Alexandra Lange | Essays

Jane Austen, Architect?

Pride & Prejudice (2005) dir. Joe Wright (via Design*Sponge, "Living In: Pride and Prejudice")

Yesterday Twitter told me that Persuasion was the best of Jane Austen's novels. This made me pause. Did I agree? Pride and Prejudice is my favorite, the one I re-read every year, the one quoted on my marriage certificate, the one I borrowed the VHS tapes of the BBC miniseries of and never returned. Couldn't Elizabeth Bennet be an architecture critic? But yes, I thought, Persuasion is the best. It is sad. One has to consider whether one has also lost one's bloom. But it has lovely people in it, and the climax is a scene of such suppressed tension it is a wonder one can recover in time for the happy ending.

That doesn't count as a spoiler, does it?

I had been thinking about Austen again lately because she turned up on the lists of several designers I admire on Designers & Books. Whenever I peruse the site I am always making up my own book list in my head, and P&P was definitely on it. But why do designers like Austen? Michael Sorkin calls it "precise" and that is definitely part of it. You don't feel as if she had a messy dressing table, and probably never left a pen unwiped.

So I started to make a list.

1. Architecture plays a part. Literary critics are always talking about money in Austen, but real estate is just as important. In Persuasion Anne Elliot is in Bath, and not at home in the country like a proper baronet's daughter because the baronet has run out of funds. Emma always gets into trouble when she leaves her own house. Is a cottage romantic or a last resort? Ten thousand a year is nice, but an estate is definitely better.

In P&P there is the famous and much-debated remark of Elizabeth's. Her beautiful/dull sister Jane asks her what caused her change of feeling about Mr. Darcy. And she says: "But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley."

In the BBC P&P Jennifer Ehle delivers this line with the perfect rosebud smirk.

2. Rooms = ritual. No one ever says what they mean in Austen because they are never alone. They move from room to room throughout the day, doing the task that is performed in that room every day. In Bath, one is expecting Anne to feel more free, but she finds that Bath is just a series of outdoor rooms, in which people perform a different set of tasks: taking the waters, attending a concert, giving a reception. Like the symmetrical, proscribed dances that always feature prominently in Austen films, if one isn't thinking one could just be led around by the buildings all the time.

It is heretical to say you liked anything about Joe Wright's P&P with Keira Knightley, but I thought his frontal camera work was intended to suggest that all the human interactions had set steps. He sets all the emotional scenes outdoors, where the walls aren't pushing the characters around.

3. The precision thing. Austen is like a puppeteer. Or an art director. The recent kerfuffle about the unsatisfying ending to The Killing revealed an important truth about keeping your audience happy: they want to know that you know where you are going. There is never a question with Austen that each scene is there for a reason, each character is going to play their part, and that the novel will finally be finished. Maybe that makes it a little schematic, but so is architecture.

Now that I have written this out, I should choose something else for my hypothetical list, and I have just the thing. Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country. Our heroine really does marry for the house.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media, Social Good

Comments [6]

Totally agree on Custom of the Country, because I haven't read any other book that so clearly lays out the social geography of 19th century New York. Everyone has their place in that city, and that place is so beautifully described!

I love Joe Wright's P&P deeply and ardently. I adore it. Call me heretical, but that's how I feel. I never liked Firth as Darcy. Don't know why.

I also disagree that Wright set all the emotional scenes outdoors. Not so. Examples:

Lady Catherine comes to visit Elizabeth in the dark of night. Very emotional scene.

Darcy calls on Elizabeth when she is staying with the Collinses. The room is small, tight. Very emotional as well.

When Mr. Bingley proposes to Jane. Indoors.

When Elizabeth receives her letter from home about Lydia and sobs uncontrollably. Also indoors.


I knew this might turn into a game of Austen gotcha, since Janeites are nothing if not precise themselves. On Twitter @smallspace quickly reminded me of the ha-ha in Mansfield Park, which is filled with discussions of how best to improve a property straight out of Repton, and @amlblog also made the link to landscape architecture. Maybe that should be another post.

In terms of the Joe Wright film (and while I love Colin Firth, I can also see the points of Matthew Macfadyen, especially having seen him in other costume drama faves like Little Dorrit. Back in my Tumblr archives, there is a lot on BBC miniseries) I should probably refine my statement. Most of Elizabeth's positive emotional scenes are outdoors. The examples you cite are all, I would argue, of thwarted emotion for one party or the other. The walls close in on Elizabeth's prospects when she gets the letter, when Lady Catherine visits, etc.

Setting the Lady Catherine scene in the dark of night never worked for me anyway. In the book, it is another example for Jane Austen, landscape architect, in that it occurs in a "prettyish little wilderness" next to the Bennet house, a setting that points up the difference between an estate and a gentleman's entailed house.

Please keep the comments and corrections coming. It is great to hear from the other architecture/Austen true believers.
Alexandra Lange

In the books there is little description of the houses or the landscape; an exception is a description of Elizabeth's walk with her aunt and uncle through woods. The space of the first ball is an "assembly room." On Rosings Jane Austen writes, "Every park has its beauty and its prospects: and Elizabeth saw much to be pleased with"... . On Elizabeth's first diner at Rosings Austen writes as follows: "The dinner was exceedingly handsome, and there were all the servants, and all articles of plate that Mr. Collins had promised." Even the descriptions of Pemberly are lacking in detail.

If we have images of the houses and towns in Jane Austen's novels, it is because the films have given specificity to the places and spaces. Her readers must fill in the blanks about exteriors and interiors of the place s where her characters lived unless they have seen the films. Then they must choose which film setting pleases them the most.
Barbara Michel

i would argue (responding to the last comment) that austen's work is architectural (at various scales, inside and outside, building and landscape and neighborhood and city) not because she describes spaces, but because she describes the characters moving through them. the walk in the park with her aunt and uncle is the famous example, of course, but there's also the short walk interrupted by darcy where she runs away from the 'picturesque group,' in persuasion (of course the best austen!) the movement of the characters through lyme, or anne looking at lady russell missing captain wentworth to look for curtains instead when they ride through bath (obviously i'm betraying my extreme austen geekdom).

there are also reactions to the landscape, such as marianne's attachment to norwood (she's a romantic at heart, as in 19th century german romanticism), and the discussions in mansfield park over architectural renovations. there's continuous attention to the role of the land owner (paternalistic, yes, but always going back and forth between architecture and body to evaluate personalities--knightley and darcy are examples of this).

lots more! i'm going to stop there but i'll add one very girly comment: of course the ideal p&p would have been knightly and firth, duh!

I am the joint founder and editor of 'The Journal of Architecture'. I believe that Alexandra Lange and readers might be interested in 'Creating space out of text: perspectives on domestic Regency architecture or Three essays on the picturesque' by Isabel Allen published in Volume 2, Number 1, Spring 1997 and republished in an antholgy of articles, 'Narrating Architecure' by Routledge, 2006. It was an ingenious illustrated essay using Jane Austen's works to devlop three themes in parallel: the relationship between picturesque landscape and political agenda; the dual role of women; the picturesque construction of 'Englishness'. You can find it on the web by looking up 'The Journal of Architecture', then 'Online contents', then 'Volume 2'!
Peter Gibbs-Kennet

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