Finding Pemberley: We Are But VisitorsTuesday, 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.
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).