Yesterday we explored the kind of kitchen that Catherine Morland hoped would be on display at Northanger Abbey…poor soul.
What she finds is the complete opposite of what she expected: all her hopes, based on her readings of horrid novels, led her to believe abbeys were staffed by a few ancient servants and meals were cooked in similarly ancient mouldering rooms:
With the walls of the kitchen ended all the antiquity of the abbey; the fourth side of the quadrangle having, on account of its decaying state, been removed by the general’s father, and the present erected in its place. All that was venerable ceased here. The new building was not only new, but declared itself to be so; intended only for offices, and enclosed behind by stable–yards, no uniformity of architecture had been thought necessary. Catherine could have raved at the hand which had swept away what must have been beyond the value of all the rest, for the purposes of mere domestic economy; and would willingly have been spared the mortification of a walk through scenes so fallen, had the general allowed it; but if he had a vanity, it was in the arrangement of his offices; and as he was convinced that, to a mind like Miss Morland’s, a view of the accommodations and comforts, by which the labours of her inferiors were softened, must always be gratifying, he should make no apology for leading her on. They took a slight survey of all; and Catherine was impressed, beyond her expectation, by their multiplicity and their convenience. The purposes for which a few shapeless pantries and a comfortless scullery were deemed sufficient at Fullerton, were here carried on in appropriate divisions, commodious and roomy. The number of servants continually appearing did not strike her less than the number of their offices. Wherever they went, some pattened girl stopped to curtsy, or some footman in dishabille sneaked off. Yet this was an abbey! How inexpressibly different in these domestic arrangements from such as she had read about — from abbeys and castles, in which, though certainly larger than Northanger, all the dirty work of the house was to be done by two pair of female hands at the utmost. How they could get through it all had often amazed Mrs. Allen; and, when Catherine saw what was necessary here, she began to be amazed herself.
Before we discuss the modern kitchen, I think we ought to consider the domestic offices which so baffled Catherine ;what would they have been like?
Northanger Abbey is clearly built around a quadrangle, and the modern block of domestic offices makes up one whole side. Katherine is used to having only a scullery and some pantries at home at the rectory at Fullerton:she is not used to the way the domestic offices of the rich were arranged in the late 18th /early 19th centuries.
Let’s see if we can try and envisage what the General’s Domestic Offices looked like…..
This illustration is taken from my copy of The Country House Kitchen by Pamela Sambrook and Peter Brears, and shows the type of rooms that amazed poor Catherine. Do remember, all the illustrations here can be enlarged by clicking on them)
There are two plans, showing two sets of domestic offices. The basement floor of Harewood House in Yorkshire the homes of the Lascelles family,
and Newnham in Oxfordshire built 1759-71.
The codes for the rooms are as follows:
BH- Bake House
BP- Butler’s Pantry
K – Kitchen
L – Larder
SR -Steward’s Room
ST- Still Room
VG -Ventilation Gap
At Petworth in Sussex,
…this was the plan of the domestic offices which were built in a block separate to the main house:
You can clearly see that a large, rich household required more than a scullery and pantries to support its exalted way of life.
And of course all this impressive newness set amidst an old abbey might have been inspired by Jane Austen’s knowledge of and visit to such a place-Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire– which she visited in 1806.
The Austen ladies-Jane and Cassandra plus Mrs Austen- went there to accompany their cousin, the Reverend Thomas Leigh to ensure his inheritance to the property. You can see from my photograph above that behind the classical frontage of the house there is a range of ancient, medieval buildings which were part of the original abbey.
Here is a drawing of that range:
This is a plan drawn up by architects to the trust which converted Stoneleigh into a number of individual residences, and you can see that Stoneleigh is also built- like Northanger- around a quadrangle :
Mrs Austen left us a magically detailed letter -dated August 13th 1806- to her daughter-in-law, Mary Austen, second wife of James, and she found while exploring the abbey she thought inextricably of Gothic imagery:
Behind the smaller drawing room is the state bed chamber, with a high dark crimson velvet bed: an alarming apartment just fit for a heroine…
And she found the sheer size of the place, especially the domestic offices, almost intimidating: I say almost for I think very little intimidated Mrs Austen:
We can now find our way about it, I mean the best part; as to the offices (which were the old Abbey) Mr Leigh almost despairs of ever finding his way about them. I have proposed his setting up directing posts at the Angles.
And the range of breakfast food available to them, quite astounding:
At nine in the morning we meet and say our prayers in a handsome chapel, the pulpit etc now hung with black. Then follows breakfast, consisting of chocolate coffee and tea, plumb cake, pound cake, hot rolls cold rolls, bread and butter and dry toast for me. The House-Steward (a fine large respectable looking man) orders all these matters.
I think Jane Austen turned her experience of Stoneleigh Abbey upside down when writing Northanger Abbey . At Stoneleigh there was an ancient range of buildings completing the quadrangle ( unlike at Northanger ) and also an amazing number of domestic offices. I must admit to loving this section of Northanger Abbey, where poor old Catherine’s imagination is stymied at every turn. Her limited domestic experience is confounded by what she sees at Northanger: to imagine that large households were managed by two female embers of staff- her impression of life in an abbey is of course based on her reading of her horrid books-is not wise.Even that dullard Mrs Allen had doubted they portrayed real life! Poor Catherine is about to receive an almighty shock when she goes hunting around Mrs Tilney’s bedroom….letting her imagination run riot, so that it impinges on real life…not a good idea.
How inexpressibly different in these domestic arrangements from such as she had read about — from abbeys and castles, in which, though certainly larger than Northanger, all the dirty work of the house was to be done by two pair of female hands at the utmost. How they could get through it all had often amazed Mrs. Allen; and, when Catherine saw what was necessary here, she began to be amazed herself.
Now we have seen exactly what constituted a grand range of domestic offices , tomorrow what we shall explore what modern innovations were available in General Tilney’s kitchen…which was only a tiny part of the Northanger Abbey Domestic Offices.