A Visit to the Sotherton Estate in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park ~ Guest Post by Tony Grant

Dear Gentle Readers: Continuing in my efforts to celebrate all things Mansfield Park through 2014, I welcome today Tony Grant, of London Calling fame, who writes on the visit to Sotherton, that all-important metaphor-filled dramatic scene in the novel where character is revealed, plot points are suggested, sides are taken, and where Fanny, in her usual state of aloneness, observes it all – Tony’s emphasis is on the concept of “improving” the estate.


A Visit to Sotherton Court

harlestone-jasaHarlestone House, Northamptonshire, which has some of the elements of Sotherton. From Jane Austen Town and Country Style by Susan Watkins (Thames & Hudson, 1990) [from JASA website]


Eighteenth-century gardens were not merely intended to be pretty places for listening to birdsong and observing plants and trees. Of course you could do that if you wanted to but they were much more than that. The new landscaped gardens of the 18th century “improved” nature, reflected European landscape art of the time and were spiritual and emotional places. Jane Austen, by introducing the idea that her characters in Mansfield Park should visit Sotherton and provide suggestions for the “improvement” of the landscape, was creating a situation where individuals would be able to express their “taste,” and so reveal their inner characters. This scene in Mansfield Park is full of metaphors, which indeed an 18th century landscaped garden itself would embody. At Sotherton there is the ancient Tudor mansion, dark and sombre from the past; the ancient oak avenue, about which Fanny feels so concerned, and the wilderness.

Tom Bertram, who Miss Crawford found entertaining company, decides to take off for the races at B…… Nobody expects him to return for weeks so Maria Crawford prepares herself for a less lively time at the dining table at Mansfield Park. However, no sooner had Tom Bertram left the scene but Mr Rushworth, Maria Bertram’s betrothed, appears, just returned from his own travels to visit his friend, Smith, who has had his property Compton improved by an “improver.” Mr Rushworth’s head is full of thoughts for now improving his own estate at Sotherton. This was no light matter in the 18th century. The process involved the revealing of a person’s “taste.” The concept of acquiring taste in the 18th century was a serious matter. Young men from wealthy and aristocratic families travelled Europe on what was termed the Grand Tour to finish their education and to acquire “taste” by visiting the art galleries of Europe and visiting the houses and homes of the European aristocracy to observe all the new concepts in architecture and landscape design. The wealthy employed architects and landscape gardeners to turn their estates into examples of “taste” for them.

In the mid-18th century the social commentator George Coleman decried the great fashion of his time:

“Taste is at present the darling idol of the polite world…The fine ladies and gentlemen dress with Taste; the architects, whether Gothic or Chinese, build with Taste; the painters paint with Taste; critics read with Taste; and in short, fiddlers, players, singers, dancers, and mechanics themselves, are all the sons and daughters of Taste. Yet in this amazing super-abundancy of Taste, few can say what it really is, or what the word itself signifies.”

In Mansfield Park, it seems everybody is asked their opinion. Mr Rushworth is the only one who apparently doesn’t have a clue.

“I must try to do something with it,” said Mr Rushworth, “but I do not know what. I hope I shall have some good friend to help me.”

This is a terrible admission in the 18th – early 19th century from one who is the owner of an estate, who is wealthy, and who has apparently had all the advantages.

Miss Bertram answers him with restrained disdain,

“Your best friend upon such an occasion, said Miss Bertram, calmly, “would be Mr Repton, I imagine.”

Mrs Norris provides her view,

“Such a place as Sotherton Court deserves every thing that taste and money can do….planting and improving.”

Lady Bertram puts her view, “…..a very pretty shrubbery.”

And even, shy, mouse-like Fanny Price confidently disagrees with Mr Rushworth when he suggests that an ancient oak avenue should be cut down…

“Cut down an avenue! What a pity. Does not it make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”

All that poor Mr Rushworth can say meekly is, “I think I shall have Repton.”

It seems as though Mr Rushworth cannot win and the whole discussion shows him to have inferior or no taste at all. A terrible handicap.

