Judging the Owner by the Abbey

At least two of Jane Austen’s books tie the aesthetic appreciation of a beautiful abbey with a positive moral judgment of its proprietor: Pride and Prejudice, favoring Mr. Darcy, and Emma, praising Mr. Knightly. Emma’s visual assessment of Donwell Abbey is clearly informed by Gilpin’s Observations, and although Emma grew up near Donwell, at this point in the novel she looks upon it with renewed interest:

She felt all the honest pride and complacency which her alliance with the present and future proprietor could fairly warrant, as she viewed the respectable size and style of the building, its suitable, becoming, characteristic situation, low and sheltered— its ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight— and its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up.— The house was larger than Hartfield, and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling and irregular, with many comfortable, and one or two handsome rooms.— It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was— and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding. (Austen, Vol.III ch.VI)

Emma notes that the Donwell is all that an abbey should be, just as Gilpin had explained: it is characteristically located in a low and sheltered area, surrounded by abundant lines of trees, and with ample gardens and a stream. Its location is not “charming,” but “becoming” and “suitable.” The house attests to the age of the abbey, having a “rambling and irregular” shape with many rooms that are “comfortable,” presumably aimed to please guests and provide warm hospitality. The description of the estate evokes the original idea of abbey—hospitable, communal, modest—and inspires respect, arising from the style—which is neither fashionable nor extravagant—and from the size—which is ample.

Here, too, the aesthetic judgment of Emma is linked to the moral approval of Downwell’s owner, who is respectable, modest, has good taste, and is hospitable. Furthermore, Emma associates owning an abbey with “gentility,” and because of her observation and her moral assessment, she concludes that the Knightleys are “true gentility,” who belong in such a respectable abbey both because of their lineage (blood) and because of their good understanding. She further connects the abbey and its owners when she says that “it was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was,” implying that there was no pretense or hypocrisy in the estate—it was a true abbey in the original sense, and it looked like a true abbey: modest, welcoming, becoming, and hospitable.

Austen, Jane. Emma. 2012. Kindle file.

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