We, Janeites, know that windows are a thing in Jane Austen’s novels. One of Mr Collins’ most memorable scenes in Pride and Prejudice takes place when he and his wife are on the way to visit the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh alongside their visitor, Miss Elizabeth Bennet. This is what happens as they approach Rosings:
Every park has its beauty and its prospects; and Elizabeth saw much to be pleased with, though she could not be in such raptures as Mr. Collins expected the scene to inspire, and was but slightly affected by his enumeration of the windows in front of the house, and his relation of what the glazing altogether had originally cost Sir Lewis de Bourgh.
Chapter 29, Pride and Prejudice
In Georgian times glass was expensive, and therefore, the more windows a building had, the more handsome the income of its owners. In other words, Mr Collins’ awe of the number of windows is in fact, admiration for the wealth of his patroness.
Windows as an Expression of Wealth
Windows were so inextricably linked to riches that the end of the 17th century saw the introduction of a new tax based on their number in any given property. It was effectively a levy on light and air, but a privileged few did not care.
In Mansfield Park, Austen alludes to the tax when describing the visit to Sutherton, the family estate of rich Mr Rushworth:
Having visited many more rooms than could be supposed to be of any other use than to contribute to the window-tax, and find employment for housemaids, “Now,” said Mrs. Rushworth, “we are coming to the chapel, which properly we ought to enter from above, and look down upon; but as we are quite among friends, I will take you in this way, if you will excuse me”.
Chapter 9, Mansfield Park
Of course, many Georgians did mind about their window tax contributions, and bricking up the openings of a property became a way to minimise its tax burden.
In Edinburgh, where I live, the impact of the tax is still visible in many streets of the New Town, built between the late 18th and the mid 19th centuries. Here is an example of a building I often walk past on my way to the city centre:
Expectations and Reality
But windows in Austen’s novels communicate a great deal more than the wealth of their owners. For example, in Northanger Abbey windows illustrate Catherine Morland’s disappointment upon arriving in the Tilney family home. Her vivid imagination had pictured the Abbey to be gruesome and deliciously scary, but its windows announce it’s anything but:
The windows, to which she looked with peculiar dependence, from having heard the general talk of his preserving them in their Gothic form with reverential care, were yet less what her fancy had portrayed. To be sure, the pointed arch was preserved—the form of them was Gothic—they might be even casements—but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing.
Chapter 20, Northanger Abbey
Poor Catherine, who finds shiny window panes instead of dusty, neglected and broken wall openings in the house she is visiting!
The Sash vs Casement Windows Issue
A conversation with a fellow member of the Scottish branch of the Jane Austen Scottish Society late last year also drew my attention to another windows-related fact in Austen. You may remember that, in Emma, Mrs and Miss Bates occupy very modest dwellings in a brick house in Highbury. This is what Austen tells us about the place they call home:
The house belonged to people in business. Mrs. and Miss Bates occupied the drawing-room floor; and there, in the very moderately-sized apartment, which was everything to them, the visitors were most cordially and even gratefully welcomed.
Chapter 1, Emma
Later, in the letter from Frank Churchill to Mrs Weston, we read that the house has “sashed windows below, and casements above.” That is, sash windows on the ground floor and casements on the first floor, where the Bates ladies live. It’s an unremarkable mention, until you understand the context of windows during the Regency period.
A Tiny Detail, a Lot of Information
Sash windows consist of one or more panels assisted by weights, springs and pulleys hidden in the window frame that slide vertically to create openings. An innovation linked to improved glass manufacturing methods, the elegant proportions of sash windows were the perfect architectural feature for the new tastes of the Georgian era.
Such windows also provided better light levels and improved ventilation and were much easier to use. As a result, sash windows became very fashionable and replaced the older casement windows in most buildings. And therein lies the tiny detail that speaks of the Bates’ precarious financial situation.
With just a few words, Austen informs us that the “people in business” that own the building have upgraded the ground-floor windows, but have not bothered to replace the windows on the floor above.
Perhaps they thought the investment wasn’t worth it, as they would never be able to recoup the money given the limited means of their tenants. In other words, the impoverished Bates ladies have to make do with the old, drafty and much more cumbersome iron casements, with lead latticework across the glass.
It is quite wonderful: the more I read Austen, the more I marvel at her attention to detail and ability to make even the tiniest fragment of information a story upon itself.
What are your thoughts on the topic of windows and Jane Austen? Are there any other situations in Austen’s works where windows, or any other apparently irrelevant detail, are in fact a lot more important than they seem at first sight?