Stoneleigh Abbey

Stoneleigh Abbey

Stoneleigh Abbey, perhaps a source for Sotherton Court, especially the Chapel scene – image from a guide book to Stoneleigh Abbey in Henley, Staffordshire, printed by Wood, Mitchell and Co Ltd. ( Windows on Warwickshire website)

When everybody is at Sotherton the unsuitableness of the house and its estate is apparent:

Henry Crawford was looking grave and shaking his head at the windows. Every room on the west front looked across a lawn to the beginning of the avenue immediately beyond tall iron palisades and gates.”

There is a lengthy discussion about how they are to tour the estate. Carriages are suggested and who is going to go with whom and which horses should be used is detailed, and Mrs Norris fusses at her fussiest best:

“Mrs Norris was beginning to arrange by what junction of carriages and horses most could be done, when the young people, meeting with an outward door, temptingly open on a flight of steps which led immediately to turf and shrubs and all the sweets of pleasure grounds, as by one impulse, one wish for air and liberty, all walked out.”

And they all emerged into the wilderness. It is strange, but from this point onwards all thought of “improvements” seems to dissipate. Well, apart from one lame joke:

“Mr Crawford was the first to move forward (Where did they think they were? An alien planet?) to examine the capabilities of that end of the house.”

This is so corny. Jane must have had a chuckle to herself over that pun.

Mr Rushworth at the gate - CE Brock (Mollands)

Mr Rushworth at the gate – CE Brock (Mollands)

For most of the time in the wilderness Fanny is abandoned. She interacts, first with Edmund and Maria Crawford, when they are “clumped” together like a copse of trees; but Edmund and Miss Crawford wander off leaving her alone. Mr Crawford, Miss Bertram and Mr Rushworth then meet her, but Mr Rushworth returns to the house to get the key to let them out of the locked gate that leads from wilderness to the park beyond. Mr Crawford and Miss Bertram, impatient, wander off too and find their own way into the park and aim for a grassy knoll where they can get a better overview of the “situation.” Fanny sits worrying about everybody. There seems to be a loss of etiquette and social standards. There is a sense of the loosening of society’s usual rules. The very name “wilderness” suggests biblical references and a wild place of danger. There are unlocked doors, locked gates, iron fences, hidden barriers in the form of a ha-ha, and an open world beyond the park – a myriad of things that can be seen as psychological and social barriers as well as physical barriers.

“In the late 18th century the term ‘wilderness garden’ meant something different from what we might think of it these days in the modern world of horticulture. Inspired by the Grand Tour and the new literary form of nature poetry by Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, these fashionable wilderness gardens satisfied the demand for the world beyond the gate. They were tamed, but not entirely.They were a place where well-heeled ladies and gentlemen could experience a frisson from a brush with nature without ever having to stray too far from the relative safety of the English countryside. And they were a direct contrast to the formality of gardens nearer the great house where everything was managed and controlled.” [“Witley Court’s Wilderness” at English Heritage.org]


There is a wonderful example of a “wilderness” in the grounds of Hampton Court. It is not a very large area, perhaps no larger than a cricket field, and from it you can see the Lion Gate, the palace through the trees and doorways through the surrounding brick wall into the more formal gardens. It is an area comprising a web of pathways dissecting a meadow which in the spring is carpeted with bluebells and daffodils. These untamed lawns are set beneath a woodland of apparently randomly growing trees. The area is shaded and has a feel of freedom, an untamed essence.

Hampton Court (Wikipedia)

Hampton Court (Wikipedia)


The guide book to Hampton Court says,

“The term ‘wilderness’ refers to a place to wander, rather than an uncultivated area of garden. William III would have walked through the wilderness at Hampton Court Palace with his devoted wife Mary II. It would have comprised 18ft high hornbeam hedges, with interstices planted with elm. The Wilderness was the English version of a French ‘bosquet’. The high hedges, secluded benches and winding paths made it a place where members of the Royal Court could go for privacy and where gentlemen in particular could entertain ladies in private.” 

