Why This Room is Special
Jane Austen (1813)
‘I have something in hand—which I hope on the credit of P.&P. will sell well, tho’ not half so entertaining’.
Pride and Prejudice (1813) is, in Austen’s own’s words, ‘light & bright & sparkling’. Her next novel Mansfield Park (1814) is much darker. Poor relation Fanny Price loves Mansfield Park and knows its workings intimately—but also sees its faults. Her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram has profited from slavery and neglected his children’s moral education.
Lord Willoughby de Broke bought Mansfield Park in the year it was published. Was he flattered by a possible allusion to his estate, landscaped by Capability Brown? In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram’s fiancé Mr Rushworth is so impressed by a friend’s estate that he sets about planning improvements to his own at Sotherton.
‘I wish you could see Compton,’ said he, ‘it is the most complete thing! I never saw a place so altered in my life. I told Smith I did not know where I was. The approach now is one of the finest things in the country. You see the house in the most surprising manner.’
In 1806, Austen had visited Warwickshire stately home Stoneleigh Abbey, which her mother’s cousin had just inherited. Did she drive past Compton Verney? Mansfield Park is in Northamptonshire, and the fictional Compton is in the ‘neighbouring county’, so it seems Austen did have Warwickshire in mind when planning her novel.
But Austen’s needling satire turned estate improvement into a metaphor for degeneracy. Under cover of helping Rushworth with his plans, the rake Henry Crawford begins an affair with Maria. Crawford’s sister Mary, meanwhile, is a coquette who cracks a racy joke about the ‘Rears and Vices’ she has seen in the home of their uncle, Admiral Crawford. The Admiral’s house is in Mayfair’s Hill Street—the very street where Lord Willoughby de Broke had his townhouse. He may have found Mansfield Park a little too close to home.