It’s difficult for us kiddos to find Pride and Prejudice (or Jane Austen, or Regency) related places to visit in Sydney, or anywhere in Australia really. So when one does find a place that is utterly perfect for (in this case) a book club, or a fan, it is one’s duty to share the discovery. Now, I can’t claim that this was created to fit Pride and Prejudice (because, um, it wasn’t) nor can I claim that the links were as obvious as some might like (they aren’t). But it was so charming, and delightful, a day and so steeped in Pride and Prejudice fun that I can’t help myself in sharing it.
Vaucluse House, from the Historic Houses Trust, in (fittingly) the wealthy suburb of Vaucluse, was built by William Charles Wentworth between 1805 and 1860. While a lot of scandal exists behind the Wentworth name, the house is a stunning example of architecture and decor of the time, plus the history is incredible (The Australian newspaper, the first independent paper, was created by Wentworth). Costing us a mere $4 concession (got to love being a student) which included a fantastic tour by a lovely guide it’s a fantastic glimpse into the lives of people at the time. We were even allowed to go past the barriers and walk around some of the rooms and gaze longingly at various grandfather clocks, pianos, fireplaces, statuettes and chandeliers on display.
We began the Friday by meeting at Central station, dressed in floral summer dresses and clutching gloves, fans and books (is there ever anything else a girl needs?). We then took a bus to Darling Harbour, and then one to Vaucluse. Luckily, a lovely lady on the same bus worked in the Vaucluse tearooms and guided us through the “short” but (at the same time) scenic route to the house. The gardens and grounds are, while not in the original Wentworth condition, absolutely stunning. Also boasting stables, some cute domestic animals (ducks, goats, chickens etc) and a wine cellar that was perfectly gothic for Northanger Abbey (the book of dicussion) there was plenty to see.
We were shown around the servant’s quarters, which included the kitchen (still with original cast iron cooking range, food safe and dresser), scullery, dairy/larder (finding out how they used to purify water through sandstone), butler’s pantry and the housekeeper’s office. Zahra even got dressed up as an old-school maid for some giggles, donning the apron and bonnet provided and being instructed about the typical duties for servants at an estate of this size.
We were able to see everything from the toilets/chamberpots (Ugh!) to the embroidery sets, fire screens and different types of furniture- much of which was retained from the original Wentworth collection. It was a little like being at Pemberley (or at least Netherfield Park, I’d imagine!). There were so many rooms tucked away, including a little tea room (for intimate visits from guests) and a breakfast room.
The tour guide was an incredible source of knowledge, explaining the etymological source of “Drawing Room” (from “withdraw”) and pointing out some enriching features on our way through the maze of rooms, half-rooms (partitioned off sections) and hallways. There was even an amusing sketch/comic on the wall of Dr. Johnson (dictionary lexicographer) talking to a desperate author. The three types of mattreses on the beds (hay in the bottom layer to draw in the bedbugs) were fascinating, and everything was laid out to be both realistic, educational and beautiful.
It was fantastic to imagine the family in the house. And, several of the relations of the Wentworth’s bore the name “D’arcy” causing us to giggle. It is slightly embarassing to admit pretending that Elizabeth Bennet would have lived in such a house, and imagining onself an Austen heroine, reclining in the drawing room, drinking tea and attending to other pressing Regency matters (read: netting purses). There was also a lot of running to windows and looking out, prompted by our tour guide, which reminded me of the Bennet girls rushing to see who was at the door so much.
While unbearably hot for the most part inside, causing us to wonder how the people of the time survived in all their layers of clothing, our fans came in extremely useful. In the wine cellar:
The house also had some incredible busts, reminding me very much of the scene in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice where Keira Knightley (as Lizzy) visits Pemberley and looks at all of the white marble statues. Luckily, our guide explained whom each of them was. Similarly, there were some very grand portraits of the different children, and smaller portraits of monarchs in the Drawing Room. This room, of which there is a picture below, was so over the top in both colour and furnishings and (dare I say it) so very “Lady Catherine De Bourgh”, that it would have fitted beautifully into Rosings Park. That I adored it, and its fuzzy gold-enscribed wallpaper and fake door (to make the room symmetrical), is clearly only a testament to the taste of the time, and the incredible job the Historic Houses Trust does in preserving the rooms. I can truly say that if I spent the rest of my life in that room, I’d probably die a very happy woman.
