Tag Archive | English Literature

Narratives of Domesticity


It is commonly forgotten that the bourgeoisie was not born in France, neither in England, but in the Netherlands; it was not born in the 19th C. but as early as the 17th C., but as usual small countries and ‘rare’ languages fall in oblivion. Witold Rybczynski, a Scottish architect living currently in Canada, has a wonderful book which just fall in my hands some days ago: Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986). This book is a little jewel written by a humanist architect, what can be called a mini version of Philippe Ariès huge work.

Rybczynski approaches the idea of home historically, since its birth until nowadays. The concept of home different from that of house was born in the bourgeoisie, as such, it conforms the values of the former which, clearly, remain until today. The author has a wide knowledge on history and the arts, and he continuously provides artistic and literary examples of his statements. The one I wish to focus on in here is his comparison between 17th C Dutch paintings and Jane Austen narratives.

Rybcznski shows the first representations of domestic space in Dutch paintings to exemplify the first idea of domesticity and privacy, arguing how ‘there was one place, however, where the seventeenth-century domestic interior evolved in a way that was arguably unique, and that can be described as having been, at the very last, exemplary […] In short, at a time when the other states of Europe remained primarily rural […] the Netherlands was rapidly becoming a nation of townspeople. Burghers by historical tradition, the Dutch were bourgeois by inclination’. However, the Dutch 17th C has not left bourgeois literature as has done the 19th C in other European countries, instead it left pictorial representations of domestic space:


The above painting by de Witte in 1660 is not only a domestic painting but it also contains the bourgeois topic per excellence: adultery. One can carefully see a man hidden in the bed of whom Rybcznski introduces an explanation, hence a narrative, and a domestic narrative. This painting is thought of as domestic space, wanting to englobe the whole of the home in the depiction of several rooms. The woman playing the piano with half-open curtains, the daylight suggesting a non-orthodox hour for intimacies as the owner of the house might be working, the clothes untidily left on the chair: all that narrates a story. Like him, and other contemporary painters, Jane Austen, a century later, ‘single-handedly invented, and brought to perfection, what could be called the domestic genre of novel-writing, the literary equivalent to the seventeenth-century Dutch school of interior painting’. This comparison between painting and writing is very interesting, and they show the same social and class frames in two different moments and times. This historical difference confirms domesticity as bourgeois topic: Austen belonged to the late 18th C. new English bourgeoisie, the concept of home landed to Enlgand, which was also heir of Dutch tastes in interior design.

Austen scenes are typically feminine; women present the whole narrative perspective, it is a world conformed indoors and managed by women and their topics. Love and marriage, as well as real estate, are favorite talks in the drawing or tea room (and it might be reminded that the so tea British tradition came from the Netherlands in the 17th C.). As Rybcznski says, Austen’s plots are simple, no big tragedies or dramas are told, but she has become a national figure, why? Apart from Austen’s deep insights in the human heart, it is indeed a sense of domesticity what her texts bring out: home sweet home, the British nostalgia for quiet familiar and well-being scenes.