Cottesbrooke Hall in Northamptonshire has long been thought by some to have been the estate and house that inspired Jane Austen when she created the house (and estate) of Mansfield Park in her novel of the same name.
Is there any evidence that she knew of it or even visited it?
Let’s see, shall we?
At the time Jane Austen was composing Mansfield Park- 1813- she famously wrote to her sister Cassandra and to her close friend Martha Lloyd to ask questions about the landscape of Northamptonshire. It is extremely unlikely from our knowledge of her travels in England that she ever visited or even travelled through the county en route to somewhere else:
( Map of England and Wales from my copy of Cary’s Traveller’s Companion or a Delineation of the Turnpike Roads of England and Wales etc. (1812) written, drawn and published by John Cary, The Strand, London)
Her trip to Staffordshire in 1806 –which was the most northerly point she is ever recorded to have visited in England- and the return journey to Hampshire would probably not have taken her through Northamptonshire. She would have travelled from her starting point, Adlestrop in Gloucestershire on to Warwickshire(Stoneleigh Abbey) and then northwards into Staffordshire to Edward Cooper’s home at Hamstall Ridware.. The return journey would have been taken through Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and finally back into Hampshire where the Austen ladies visited James Austen (Jane’s oldest brother and then then rector of Steventon) and his family.
Indeed, her ignorance of the shire is rather confirmed by the questions she asked about Northamptonshire to be found in the extracts from these letters:
If you could discover whether Northamptonshire is a County of Hedgerows, I should be glad again.
(Letter to Cassandra Austen, dated 29th January 1813)
I am obliged to you for your enquiries about Northamptonshire but do not wish you to renew them, as I am sure of getting the intelligence I want from Henry, to whom I can apply at some convenient moment “sans peur et sans reproche”…
(Letter to Martha Lloyd, dated 16th February 1813)
(Northamptonshire :from my copy of Cary’s Traveller’s Companion or a Delineation of the Turnpike Roads of England and Wales etc. (1812) as above.Do remember this can be enlarged simply by clicking on the image)
She would have asked Henry about Northamptonshire because of all her family and acquaintance, he had some links with the county, due to his friendship and business relationships with the Sandford and Tilson families. They were all related in some way to the Langhams, the baronets and the then owners of – yes, you’ve guessed it- Cottesbrooke Hall.
Indeed, the opinions of Sir James Langham and Henry Sandford were sufficiently important to Jane Austen to be included in her collection of opinons of Mansfield Park, amongst the other opinions collected from her family and friends etc :
Sir James Langham & Mr H. Sanford, having been told that it was much inferior to P. & P.—began it expecting to dislike it, but were very soon extremely pleased with it—& I beleive, did not think it at all inferior.
Taking all this infomration into account, Sir Frank MacKinnon, the British High Court judge and Austen scholar, suggested that Cottesbrooke was indeed the inspiration for Mansfield. Dr R. W. Chapman ,the Austen scholar supreme of the early 20th century, published this information in 1931 in the Times Literary Supplement and seemed to agree with Sir Franks’ assessment.
Logan Pearsall Smith visited Cottesbrooke in 1935 and published his impressions in 1936 in Jane Austen: Reperusals and Recollections:
The name of the owners of Mansfield Park was Langham…The Hall was built by the fourth Baronet, Sir John Langham..That beautiful and stately house in the great park we visited…we saw the stairs on which Edmund found the little Fanny weeping, the breakfast rooms in which she wrote her letter to her borther William and her room upstairs with its empty grate. Then downstairs we went to the library with the billiard room adjoining which was the scene of the rehearsal of Lover’s Vows…Was Jane Austen ever at Cottesbrooke Hall? There is good reason to believe that she as acquainted with the Sir James Langham of the time, and that her brother Henry Austen was familiar with his family. It may be that he supplied her with the necessary plans and information…But anyone who has made this most delightful of all Jane Austen pilgrimages will find it difficult to believe she had not been there herself so accurately does she describe all the details.
Cottesbrooke Hall, admittedly, is a very fitting place to stand as the home of the Bertrams. It is a red brick building,with two wings either side of the main block on the entrance front. The original building was designed by Francis Smith-Smith of Warwick- and the stone embellishments you can see (the columns etc) were added in the 1790s by Robert Mitchell.
It is set in Northamptonshire, in a large, beautiful park,-a real park –just as Mary Crawford describes, and is delighted with(in this passage it is clear she is more delighted with the surroundings than the heir to the estate, frankly):
She acknowledged, however, that the Mr. Bertrams were very fine young men, that two such young men were not often seen together even in London, and that their manners, particularly those of the eldest, were very good. He had been much in London, and had more liveliness and gallantry than Edmund, and must, therefore, be preferred; and, indeed, his being the eldest was another strong claim. She had felt an early presentiment that she should like the eldest best. She knew it was her way.
Tom Bertram must have been thought pleasant, indeed, at any rate; he was the sort of young man to be generally liked, his agreeableness was of the kind to be oftener found agreeable than some endowments of a higher stamp, for he had easy manners, excellent spirits, a large acquaintance, and a great deal to say; and the reversion of Mansfield Park, and a baronetcy, did no harm to all this. Miss Crawford soon felt that he and his situation might do. She looked about her with due consideration, and found almost everything in his favour: a park, a real park, five miles round, a spacious modern–built house, so well placed and well screened as to deserve to be in any collection of engravings of gentlemen’s seats in the kingdom, and wanting only to be completely new furnished—pleasant sisters, a quiet mother, and an agreeable man himself—with the advantage of being tied up from much gaming at present by a promise to his father, and of being Sir Thomas hereafter. It might do very well; she believed she should accept him; and she began accordingly to interest herself a little about the horse which he had to run at the B———– races.
(Mansfield Park ,Chapter 5)
However, here, for me at least, is the main problem with the argument that Cottesbrooke is Mansfield.
Mansfield is clearly described as :
A spacious modern-built house
At the time Jane Austen was writing, Cottesbrooke could not be described as modern, for it was originally built in 1702- some 111 years prior to the composition of Mansfield Park.
But it is a beautiful place to visit : all the photographs here were taken by me on a visit last summer – and please do note that they can all be enlarged merely by clicking on them so that you can see the beautiful details of this place.
But note that the gardens- which are stunning- are a modern development, designed by some of the most influential designers of the past 100 years-and the grounds would not have looked as they do now when Jane Austen was writing about it, or not….or visiting ,or having plans sent to her… ;-)
It is tempting to want to see Cottesbrooke as Mansfield, and I can understand why, with all its connections and it being in the right location, people might want to do that . But do I think it more likely that Jane Austen’s modern house was not based on any one building but was rather the product of her genius.
But who am I to judge? I shall leave it to yourselves to determine ;-)