Gentle Readers: Today I welcome Chris Sandrawich, from the Midlands Branch of the Jane Austen Society. This is based on a talk he gave at Stoneleigh Abbey in 2014, and the essay has just recently been published in the Midlands annual publication Transactions. There are really three separate topics to his talk so I will be posting it in three parts over the next few days. And it is all about Mansfield Park! If you have any comments or questions for Chris, please do leave a reply and he will get back to you.
Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Stoneleigh Abbey
by Chris Sandrawich
Outline: This article is based around a short presentation I gave at Stoneleigh Abbey in 2014. Mansfield Park is by common consent amongst the world’s leading literary academics one of the greatest novels ever written. Just like Emma and Persuasion, Mansfield Park was written in Jane Austen’s maturity around 1813 and published 200 years ago when Jane was 38 years old. She published it on commission rather than for a fee and it sold out in six months raising £330. So, she made rather more with this book than the others. Possibly £300,000 in today’s values, but I will say more about the comparative values of money later.
As a callow youth I found Fanny Price to be an insipid, weak character who compared badly in my youthful eyes with the feisty and far sexier Elizabeth Bennet, (who is everything to me that Darcy is to many women) and so Mansfield Park was not my favourite novel. However, with the years I have discovered that Fanny Price is every bit as immovably tough as Lady Catherine de Bourgh found Lizzy Bennet to be. Both leading ladies display fierce determination and firm convictions when they think they are right. Also, it is important to note that Mary Crawford is every bit as sexy and attractive as Elizabeth Bennet and so Jane Austen by setting Mary and Fanny in undeclared competition for Edmund is showing that the real heroine of the novel to win true love does not have to be the most glamorous person in it. Fanny Price has grown on me, and liking Fanny is the key to liking the novel which is still ranked very low in most Janeites’ favourites’ list.
“Fanny Price” is also the name given to the heroine in the Parish Register by George Crabbe (above) published in 1807. Fanny in Crabbe’s poem resists the sexual advances of an amorous knight by remaining “meekly firm”, and it seems too similar in its basic plot for Jane Austen’s choice of name for her heroine not to have been deliberate.
I could write a book on the ideas and topics emerging from this great work and so regretfully many interesting aspects, to be found in the novel are omitted from this paper. With regret this includes Lovers’ Vows, but I will discuss in detail:
- Links with both Stoneleigh Abbey and Cottesbrook Hall in Northamptonshire
- Jane Austen’s fascination with money and inheritance in her novels, and Stoneleigh Abbey’s importance in this
- Consider the influence of Shakespeare directly and indirectly on the novel’s plot and structure
- Look at one of Mansfield Park’s characters and touch on a few of the others
Here are a few preliminary points about Mansfield Park to get a context for this great work:
- The novel covers the greatest period in years of any of Jane Austen’s six novels as it begins when Fanny is only nine years old and we see her develop and eventually marry her cousin Edmund in her late teens or early twenties. As Jane Austen says, “I purposely abstain from dates . . . . . . .” and so she allows us to have our own ideas on how long it takes exactly for Edmund to get over the scintillating, beautiful, and all-too-charming Mary Crawford.
- By naming the novel Mansfield Park and by giving the owner of it an interest in the slave trade and by making the
building modern and therefore likely to have been built from the profits of slavery (about one pound in every three of the UK economy of that period was reckoned to arise from the slave trade) is Jane Austen drawing a reference to the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield? Lord Mansfield made a significant contribution to the abolition of the slave trade by his famous ruling on the runaway slave James Somerset; that no man living on English soil could be a slave. Paula Byrne has written a biography on Mansfield’s adopted daughter Dido Elizabeth Belle adapted for a film, and has an article on Mansfield Park in a July 2014’s Daily Telegraph. Certainly there are lots of parallels to be drawn in the raising of Dido Belle and Fanny Price, both taken from their families, adopted and raised in a mansion but with doubtful status: are they servant or lady?
