By Lucy Marin, author of The Marriage Bargain
In The Marriage Bargain, Pemberley has suffered from neglect for years, and one of Elizabeth’s first tasks after marrying Darcy is to renovate the house. By undertaking this work, Elizabeth is doing what she can to improve the Darcys’ social position. In effect, she is saying, “We are prosperous and are taking our rightful place in good society. You should forget what you thought about the family in the past.”
Now, as then, houses contain both public and private spaces. This was certainly true of the homes of the upper-class during Jane Austen’s time. Private spaces were bedchambers, family sitting rooms, breakfast rooms, and the like, while the public spaces were those used to receive guests—chiefly drawing rooms and the dining room. Public spaces would be decorated to impress and display the owner’s wealth. Ideally, they would be both fashionable and comfortable.
The number and types of rooms in a house would, naturally, vary greatly. A larger country manor such as Pemberley would likely have both a dining room and a breakfast room; both are mentioned in The Marriage Bargain, with Darcy embarrassed when they have to eat dinner in the breakfast room due to the ill-repair of the dining room. Breakfast rooms were smaller and less formal, while dining rooms were formal spaces, not just for eating the largest meal of the day, but decorated to impress guests.
A large house would have multiple drawing rooms. They would be used at different times of the day and would exhibit varying levels of formality and size. These are spaces of leisure and where guests would be entertained. Men might also receive guests in a study. A large home would have other rooms, including a library—and we know Pemberley has a magnificent library—and rooms dedicated to music, billiards, displaying art, and more.
The fashion of furniture, like clothing, changes regularly. In this post, I discuss some of the furniture styles contemporary to Jane Austen’s time, the period of Georgian design (1714-1830). By this time, the favoured wood had evolved from an earlier preference for oak, to walnut and finally mahogany, thanks to imports from Central and South America. While older styles could be heavily embellished, design as we move through the 1700s became lighter and less ornamented.
The Georgian period overlapped with furniture styles influenced by both British and other ideas, such as the Rococo (British, French, German, and Austrian), Gothic Revival (British and American), Neo-Classical (French, British, Italian, and American), and Regency (French and British). Rococo furniture uses a number of woods and marble inlay, and features motifs influenced by nature, such as shells. Gothic Revival used dark woods and leather and reflected a renewed religiosity. As such, you might see arch shapes and heraldic motifs, as well as floral decorations.
Any of these furniture styles might be found at Pemberley, and some of them would not—in my estimation—be ones Elizabeth in The Marriage Bargain would favour. In renovating the house, she would lean towards the greater elegance of Georgian, Neo-Classical, and Regency design.
Neo-Classical and Regency furniture was quite similar and drew on the style influence of Ancient Greece and Rome; French influence was also strong. That means you would see straight, clean lines, sophisticated details, and flat surfaces. Design motifs included leaves, lotuses, fluting reminiscent of Greek columns, sphinxes, and more. Table and chair legs might be carved in the shape of animal legs or have clawed feet. While mahogany was popular, other woods from around the world were also used, including ebony (India), amboyna (the West Indies), and thuya (Africa). Painting, lacquering (or japanning), veneering, gilding, carving, and metal and marble inlaying were all used to decorate furniture. An example from The Marriage Bargain is when Darcy reminisces about the pianoforte that once stood in the drawing room, with its multiple woods and inlay decorations.
We associate men such as Thomas Chippendale (author of The Gentlemen and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, 1754), George Hepplewhite (The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, 1788), and Robert Adams with Georgian furniture design. Thomas Sheraton (The Cabinet-Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book, 1791) is a name associated with Regency design.
Then, as today, a wide range of furniture pieces was involved in decorating a house. Imagine the task Elizabeth faced in renovating Pemberley, not only to be furnished comfortably but to be fashionable and impressive—like something you would find in a glossy design magazine.
In the early 1800s, curves were popular. Sides of sofas might be scrolled, as would armrests. Some chairs were more formal than others, but you might find curule seats reminiscent of Roman chairs, chairs with cane backs, Trafalgar chairs decorated with ropes and cables and meant to commemorate Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, and more. Window seats were popular and built to be placed by the tall windows found in large houses, allowing one to lounge or sit with a companion, and appreciate the view.
In keeping with the emphasis on curves, tables increasingly lost their edges, with some round tables eventually used in breakfast rooms—removing any hierarchy in the seating—and for playing ‘round’ games which did not require a set number of players. Table legs went from being heavily carved to lighter in style and curved. Like with chairs, there were many types of tables because of the range of purposes for which they were used. Perhaps the most important table in a grand house was the dining table, around which one would accommodate guests. In addition, there were wine tables—to hold glasses and decanters; pier tables to stand against the wall between windows; console tables, supported by a wall on one side; and side and sofa tables.
Work tables are an interesting design. They had tops that lifted or slid, beneath which you would find a pouch or bag to hold sewing supplies. Other designs included very large library tables with pedestals containing cabinets at either end, and the smaller version of them—writing tables or desks—in which the cabinets were replaced by drawers. Writing tables could also have regular legs, with the drawers moved to just below the tabletop or sitting on it. The tops of writing tables might lift to provide an angled surface on which to write or draw. In bedchambers, writing desks would become dressing tables with the addition of a mirror, either sitting on the table or incorporated as part of the structure.
Needless to say, there would be many other types of furniture needed to fill a house, including those for storage: wardrobes, chests of drawers, bookcases—some with glass protecting the contents—cupboards (which were hung on or affixed to walls), sideboards in the dining room, and more. An interesting tidbit relates to chamber pots. Water closets were growing in popularity, but chamber pots were still frequently used. Some sideboards contained a chamber pot hidden by a cabinet door. It was intended for the gentlemen to use after the ladies had gone into the drawing room at the conclusion of dinner. There might be chamber pots, or ‘china bourdaloues’, similarly hidden in the drawing room for the ladies’ convenience.
In the end, Elizabeth—like the mistress of any home—might spend a considerable amount of time and money ensuring her abode was properly decorated and showed her family to its best advantage. Inheriting (or marrying into) a house which was largely empty of any ‘good’ furniture would amplify the challenge. Fortunately, The Marriage Bargain’s Elizabeth is industrious and wealthy and capable of taking on the task.
Invaluable. (2017, 07 11 ). 15 British Furniture Styles You Should Know. Invaluable. https://www.invaluable.com/blog/british-furniture-guide/
Mortimer, I. (2020). The time traveller’s guide to Regency England. Penguin Random House UK.
Olsen, K. (2008). All things Austen. A concise encyclopedia of Austen’s world. Greenwood World Publishing.