth.  Austen understood how house and landscape represented societal separations — she could be only a spectator like Elizabeth, like our traveling tour group, there to observe like museum-goers.

Our tour guide, Eileen McAllister, reminded me of Mrs. Reynolds at Pemberley, defined by Austen as “a respectable-looking elderly woman, much less fine, and more civil, than she had any notion of finding her”, in that she was also quite exuberant about the estate’s history and legacy (237).
My time spent touring places like Pemberley, and other grand estates like Castle Howard, have given me experiences that shape how I read Austen’s novels.  I now have context for the heroine’s situation of being a visitor, playing the role of examination and artistic approval.  I have felt the sensations of awe and amazement in the gardens, in the decor that “was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendor, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings” (237).

The estate brought delight and also a frame of reference connecting me to Austen’s protagonists.  The parallel, however, falls through when I consider that, unlike Elizabeth, I shall not find my Mr. Darcy strolling towards me through the garden.  I will not be mistress here.  Instead, I will remain an outsider, a spectator, welcome as a visitor to gaze upon a place that still represents deeply rooted cultural values that Austen memorialized in her writing.  


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