- The influences of the country and cities on forming character and shaping behaviour are well drawn. The fateful tainting of the Crawfords’ morals arising from living with the Admiral in Hill Street and by adopting values of their rich set of friends in London mean that in the end they lose their chances of marrying Edmund and Fanny.
- Especially in “Fanny’s nest of comforts” but in many other ways the transfer of the possession of things highlight how material objects can be viewed and valued very differently by different people.
Despite Sir Thomas and Fanny being against the acting of plays at home, these opinions are not meant to reflect Jane Austen’s views of the theatre. Whilst Jane Austen was negotiating the publication of this novel and staying with her brother Henry in London her letters show she was constantly at the theatre. She loved seeing all sorts of live performance and plays and she followed the star performers’ lives with a keen interest. Also the whole Austen family engaged in the production of stage plays at home in their barn at Steventon, with a juvenile Jane Austen turning the weighty novel Sir Charles Grandison into a crisp five act play. In 1787 (Jane was only 11 years old) the Austens were joined by their exotic cousin Eliza de Feuillide, a French Countess, and both James and Henry were rivals for Eliza’s affections and Henry married her some ten years later. It seems too good an association of ideas not to conjecture that the flirtations Jane must have witnessed at close hand reappear in Henry Crawford’s behaviour with both Julia and Maria in Mansfield Park and Lovers Vows. Two centuries ago, most writers wrote plays and everyone was familiar with the theatre, and the revealing of character through dialogue – which is so brilliantly displayed in Jane Austen’s novels – owes much to her understanding of how plays are constructed as well as performed.
Links with Stoneleigh Abbey, Cottesbrook Hall (Northamptonshire) and Inheritance
Stoneleigh Abbey, the home of the Leigh Family, has direct links to two of Jane Austen’s novels and indirect links to them all. The physical appearance of the Abbey has reverberating echoes for Northanger Abbey. Stoneleigh Abbey was maintained and added to over time by the wealth of the Leigh family and has an odd mix of styles: it has an Elizabethan East Wing, an 18 th Century West Wing and a 14th Century Gate House. Its rooms are altogether lighter and more colourful than one might expect – and one can easily imagine Catherine Morland having to swallow her disappointment at the shortage of Gothic Horrors. Just how far we can go to claiming that Stoneleigh Abbey as the model for Northanger Abbey is aided by the existence of a now concealed staircase leading from the stable yard that might have been the model for Henry Tilney to ascend and surprise Catherine when she was seeking Mrs Tilney’s bedroom. What is more credible, however, is the chapel at Stoneleigh Abbey being the model for the chapel at Sotherton Court in Mansfield Park. From the vantage point of the chapel balcony one sees, “the profusion of mahogany and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family balcony above” and as Fanny Price noted, “no aisles, no inscription, no banners.”
Mr Rushworth is keen to improve his home using Humphrey Repton, the only developer cited by name in any of the novels. Repton was employed at Stoneleigh Abbey in 1808, and he foreshadowed nineteenth century developments, creating a perfect cricket pitch called ‘home lawn’ in front of the west wing and a bowling green lawn between the gatehouse and the house. Repton worked on over 60 great and small houses in England. It is not right to think Jane Austen was not interested in sports. The earliest mention of “Baseball” appears in Northanger Abbey.
Jane Austen came to Stoneleigh Abbey in 1806 with her sister and Mother (who was related to the Leigh family as was the Reverend Edward Cooper, at Hamstall Ridware, who gained two livings from the Leigh family. Edward and Jane were cousins because their mothers were sisters and granddaughters of Theophilus Leigh of Adlestrop.) The Austens had been staying with The Reverend Thomas Leigh (Mrs Austen’s cousin) in Adlestrop and upon hearing of the death of their relative The Honorable Mary Leigh travelled for a family gathering at Stoneleigh Abbey. Later they travelled further north to stay with the Coopers. Jane Austen stayed for some time in Stoneleigh Abbey, admired the rooms and views from their windows and strolled through the grounds.
