Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Question for Austen Folks

Since I'm here at "The Abbey," I've become way more aware of what a huge load of work managing a great house might be, and how someone would surround himself with stuff he loved at such a house, and how far it would be by carriage to somewhere else, and so on.

And it's gotten me wondering: I seem to recall that Bingley's pretty rich, and has a house of his own (doesn't the end of the novel make the point that the Bingley's won't be too near the Bennet home?). So why is he renting the house in the novel?


  1. Bingley doesn't have an estate of his own - his fortune was made by his father in trade, so there's no family home. Bingley is on the hunt for an estate when the novel opens, which is why he's trying out Netherfield. Naturally, he and Jane ultimately decide that Netherfield is far too close to the Bennets, so they end up purchasing their estate far, far away.

  2. You should totally watch this cute series (if you have youtube access) about what people ate at different time periods (called The Supersizers) to see how much work keeping up a country house was. I don't have good stuff on the amount of time it takes to commute by carriage, but this has a lot of nice little touches to get students thinking about everyday life.

  3. The BBC series Manor House (I think it was) was very instructive on this point: a bunch of the "servants" quit because it was so much work.

  4. Here is an excerpt from Chapter IV that explains it: "Mr. Bingley inherited property to the amount of nearly an hundred thousand pounds from his father, who had intended to purchase an estate, but did not live to do it. -- Mr. Bingley intended it likewise, and sometimes made choice of his county; but as he was now provided with a good house and the liberty of a manor, it was doubtful to many of those who best knew the easiness of his temper, whether he might not spend the remainder of his days at Netherfield, and leave the next generation to purchase.

    His sisters were very anxious for his having an estate of his own; but though he was now established only as a tenant, Miss Bingley was by no means unwilling to preside at his table, nor was Mrs. Hurst, who had married a man of more fashion than fortune, less disposed to consider his house as her home when it suited her. Mr. Bingley had not been of age two years, when he was tempted by an accidental recommendation to look at Netherfield House. He did look at it and into it for half an hour, was pleased with the situation and the principal rooms, satisfied with what the owner said in its praise, and took it immediately."

  5. Thanks, all! I'd forgotten that bit, alas.

    Sisyphus, I am SO in trouble! I started watching that show... first the regency then the medieval. I finally quit at midnight! And now I'm tired today, and it's ALL YOUR FAULT! :)

    What a fun show!

  6. Rich people in that era were limited. Our rich men (if you'll excuse the possessive) have a myriad of ways to spend: "We need to relax. Why don't we fly down to the Caribbean, rent a boat and go fishing for the weekend?" Such expenditures were not only unavailable to Bingley or Darcy (or their real life counterparts), they were unimaginable.

    There's only so much you can eat (though judging from Gilray's cartoons, some people pushed it). There's only so much you can drink. You can only ride one horse (or in one carriage) at a time.

    But the great house, stuffed with enviable objects, staffed with an army of servants (with another army of gardeners to keep the park looking natural), will absorb any amount of money you throw at it (and in a pleasingly conspicuous way).

    The great house comes to an end in the 1920s partly as a result of The Servant Problem but partly because there are by then better (or at least different) ways to spend money. Those who inherited a house felt the need to keep it up (if nothing else it demonstrated their ancestry) but only eccentrics bought one. Once the National Trust comes along, it's deluged with houses people want to get rid of.