Surely Jane Austen lived a life of carriage rides, tea parties and balls in grand country houses? Like Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice, or Mansfield Park? That’s the impression you often get from the feature films and television adaptations of her novels, which are always feasts of glorious Georgian property porn.
In real life, though, Jane Austen wasn’t born at quite at the right level in society to feel at home in country houses. When she did spend time in the magnificent mansions of her friends or extended family, it was always as a visitor.
But Jane’s status as the poor relation was in fact a gift. It gave her the detachment to turn life in Georgian high society into biting satire in her books.
So where did the inspiration come from?
The real Pemberley
Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire
Who could forget Colin Firth emerging from the lake in his clinging wet shirt in the 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice? As snooty aristocrat Mr Darcy, he’d been cooling his hot blood in the grounds of his enormous country estate, Pemberley.
The nation whooped when he married the witty but impoverished Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle), who ended up as Pemberley’s mistress. In real life, the most splendid house that Jane Austen ever stayed in was Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, owned by her uncle, Reverend Thomas Leigh.
Austen paid a visit of several weeks in 1805. At 29, she was into what she called “the years of danger” for a spinster, who’d now be at risk of being left “on the shelf”. Austen was shown round Stoneleigh by the housekeeper, just like Lizzy Bennet is on her first visit to Mr Darcy’s pad.
During her stay, Austen also had a flirtation with a fellow guest, a highly eligible Member of Parliament with a “large estate”. But although he became her “great admirer”, the relationship fizzled out.
The inheritance of Stoneleigh itself caused a huge dispute among Austen’s mother’s family, the Leighs. Today it’s mainly private flats, but anyone can buy a ticket in order to enjoy a tour of the state rooms.
The real Mansfield Park
Godmersham Park, Kent
Billie Piper starred in the 2007 ITV film of Mansfield Park as Fanny Price. In Austen’s story, Fanny, a poor relation, gets adopted by her wealthy aunt and uncle, and goes to live with them in their grand but unwelcoming mansion.
One of Austen’s brothers was likewise adopted by rich relations, which catapulted him out of the family of a country clergyman, and into the landed gentry far above. Austen would often go to stay with her brother Edward in his new home, the magnificent Godmersham Park in Kent. She paid visits throughout her life, and they remained close.
Austen particularly liked her niece, Edward’s oldest daughter, another Fanny. But there are hints that she felt out of place at Godmersham Park. A travelling hairdresser who came to the house, for example, would charge Austen only half-price for a cut, because of her “poverty”.
In return, members of the Godmersham family described Austen as “very much below par as to good society & its ways”, and the house itself, like Mansfield Park, is built in the Palladian style of architecture: restrained, beautiful, but cold. Today Godmersham is a training college for opticians.
The real Longbourn
Steventon Rectory, Hampshire
Jane Austen grew up as one of eight children at Steventon Rectory, Hampshire. It was a home with a lot in common with Longbourn, the residence of Mr and Mrs Bennet and their five daughters in Pride and Prejudice. The house was demolished after Austen’s death, but has recently been excavated and virtually reconstructed by a team of archaeologists.
She shared a room with her trusted older sister, just like Keira Knightley and Rosamund Pike do as the Bennet sisters in the 2005 feature film of Pride and Prejudice directed by Joe Wright. They were each other’s closest friend and confidante, and often gossiped into the small hours.
Because her father had so many children, and because, like Mr Bennett, he had no land or capital to bequeath them, Austen – like Lizzy Bennet – knew how difficult it was to be launched upon the marriage market without any dowry to speak of.
In fact, I think that Austen’s novels are not so much about finding the right man as finding a future home. How unfair it was, she was saying through her fiction, that Georgian women were put into this position, where they felt they had to marry money.
This was the hidden message behind each of her great novels, and you can decode it all the better by knowing the real story of where Jane Austen lived.