Sadly, as the Wentworths were social pariahs for a great part of their life (due to a whole bunch of circumstances, many of which relate to their parents criminal histories hence being shipped to Australia etc), the Drawing Room and the beautiful Dining Room below would not have been as thoroughly utilised for entertaining guests as they would have been in other cases. A true shame, in my opinion, as they are (as Jane herself would put it) “comfortably sized” and absolutely stunning. We were told of how the men would stay and smoke in the dining room (imagine how badly that would go down today as far as dining manners go). I was very struck by the attention to detail and the elaborate nature of each furnishing.
Another great feature of the house involves the innovative ideas tacked on to the original design, whenever the Wentworth’s travelled they would bring back ideas, such as indoor toilets, and put them into their house. They continually built on it, and there are even elements missing that would have potentially been continued (including an imposing narrow hall that ends in… a wall. There would have been a grand entrance eventually.) Even ignoring the vastly high ceilings and embellishments on anything from chair legs to plumbing, there are the fantastic floor tiles that are continued on outside into the courtyard. Brought from overseas, these are a step out of the norm and a lovely addition to the house.
After finishing all three floors inside the house, we went for some lunch at the Vaucluse tearooms. Unfortunately we were seated outside, as the inside was reserved for some function later that afternoon, but it became steadily cooler as the arvo progressed. Treating ourselves to some fizzy drinks and light lunch (an eggplant schnitzel, mushroom and olive sourdough sandwich on a nice wooden board for myself) it was a great atmosphere for conversation. Unfortunately, the menu was a little limited (especially for those of us who are vegan, veg or have dietary requirements) and they didn’t give us all the menus that they were serving that day. They seemed to be extremely understaffed and hurried to get us out of the way for a function. However, despite these minor complaints, the prices were surprisingly reasonable and our table was also served scones with cream and jam that went down well, and as the temperature lightened conversation about Northanger Abbey flowed.
Henry Tilney was widely agreed upon to be a great hero. While some of us held our doubts about the book overall, and there was more than a little dislike of Catherine Morland, it was generally esteemed as one of our favourite Austen reads. I, personally, especially loved the bitchy highschool nature of Isabella Thorpe and the very relatable betrayals that happen within the novel. The gothic satire was also widely appreciated, and we frequently found ourselves cringing at Catherine’s mistakes resulting from her over-the-top imagination. Then came some comparisons to Mr. Darcy (still a wide-spread favourite), and some reflections over all the books in general.
After we had finished our food, we headed out to walk the grounds. While posing crazily for Zahra’s camera, and trying to avoid more than a couple of cobwebs (good ol’ Australian redbacks… yikes!) we were able to look at the incredible views, as well as the range of plants, flowers and even a lovely fountain dotting the extensive gardens.
Balancing books on our heads and ruffling our fans, we were even able to get a lady to take some photographs for us. While it didn’t occur to me at the time, the gardeners must have a heck of a nightmare with the ten hectares of land, splattered with everything from evergreens to lush succulents. There are even different types of gardens, such as the “pleasure garden” that is predominantly flowering plants and archways. We then sat eating gummy snakes for a while and discussing the book some more, and what to do at the next book meeting (our last Austen… how sad!).
After returning to the front of the house, we visited the giftshop. This is a MUST for anyone that decides to visit. Filled with victoriana (including reprints of 1800s books including: “The language of flowers” and “Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties more or less prevalent in Conduct and Speech” – which three of us purchased”) and colonial-Australia inspired souvenirs it’s the type of tourist experience that I wish could be everywhere. They sold little parasols, seed packets, carpet-rug bookmarks, postcards with vintage images on and even 1800s style wrapping paper. We were also able to sign the guestbook, thanking our tour guide from the “Jane Austen book club” before heading back to Central, via a bus stop some awfully tough walking a few kilometres away, for some coffee at The Coffee Club and a long train journey home upon which to read the new etiquette guide (Don’t: etc.).
A perfect day, highly recommended.