We can get an understanding of just what the Austen’s thought of and did at Stoneleigh Abbey by looking at two letters from Mrs Austen. The first is a description of the house:
There are 45 windows in front (which is quite strait with a flat roof) 15 in a row. You go up a considerable flight of stairs (some offices are under the house) into a large hall: on the right hand the dining parlour, within [ie beyond] that the breakfast room, where we generally sit, and reason good ‘tis the only room (except the chapel) that looks towards the river. On the left hand of the hall is the best drawing room, within that a smaller. These rooms are rather gloomy brown wainscoat and dark crimson furniture; so we never use them but to walk thro’ them to the old picture gallery. Behind the smaller drawing room is the state bed chamber, with a high dark crimson velvet bed: an alarming apartment just fit for a heroine; the old gallery opens into it; behind the hall and parlours is a passage all across the house containing three staircases and two small back parlours, There are 25 bed chambers in the new part of the house & a great many (some say good ones) in the old. There is another gallery fitted with modern prints on buff paper & a large billiard-room.
The second a description of what she had for breakfast: “Chocolate, Coffee and Tea, Plumb Cake, Pound Cake, Hot Rolls, Cold Rolls, Bread and Butter and Dry Toast.”
Now if like me you scratch your head at the mention of a Pound Cake here is a description of how to bake one by the Austen’s friend, Martha Lloyd:
Take a lb of fine flour well dried. Then take a lb of butter and work it well with your hands till it is soft. Then work into it half a lb of sugar. Then take twelve eggs, putting away half the whites, then work them also into your butter and sugar. Then strew your flour into your butter, sugar and eggs, by little and little, till all be in, then strew in 2 oz of caraway seeds. Butter your pan and bake it in a quick oven, – an hour and a half will bake it.
“You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.” [Jane at Godmersham to Cassandra in Southampton, 15th June 1808.] From this we see an interest in “cakes” shared by many in the Austen family.
Now Jane would have been familiar with Stoneleigh Abbey, by name, from a very young age as well as the complicated Leigh family and its connections. Preferment and the importance of kinship would have been known to Jane Austen as both her elder brothers James and Henry received educations at St John’s College Oxford as they were “Founder’s Kin.” Jane would have been introduced over time to the importance of inheritance on the lives of families. Her novels are full of it. Let’s take the first two for example. In Pride and Prejudice the Bennet estate is entailed away from the daughters to “heirs male”, favouring Mr Collins, to Mrs Bennet’s eternal bafflement. As a reaction to this entail, her constant drive is to see all the Bennet ladies married well. Sense and Sensibility begins with a death and the disinheritance from their home of a man’s second wife and three daughters in favour of the eldest son from his first marriage. In both examples the poor treatment of females, as well to a lesser extent of second sons, in this inheritance merry-go-around would seem quite deliberate, to highlight this issue.
The importance of money and livings on family life brought through kinship was a subject familiar to Jane Austen and even though her Mother’s and therefore her own chances of inheriting anything significant amongst the numerous Leighs was slight; the family living and invitations to visit relatives at great houses and to mix with the wealthy and connected in society gave Jane Austen a colourful and varied lifestyle. The view that she lived obscurely in a village and saw nobody but her immediate family is well wide of the mark. Jane Austen, largely through the Leigh family connection, but also through her brother Edward who inherited through adoption the Knight family income and had more money than “Darcy”, travelled and stayed away a great deal and met and mixed with many much wealthier than she was. Jane observed them all and later when writing her novels drew upon her wide experience and never lost sight of the importance of money.
An example of Jane using her own experiences in her novels is illustrated by having William Price with brotherly love buying an Amber Cross for Fanny. Jane’s own brother, Charles in the Royal Navy as part of his £50 prize money from the taking of a privateer bought Cassandra and Jane topaz crosses as well as suitable chains for them. Jane showed she was much taken with this handsome gesture of affection by working it into Mansfield Park. However, Jane then goes further by using William’s gift of an amber cross for Fanny as a plot device. William could not afford the chain as well only being a midshipman. We witness the machinations of Mary and Henry in trying to get Fanny to wear Henry’s chain for her new cross.