Mr Rushworth seems to be “rushing,” to get his estate “improved,” an eagerness reflected in his wishing to marry Maria Bertram. His mother appears just as eager for him in all these aspects too. Jane Austen has chosen her character’s name carefully to fit his character. The quickest way he can think of doing it is by hiring Humphrey Repton to do all the work. This suggests that he will not and perhaps cannot contribute to the process. He wants a garden “off the peg” so to speak. Is this also a metaphor for the state of his relationship with Maria Bertram? Is she too an “off the peg” marriage? Is she too just for show? So Repton was to design his garden and Mr Crawford was to provide the requirements his future wife might want, or am I being too cruel?   If this is the case he will feel no emotional attachment to his prospective wife and nor feel ownership of his garden. He wants others to be impressed by what he has, that is all. He can throw money at these projects but no ideas.

Edmund on the other hand suggests,

“…but had I a place to new fashion, I should not put myself into the hands of an improver. I would rather have an inferior degree of beauty, of my own choice, and acquired progressively. I would rather abide by my own blunders than by his.” 

A much more independent view – Edmund would rather satisfy himself than others and not worry about their opinions. We can think of his future relationship with Fanny Price in these terms too.

Avenue of oak trees, cTony Grant

Avenue of oak trees, cTony Grant

Fanny Price, shocked at the thought of the avenue of oaks being cut down, makes a powerful request to see them, which is a surprising demand from her. We are not used to her making demands. Perhaps this visit to Sotherton marks the rise of Fanny Price and is a pointer to the future. Oak trees are ancient trees and avenues are straight and regimented. To walk down a long avenue of trees, especially in the Spring and Summer when the foliage is at its height, provides an experience of shade and light, the rustling of leaves and the sound of birdsong but you are lead into the distance along a straight path. They are a combination of natural beauty and grace but they also provide an undeviating path. Perhaps a metaphor for Fanny Price herself, unwavering in her innocence, honesty and intelligence grounded in a strong moral foundation but also a breath of natural air. It would be a shame to cut down an avenue of oaks. They take hundreds of years to grow. They span many generations. They are an historical record and link together generations. Fanny’s sense of their worth is in contrast to Mary Crawford, whose following statement is true on one level but does not take into account that the best of the past should not only be kept but built upon:

“Every generation has its improvements.”

Part of the lake at Painshill Park, cTony Grant

Part of the lake at Painshill Park, cTony Grant

The estates of the aristocracy and the wealthy in the 18th century were places designed to provide emotional experiences. The Honourable Charles Hamilton, the 9th son of the Earl of Aberavon was born in 1704. Being the 9th son he could not hope to inherit his father’s estates but through the provision of a good education, an intelligent mind, the completion of two Grand Tours, energetic ambitions and the acquisition of some well-paid government posts, he bought land at Painshill near Cobham in Surrey. His life’s work began creating a park inspired by the European artists, Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa. He succeeded magnificently and his park at Painshill has been, in recent years, renovated and is open to the public today. He created a landscape of far vistas, an undulating landscape, a strategically positioned serpentine lake, bridges, mounds, trees and woods. He created different areas that contrived different moods formed by ruined abbeys, tall turrets, Turkish tents, Gothic temples and crystal lined grottos. From the influence of Pousin’s paintings we might conjecture about the sort of parties he held inside the crystalline grottos.

[Images: Wikipedia]

West Wycombe Park, developed by Sir Francis Dashwood 2nd baronet between1740 and 1800, leaves us in no doubt about its purpose and uses. He famously began the Hell Fire Club in the caves of West Wyckham. He too had his temples and Palladian and Neoclassical follies based on the Italian Villas he had encountered on his Grand Tour. He spent limitless amounts of money on his park and employed three architects and two landscape gardeners. He actually employed Humphrey Repton at one stage. His park included temples to Apollo, Diana and Venus. The activities that went on in these places have been recorded and were debauched to say the least.

Humphry Repton (Wikipedia)

Humphry Repton (Wikipedia)

Who was Humphry Repton the gentleman who Mr Rushworth was intent on employing to “improve” the park at Sotherton? He was a gardening author and landscape designer. He began his career as a landscape gardener late in life at the age of 36 in 1788. He followed in the footsteps of Capability Brown who had died in 1783. Hence the pun that Jane makes in chapter 9,

“Mr Crawford was the first to move forward, to examine the capabilities of that end of the house.”

