Why are we so keen on renovation? Is it an extension of ourselves as well as our houses? Or is it a way just to consume more and more? (And I do speak here as a seasoned renovator.) Do we really go to dinner parties and talk of bathroom tiles as Hugh Mackay suggested? Following fashions is not new; it can be seen in the Austen universe where the Eighteenth Century trend was to create the picturesque.
Upon taking over Norland, in Sense and Sensibility Fanny and John Dashwood, successful power couple, make it their daily business to be fashionable. On their estate, what looks good is the most important factor in a decision. Running a self-sufficient estate is not as important as impressing your friends and community. They must do improvements to the place and of course the productive “old walnut trees are all come down”. It reminds me of some people who move in to the old suburbs, raze the old garden getting rid of the roses and fruit trees, and replace the whole with shrubs and pebbles in the latest fashion. (Fortunately this is no longer the latest fashion!) And then they congratulate themselves on having destroyed a garden because now they are being water wise! No wonder Eleanor had to keep the “concern and her censure to herself” when she has to listen to her brother’s fashionable plans.
In Jane Austen’s time one prevailing fashion was romanticism: beauty was held to be a ramshackle cottage or a wilderness. It made eminent sense as the trend it replaced was a much more formal aesthetic where nature was controlled or subdued. Formal structural gardens were replaced by more naturalistic landscapes. Some wealthy landholders even went so far as to employ a hermit who lived in a hermitage on their estate as a mark of authenticity. A very famous example is Marie Antoinette who set up a village with milkmaids at Versailles and visited it often to “play” as a peasant. In Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen satirises those who are of this romantic vein. Undoubtedly she had a love of landscape but she satirises those who followed the fashion so blindly that amidst poverty and inequality they would pay for someone to live as a hermit to render the landscape more picturesque. .
Robert Ferrars, in Sense and Sensibility, is the lucky man who ultimately wins Social-Vampire-Lucy Steele. He embodies the romantic movement of his time when he says, “I am excessively fond of a cottage; there is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them. And I protest if I had any money to spare, I should buy a little land and build one myself, within a short distance of London, where I might drive myself down at any time, and collect a few friends about me, and be happy.” In fact this is still common today (although many need the cottage to be in Tuscany!). We are still seduced by the picturesque and romantic into believing life would be perfect if only……………..
Often theories are taken to the point of irrationality by zealots. Serial Seducer Mr Crawford in Mansfield Park is a romantic wishing to see even functional landscapes turned around for his aesthetics. He wants to upgrade Edmund’s parish house at Thornton Lacy. He suggests to Edmund: “The farmyard must be cleared away entirely, and planted up to shut out the blacksmiths shop. The house must be turned to front the east instead of the north – the entrance and principal rooms, I mean must be on that side…….” Henry goes on until all is changed and nothing of the quaint original remains. It is a renovator’s dream and easily satirised by Jane Austen. I wonder what fun she would have with our modern make-over shows.
Hugh Mackay’s book: Advance Australia … Where? (2007) Hachette Australia
An interview with Hugh Mackay :
- Hugh Mackay: The Good Life (blogs.abc.net.au)