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Ideal Homes

In chapters XLII and XLIII of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, is on a sightseeing tour of Derbyshire with her uncle and aunt Gardiner, sensible people both who provide something of a contrast with Elizabeth’s own rather negligent parents. She is in need of a holiday and enjoys the Gardiners’ company. Nevertheless she is somewhat distressed by the proposal that they should all go and see the grand house at Pemberley, it being “not in their direct road; nor more than a mile or two out of it”. Pemberley is of course the home of Mr Darcy, whose proposal of marriage Elizabeth has not so long ago turned down but whose character and merits have in the meantime experienced something of a recovery in her estimation.

Elizabeth was distressed. She felt that she had no business at Pemberley, and was obliged to assume a disinclination for seeing it. She must own that she was tired of great houses; after going over so many, she really had no pleasure in fine carpets or satin curtains.
Mrs Gardiner abused her stupidity. ‘If it were merely a fine house richly furnished’, said she, ‘I should not care about it myself; but the grounds are delightful. They have some of the finest woods in the country.’

So Elizabeth is overruled and it is with feelings sharply climbing from “some perturbation” to “a high flutter” (in the space of a sentence) that she approaches Pemberley demesne in the Gardiner carriage. Elizabeth Bennet is, however, a sensible woman, and as she nears the house itself, the sight of such a fine edifice in such a beautiful and imposing setting, together no doubt with a growing realisation that prejudice has induced her to do less than justice to a man who is not merely decent but immensely rich, lead her to look on her prospect – and perhaps her prospects – with new eyes.

It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; ‑ and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste ... at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

Shortly before Austen began writing the book that was in a later version to become Pride and Prejudice she had received some romantic attention from a young Irishman called Tom Lefroy. Nothing was to come of the affair – there was no money in it – but it seems that both parties were at the time smitten enough. Jane wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in January 1796 (she had just turned twenty):

You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost ashamed to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the last three balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is afraid of coming to Steventon [Austen’s home village], and ran away when we called on Mrs Leffroy [an aunt].

Some have speculated that the figures of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice are based on Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy, but if Elizabeth Bennet has at least some of Austen’s antic wit, Darcy would seem to be both better set up and more of a stuffed shirt than Lefroy. In the novel of course Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance was to get back on track and she was indeed to become mistress of Pemberley. Had Jane and Tom’s similarly prospered Austen might have ended up as mistress of Carriglas (or Carrigglas) Manor in Co Longford, an early nineteenth century Tudor revival mansion (now unoccupied and at risk of dereliction) that is briefly mentioned in Patricia McCarthy’s Life in the Country House in Georgian Ireland, published this week by Yale University Press. (Lefroy was to have a very successful career in the law in Ireland - he eventually became chief justice - and to be a determined opponent of Catholic Emancipation: perhaps a Huguenot ancestral memory of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre came into play.)

McCarthy’s book is a handsome and scholarly one with many fine illustrations of the interiors of the country houses of the Irish ascendancy. Personally, I feel a little like Elizabeth Bennet afraid of running into Darcy and must admit to deriving little pleasure on the whole from fine carpets or satin curtains. Many of the drawing and dining rooms photographed in Life in the Country House are in the somewhat overblown style Dubliners know as “whore’s handbag”. Some of the quieter, more restrained, more classical examples of decoration are perhaps a different matter. And yes, I think Bellamont Forest in Co Cavan, a modest Palladian villa on a thousand-acre site though much of it "under lake", would do very well.

A good deal of the fun of reading Jane Austen, and even more so perhaps of watching television adaptations of her novels, seems to stem from the beautifully escapist pleasure one can derive from the gorgeousness of Georgian-period dress, furnishing, decoration, architecture, horticulture, manners and formal patterns of speech. Ah, the life we would have led had we lived back then! I always think, however, that if one wants to know how one would have lived back then one should think of how one’s ancestors probably lived. And in that spirit I turned to Patricia McCarthy’s final chapter, “Servants and Privacy”.

Irish big houses were in the habit of keeping a substantial retinue of servants, often more than were strictly required. Samuel Madden wrote in 1738 that

... we keep many of them in our houses, as we do plate on our sideboards, more for show than use, and rather to let people see that we have them than that we have any occasion for them.

On many occasions the servants could not be guaranteed a bedroom, however small, or space in a dormitory, or even a proper bed, making do with a straw pallet on a floor somewhere in the kitchens or other working rooms so that they might be quickly called upon should they be suddenly required. Wages were low, of course, and indeed often went unpaid for long periods. On the other hand there was food, and the benefit of cast-off clothes, which could be worn, or if of greater value sold on. Even those much higher up the social scale would engage in such practices. Mrs Clotworthy Upton of Co Antrim, later to become Lady Templeton, made a decent amount of money selling off gifts, including three pairs of stays, received from her former employer Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. Another source of income was gratuities received from visitors to one’s employer’s house, known as “vails”. But many in landowning circles believed this custom to be an intolerable abuse by the lower classes and there was great pressure to abolish it.

Employers’ preferences in the early part of the eighteenth century, McCarthy writes, were in general for Protestant (and if possible English) servants. Slovenliness and dirt were the normal complaints about the Catholic Irish, though in the years after 1798 there may also have been a concern about loyalty. Nevertheless, there was of course a greater supply of Catholics in the market and eventually employers, while “uneasy about entrusting the impressionable young to those of another confession, resigned themselves to being served by Catholics”.

Employers, it must be said, were not without concern for the welfare of their servants - some were kind enough - and at least one, Sir Charles Domville of Santry Court, in the 1850s expected every man working for him to have a bath once a week. One wonders, McCarthy adds, if Sir William Ponsonby Barker, in the 1830s, had been equally concerned for his servants’ cleanliness he would have had an easier night’s sleep:

After evening prayers this aged evangelical, apparently inspired by the biblical example of King David, was in the habit of selecting one of his maids to be a human hot water bottle in his bed. One night the odour from his chosen one was so strong that he got out of bed and grappled in the dark to find some eau de cologne to sprinkle over her, only to find the next morning that he had covered her with ink.

Oh well. No harm done really, I suppose. Life in the Country House in Georgian Ireland is published by Yale University Press at £45.