His basic theory, which he repeated on many estates, was to create a terrace near the house, and produce a serpentine park between clumps of woodland and lakes creating different views. He was accused of “advising the same thing at different places.” However, most of his work was done during the time of the Napoleonic Wars when money was not so readily at hand for the great landowners. In contrast to Capability Brown, whose landscape gardening was more creative. Repton’s designs were not as ambitious. Browns approach, continued by Repton, was to offer a variety of services. He could provide a survey and a plan for the property owner to develop themselves, or he could provide the planning service and a foreman to oversee the work, or he could oversee the work himself. He built on this process by also writing and producing what were called “The Red Books.” These were bound volumes with recommendations and included, what perhaps was most useful for the client to envisage what his estate might look like, before and after sketches. Repton was a contemporary of Jane Austen and the current popular landscape designer of the time she was writing Mansfield Park. In her choice of referring to Repton, she was right up with the latest fashions and “taste.”

Repton's Before and After sketches (Wikipedia)

Repton’s Before and After sketches (Wikipedia)


Capability Brown (Wikipedia)

Capability Brown (Wikipedia)

Returning to Capability Brown, what is interesting is that towards the end of his career he was employed at Hampton Court as the King’s gardener. He lived in a house in the palace grounds called Wilderness House which is still there today, right next to, the Wilderness.


And finally, as we join the Sotherton Party heading home, we discover what we really knew all along, that Mrs Norris partakes of the selfish practice of “spunging”-

“What else have you been spunging?” said Maria, half–pleased that Sotherton should be so complimented.

“Spunging, my dear! It is nothing but four of those beautiful pheasants’ eggs, which Mrs. Whitaker would quite force upon me: she would not take a denial.”

I was so delighted to hear her described that way returning after their day at Sotherton by one of the Miss Bertram’s. It might appear as spoken in a fit of pique but oh how true it is. Austen provides one or two other jokes during the visit to Sotherton, but it is this one that satisfies me the most; it describes Mrs Norris exactly.

Nicolas Poussin – Bacchanal before a herm (1632-33) – National Gallery London (Wikipedia)

 c2014, Jane Austen in Vermont; text by Tony Grant, images as noted.

3 thoughts on “A Visit to the Sotherton Estate in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park ~ Guest Post by Tony Grant

  1. Pingback: A Visit to the Sotherton Estate in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park ~ Guest Post by Tony Grant | The Novels of Virginia Woolf

  2. The letters of Jane Austen’s mother reveal that when she visited Stoneleigh Abbey in 1806 with her daughter Jane, neither of them had any idea what it looked like before they arrived. However, Gaye King asserts that the groundfloor plan of Stoneleigh Abbey corresponds in exact detail to the description of Northanger Abbey in the novel of the same name. Since “Northanger Abbey” was sent to the publishers in 1803, it is impossible that Jane Austen could have been the author of the novel. The author of “Northanger Abbey” and the rest of the Jane Austen novels was in fact Eliza de Feuillide, Jane Austen’s cousin. Eliza almost certainly visited Stoneleigh Abbey when she passed within a mile of it on her journey to the North of England in 1794. If anyone wants any further details, they can read these in my book “Jane Austen – a New Revelation”.


    • Hello Mr. Ennos, thanks for stopping by and sharing your beliefs that Eliza actually wrote Jane Austen’s books – I did a guest post here a few months ago on your book: https://janeausteninvermont.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/book-review-nicholas-ennos-jane-austen-a-new-revelation-conspiracy-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery/

      I have it on my kindle but alas! not the time yet to finish it… hopefully in 2015!

      I would say though, that Jane Austen could have revised her work (later called Northanger Abbey) when she bought it back and made a number of changes to the manuscript – it was not published until after her death, but she certainly had the time to make changes to her story to include a description of Northanger Abbey based on Stoneleigh Abbey – no one has ever been in complete agreement as to where she found her “facts” in describing any of her houses – it is better to believe that she made composites of what she knew from her home visits and travel guides coupled with her own vivid imagination…


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