Lessons in Interior Décor from Pride and Prejudice

Whenever I scroll through my Instagram feed, or flick through one of the many glossy magazines I buy at train stations before a journey, I’m met with dozens of beautiful images of interiors and no matter what style it is, they all share something in common: the rooms are full of things. Beautiful things that make up beautiful ensembles, that’s for sure, but I often feel that, in 2017, we are now in an age that is crying for more minimalism.
Myself, and I’m sure many others, are a bit wary of that word, because it conjures images of black geometric blocks, glass coffee table and the stereotypical bachelor pad like that of Harvey Specter in Suits. It doesn’t have to be like that: the key feature of minimalism is that is reduces decoration to what is really necessary. In an age where we have the compulsion to buy more and more objects to turn a house into our home, reducing what we have to a few things really worth seeing (statement pieces, if you like) is quite counter-cultural. It is also, according to the growing number of people embracing movements for more ethical shopping habits, our only way forward if we want to take good care of the environment (as well as our fellow human beings.)

Being one of these people, I take great inspiration from a time when this wave of consumerism was only just starting, whether it is from historical houses or recreated ones, like the sets of the adaptation of Jane Austen’s novels. The Wright version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly is, in my opinion, underrated, although understandably given it’s fighting its corner against the famous BBC miniseries with a wet-white-shirted Colin Firth, but one of the features of the film is precisely the quality of the interiors and the way they play into the general depictions of the characters.

The first interior that we see is the house of the Bennett family. It’s the house of a gentleman, although not a gentleman of means (not an irrelevant distinction, as gentility is seen in the novel as a quality of the person that money cannot buy), but it’s spacious and decorated with the kind of objects that started to appear in the 18th century from other parts of the British Empire, shown in English drawing rooms as a status symbols (for example China vases). There was a whole industry creating such pieces for the less affluent in English factories, now valuable antiques in their own right. The fragility of these objects meant they could only be used on surfaces that were not working surfaces so, despite the scarcity of objects to our modern eyes, the home of the Bennetts shows us we can have elegance and a sense of richness even with owning less. The striking blue of some of the walls add to this impression: a white wall would make the natural light even more prominent, but would create a sense of bareness in the least decorated rooms. Blue is also a colour associated with calm and elegance.

The second interior we see is Netherfields. It’s all in shades of white, grey and brown; the natural colours of marbles. The small dining room in which we find Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy is almost lacking in decoration, with the neo-classical columns being the focus. Something that is even further away from our modern sensibilities is the lack of textiles. Most of our homes are soft on our feet with lots of carpets, and we have blankets and cushions to make our couches (themselves in models that are more comfortable than the wooden frames of the Regency period) cosier. Textiles, however, are more high maintenance than the highly decorated marble floor of the ballroom, which is a stunning piece of work. This elegant simplicity can inspire us to find an agreeable modern version for our own house, like coloured tiles or mix-and-match patterned wooden floors, which would add character to a room without adding to our already long list of day to day responsibilities the way textiles do. They are also great for people with a dust allergy, as they don’t trap dust like carpets do.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt from Pride and Prejudice is how to tell the difference between elegant simplicity and bareness. This is something that really shows in the Parsonage. The only room that has attentive décor is the personal sitting room of the mistress. Everything else is as stern as you’d expect from the kind of clergyman (and man as a whole) that is the Rev. Mr. Collins. The choice of delicately decorated pastel green wallpapers, while too simple, makes the house still appear a comfortable and pleasant enough home with a feminine touch (very unlike Lady Catherine de Burgh, who is supposed to be the hand behind the finesse of the whole of Rosings Park). Wallpaper is also something less demanding of commitment than re-painting our walls, but which still allows us to create a colourful living space without cluttering it with paintings and pictures on every inch (and as a bonus, you can add pictures and paintings on top of your wallpaper if you have a spacious enough room). However, this becomes even more evident in the contrast between Rosings and Pemberley.

Rosings Park is the home of a titled widow with an imposing personality, and is shown to be dark and baroque. It is true that most scenes are taking place at night, but the massive Restoration frescoes in the Elizabethan original palace (Burghley House in Lincolnshire) appear darker than the other interiors in daylight too (like in the scene when Elizabeth is first introduced). Everything about Rosings is there to remind you that you just aren’t to the level of Lady Catherine. Contrast that with Pemberley, the real life seat of a duke (Chatsworth House in Derbyshire), despite the lack of title of Mr. Darcy. Everything about Pemberley is elegant open spaces, a lot of white marble and plenty of light. Darcy, unlike his aunt, embodies the kind of gentleman who would see nobility as an interior characteristic rather than an outward display of power and wealth, and such a view of himself is made clear by his objections to Elizabeth’s family while not objecting to her directly. To him, she possesses these inner qualities in spite of the inferiority of her situation. Pemberley seems to me to reflect exactly this about his personality: it’s an astonishing place, and there is a sense that this is an innate quality. It’s a thoughtful display of refined taste, rather than the consequence of filling it up with things to impress people to the point it becomes overwhelming in a negative way.

For all his faults, Jane Austen’s most famous romantic hero has a lot to teach us 200 years later, not only about matters of the heart, but also about matters of the home.