Author of Decorating a Room of One’s Own, Susan Harlan, tells us more about how the book came into being, and compares the merits of two of the most iconic depictions of the Dashwood’s new home in Sense and Sensibility – Barton Cottage.
I have always loved literary homes and Jane Austen. The Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice chapters in Decorating a Room of One’s Own were originally part of my column “Great House Therapy” for the wonderful feminist site The Toast. I had started with Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, but I knew that I wanted Austen to be a big part of the column: I would definitely write about Pemberley and Barton Cottage. And when I started to expand the column into the book, I wanted to squeeze in more Austen, if I could.
I remember watching the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries with my friends Erika, Ania, and Kristina during our sophomore year in college at Columbia, all of us sprawled out on the two twin mattresses that I had set side-by-side on my dorm room floor (I don’t know how I managed to snag the extra one). We had rented the first DVD from the video store down the street, the magnificent and now-gone Movie Place on 105th Street, and the moment we finished it, we called and ordered the next one. Like everyone, we were obsessed with Colin Firth’s swimming Darcy, so I put a reference to this moment in Decorating a Room of One’s Own. And whenever I think about Elizabeth and the Gardiners approaching Pemberley, I think of this film and how the estate reveals itself like magic.
And I kept watching Austen adaptations over the years. They make me think about how the homes in her novels are re-imagined again and again. Film adaptations bring literary houses to life. A director has to decide what a place is going to look like – and which real home might approximate a fictional one. The two Barton Cottages in Ang Lee’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility and Andrew Davies’ 2008 BBC miniseries could not be more different. Both are serious downgrades from Norland Park, but while the former is an 18th-century stone cottage with an estuary, a treehouse, and a pastoral vibe – “comfortable and compact,” as we are told in the novel – the latter is Blackpool Mill, a smaller 15th-century cottage perched over the romantic and tempestuous Atlantic. When the Dashwoods arrive at their new home in Lee’s film, they stand in front of the property, surveying it with dismay. The expressions on their faces say everything about their lot in life. And in Davies’ production, Mrs. Dashwood (Janet McTeer) looks absolutely horrified. But the cottage in this adaptation has proven appealingly picturesque to audiences today, if not to Mrs. Dashwood: it is in high demand as a vacation rental.
Sometimes a house in a film is exactly as you see it in your mind’s eye, and sometimes it surprises you. Because Lee’s film was my first Sense and Sensibility adaptation, that Barton Cottage is the Barton Cottage for me, and it is closer to the description in the novel. But I have to say that I find the bleakness of Blackpool Mill appealing. It is always windy. (I might just have to rent it myself.) When I was working on the Austen columns, I re-watched both of these films a couple of times, often while flipping back through the novels to re-read the passages about Pemberley, Rosings, Netherfield Park, Longbourne House, Norland Park, and Barton Cottage. And I quote significant portions of these passages in the chapters: I wanted a lot of Austen’s language in the “House Tours,” mixed with the language of contemporary design culture. And then when I was developing the column into the book, I added a sidebar about Persuasion, which is my favorite Austen novel. I wanted Anne to be able to say something about her home, Kellynch Hall, and her silly father. I also added a sidebar from Mr. Knightley in Emma, talking about the décor at Donwell Abbey. It would have been fun to write about Northanger Abbey, too. Alas! So many options.
Susan Harlan is an associate professor of English literature at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian US, the Toast, Roads & Kingdoms, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Literary Hub, Jezebel, Curbed, the Hairpin, the Establishment, the Common, and the Awl.
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