Emma and the Country House


Thorncroft, the house of Henry Crabb Bolton in Leatherhead, Surrey, which Nicholas Ennos suggests as an inspiration for Hartfield.

A quick little essay for my tutorial on the literature of the English country house (and particularly the “dying generation” of the English country house) situating Emma in the tradition and exploring the expectations which it establishes for the role of the country house in literature (for though Emma is not the first novel of the English country house tradition, it is one of the earliest and most important).

The vast majority of the action in Emma takes place indoors. With the exception of the Box Hill outing, the viewing of Donwell’s gardens, and a few conversations held in the street, Emma is a novel which unfolds in the comfort of the various homes of Highbury, especially in their drawing rooms, and in the drawing rooms of two houses in particular: Hartfield and Randalls. Thus, it is not perhaps surprising that in the novel, people are characterized by the spaces which they inhabit or which they call home. Thus, Mr. Woodhouse is identified with the roaring fire of Hartfield and Mr. Knightley with his well-run estate of Donwell; Mrs. Elton and her constant-talk of Maple Grove identifies her to us as vulgar and a social climber; that the Martins have two parlours serves to characterize their family situation;  Mrs. Churchill and the grand house of Enscombe are never mentioned apart; and even Mrs. Goddard—whom we never meet—is defined by her “neat parlour hung round with fancy-work” (53). The line between person and place is thin in Emma, for not only are people identified with their houses and locales, but houses and locales are spoken of as people, as if they themselves are characters. “Enscombe however was gracious” (262) we are told of the Churchill’s reaction to Frank’s proposal to stay a day longer in Highbury for the ball: the house stands in metonymically for the Churchill family—they are one and the same. Thus one can expect the country house to become itself a character—in Emma, Hartfield is just on the brink of characterhood, perhaps only lacking it because it is so perfectly identified with its master and mistress. 

Nevertheless, in Emma, places possess people just as much as people possess places. Jane Fairfax is said to “belong” to Highbury (177) and Frank Churchill is one of its “boasts,” even before he has ever been there. Though no one is ever said to belong to Hartfield or Randalls or any other house, there is a similar sense of possession. When Miss Taylor becomes Mrs. Weston and leaves Hartfield for Randalls, Mr. Woodhouse mourns her loss, though she has merely moved down the road. She no longer belongs to Hartfield, but to Randalls, and her leaving has disrupted the stasis which the Woodhouses seek to perpetuate at Hartfield. Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondria highlights the Woodhousian fear of change and allegiance to place. He does not understand the need to leave one’s own house—scarcely even one’s own few rooms (a sensibility he shares with the Knightley brothers to varying degrees: John cannot understand Mr. Weston’s joining the party at Hartfield late after a day of traveling and Mr. Knightley professes a preference for staying at home and doing the accounts in comfort over going out to dance). The country house for him is both literal haven from the cold of the outside world (see his obsessive fear of draughts and views on the snow and rain) and from the outside world that is the world outside of Hartfield and Highbury—the world represented by London (only 16 miles away) and the sort of people who go to the sea. Inside Hartfield, he has his own world which he seeks to keep constant, even to the extent of eating gruel for every meal.

Thus in Emma, the country house is a symbol of constancy, of stasis, apart from the world and from time. Emma, like her father, resists change to the extent that at the end of the novel, the marriage she makes serves not to change her life or her ways but to reaffirm them.  She begins the novel with “none of the usual inducements to marry” for she is already mistress of Hartfield, having everything as she desires it to be (109) and thus she does not worry too much about the future—she is comfortable in her stability and sees no reason to cast her thoughts forward—however, when her status quo is threatened by the possibility that Mr. Knightley might marry Jane Fairfax, Emma thinks first (and, she later admits to herself, not entirely truthfully) of her nephew Henry: “Mr. Knightley must not marry! — You would not have little Henry cut out from Donwell?” (232). Though we and she later learn that this fear for Henry is not the true source of her horror at the idea of Jane and Mr. Knightley’s marrying, the fear itself expresses an aspect of the role of the country houses of the novel which underlies much of the plot. It is true that were Jane Fairfax to marry Mr. Knightley, she would become a Knightley, but to Emma she is nevertheless a stranger, from outside the family. The Knightleys and the Woodhouses have been friends since long before our heroine’s birth—the proximity of their estates launching the union that Isabella and John’s marriage cements. To Emma, Mr. Knightly is already her brother, because he is the brother-in-law of her sister. Jane Fairfax, though she may belong to Highbury, does not belong to Donwell Abbey—and, by extension, to Hartfield. For Emma, the country house—her house and Mr. Knightley’s—represents a continuity of both familial and local history. It is unimaginable to her that someone other than the family (that is the Woodhouse-Knightley clan) could inhabit Donwell or Hartfield. The houses have seen generations of both families and should, naturally, go on to see the generations to come—generations just like those that came before. In marrying Mr. Knightley, Emma guarantees that the two estates will remain within the family, strengthening the connection between the two families already made by John and Isabella’s marriage. Hartfield and Donwell will not change. Emma herself need not and will not change—she goes nowhere, even to the extent that Mr. Knightley will take Hartfield as his place of residence as the novel closes. For Emma, Hartfield (and the extension of Donwell, which becomes one and the same with their marriage) is not only stability, but stasis. The country house is a symbol of an ideal life, apart from the ravages of time and the outside world. It turns inward on itself, becoming its own little world.

This world is not simply any world, though, but a quintessentially English one. Austen makes this quite clear in describing Donwell Abbey, which presented  “a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive” (355). “English” meaning a very particular idea of England: a local England, organized in units of Highburys, in which there is here and then there is elsewhere, where men are gentlemanly and ladies ladylike, where visits are paid, hospitality given, lands taken care of by conscientious landlords, and pastoral walks are taken.

Already in Jane Austen in 1815, in the fondness with which the characters treat Hartfield, Donwell, and Randalls, there is a note of wistful idealism which seems to prefigure the nostalgia of the likes of Brideshead Revisited. Though Emma, Mr. Knightley, and Mr. Woodhouse get their happily-ever-after at Hartfield, there are peripheral characters in Emma who have left the world of the country house for a world that, by comparison, feels more real simply in that it is subject to the machinations of time. Whenever John and Isabella return to Hartfield from the world of Brunswick Square, the scene that greets them every time is essentially the same; even with the marriage of Mr. Knightley and Emma, nothing really will have changed. What we see in Hartfield, I would expect to grow into an idea of the English country house as a witness to time and history, a symbol of a certain kind of Englishness (whether one thought to be dying out or thriving) and attitude towards the world, and a setting capable of becoming a character in its own right, not simply through its association with its inhabitants.


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