A Short Aside on Money:
Money has its importance in the novels but how are we to understand the value represented in Jane Austen’s day with our experience? Fifty pounds does not seem to be a great deal as a share for taking a “prize”. I offer you three means of making a comparison each as solid or unreliable as any other. Economists rule this area of expertise and we may recall what George Bernard Shaw said about them, “If all the economists in the world were laid end to end they still would not reach a conclusion.”
By looking at bundles of commodities over short time periods for 200 years we end up with a movement in the RPI of around 60 x and so the purchasing power in today’s terms of Charles’ £50 is £3,000. Alternatively, if we look at the movement in earnings over the last two centuries we can increase this value over 800 x and so Charles’ £50 becomes £40,000. As a piece of whimsy I offer you a “Beef Index” as well. Picking just one commodity is fraught with danger, of course. Louis Simond quotes in his excellent journal of a tour of the British Isles in 1810/11 that beef cost 9d (old money) a pound. Well there is beefsteak and beefsteak and quite a range of prices and qualities in today’s supermarkets. But uprating to the mid-values gives us 250 x and so Charles’ £50 is worth £12,500 in beef purchasing power. Of course different commodities give different results. Tea in Jane Austen’s time was kept under lock and key and at £1 a pound it was almost 30 times more expensive than beef and if it had maintained that price a pound of tea would cost well over £300 today. Supermarkets might like those prices but we don’t. If you are scratching your heads at these comparisons I refer you to George Bernard Shaw’s remark on economists and conclusions.
Almost all of what I have to say on Cottesbrooke Hall is gleaned from Julie Wakefield’s excellent AustenOnly website. Cottesbrooke Hall in Northamptonshire has its fans amongst the great and the good as the model for Mansfield Park. About the same time Jane Austen was composing Mansfield Park she wrote to her sister Cassandra and to her close friend Martha Lloyd asking for information about the landscape of Northamptonshire, even down to hedgerows. It is extremely unlikely that Jane Austen went into Northamptonshire but “she knew a man that did”, her brother Henry who was familiar with the house, the owners and the countryside round about. Henry knew the Sandford and Tilson families who were in turn related to the Langhams who owned the Hall. “Taking all this information into account, Sir Frank MacKinnon, the British High Court judge and Austen scholar, suggested that Cottesbrooke was indeed the inspiration for Mansfield. Dr R. W. Chapman, the Austen scholar supreme of the early 20 th-century, published this information in 1931 in the Times Literary Supplement and seemed to agree with Sir Frank’s assessment.”
From these remarks you would say that the role of Cottesbrooke Hall as a model for Mansfield Park seems fairly certain, but Mansfield Park is described in the novel as: A spacious modern-built house, but at the time Jane Austen was writing, Cottesbrooke Hall could not be described as modern, for it was originally built in 1702, some 111 years prior to the composition of Mansfield Park. So Mansfield Park is more likely to be an amalgam of fine gentlemen’s homes and country seats, Cottesbrooke Hall included, taken from life and descriptions readily available in tour guides and other sources.
Sources read as background or alluded to in this paper:
- George Crabbe – The Parish Register
- Paula Byrne – Biography of Dido Elizabeth Belle
- Austen Family letters.
- Transactions No’s 3 and 6 especially Nell Poucher “Jane Austen in the Midlands “
- Stoneleigh Abbey The House, It’s Owners, It’s Lands edited by Robert Bearman
- AustenOnly website maintained by Julie Wakefield
- Shakespeare’s Plays
- J K Rowling’s novels and website
- Jane Austen’s novels
Thank you Chris for your insights into Mansfield Park – I will be posting your thoughts on Shakespeare’s influence on this novel, and your take on Mrs. Norris! Readers, please stay tuned over the next few days – you may comment below with your own thoughts or questions and Chris will get back to you.