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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Upstairs, downstairs

When Keira Knightley was cast as Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 feature film of Pride and Prejudice, she worried that her performance would be a carbon copy of Jennifer Ehle’s in the iconic 1995 TV adaptation.

“But my mom said, ‘Read the book again, and I guarantee you that you will see Elizabeth Bennet as yourself.’ And she was absolutely right,” Knightley told an interviewer. “Any woman who reads it identifies with her so closely that she sees Elizabeth Bennet as herself.”

It’s a phenomenon that Janeites know well: Austen’s books are so lifelike that we inevitably see ourselves – and our family, friends, and frenemies – in her characters. In other words, we imagine ourselves inhabiting a stratum of Regency society that included perhaps five percent of the population. What are the odds? If we’d actually lived in the Regency, we’d have been far more likely to end up as Elizabeth Bennet’s chambermaid than as Elizabeth herself.

These reflections on Regency class structure occurred to me last week when I happened across this tidbit of news: The owners of Godmersham Park, the Kent estate that was once the home of Austen’s older brother Edward Knight, plan to convert a dilapidated structure on the twelve-hundred-acre property into a guesthouse suitable for vacation rentals.

Godmersham is a palatial eighteenth-century mansion of red brick that comfortably housed Edward, his eleven children, and the army of servants required to run their household. The dilapidated structure in question is a one-bedroom cowshed known as The Byre that was formerly shared by “three sister laundry workers,” according to a local news story about the renovation plans.

And there you have it: Although we read Jane Austen and imagine ourselves living at Pemberley or Mansfield Park -- or Godmersham -- it’s much more likely we’d have ended up in the cowshed.

What was it like to live in a Regency cowshed? The article on the renovation claims that “planners say the L-shaped property is ‘charming’ and ‘full of character’ ” – but they would, wouldn’t they? Judging from the photo accompanying the story, the building is actually on the grim side of gloomy, with grey pebble-dashed walls and tiny, prison-like windows.

I don’t think it would be my choice for vacation, even given the bragging rights inherent in staying on an estate once frequented by Jane Austen. But hey: If you’re after some Regency realism, maybe a visit to The Byre would be just the ticket.


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