SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.1 (2000) 123-137
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Katherine Austen's Country-House Innovations
Pamela Hammons *
Katherine Austen, in her little-known country-house poem, "On the Situation of Highbury" (1665), appropriates select topoi from the tradition of the genre to ascribe value to the estate and to negotiate her position in relation to it. 1 In doing so, she creates a socially acceptable, if paradoxical, voice for a wealthy widow eager to increase her social rank. 2 As we will see, Austen's country-house poem warrants especially close attention because the voice Austen constructs in it speaks, for most of the poem, from an innovative position--as neither patron / proprietor nor guest--within the tradition of the genre.
Austen, who lived from 1628 until 1683, resided in London through the tumultuous events of the Civil War and Restoration. She was from a wealthy mercantile family and married Thomas Austen, a man of similar wealth and rank. She and Thomas shared a strong interest in elevating their socioeconomic standing. However, Thomas did not live long enough for them to achieve their goal during his lifetime. When Thomas died in 1658, he left Katherine with three children, the management of their property, a will that restricted her ability to marry for seven years, the awareness of her widowhood as a potential vulnerability, and her continued desire for greater status, wealth, and personal power. 3
The richest source of information about Austen is her manuscript miscellany, "Book M," which includes over thirty occasional and religious lyrics on topics such as child loss, Austen's legacy to her children, a Valentine's Day gift, her prophetic interests, and of course, Highbury. It also contains spiritual meditations, including a short essay on Hildegard of Bingen, notes on sermons, comments on her economic affairs, and correspondence. She wrote the miscellany primarily between 1664 and 1666 and made changes to it until 1682. "Book M" demonstrates her familiarity [End Page 123] with the poetry of Richard Corbett and some of John Donne's writings (certainly his sermons, possibly his poetry). As Barbara J. Todd indicates, Austen also knew Sir Walter Ralegh's History of England and Isaak Walton's Lives. 4 Austen's verse meditations suggest that she studied David's Psalms; she may also have become familiar with religious verse through hearing lyrics interspersed with sermons. 5 As "On the Situation of Highbury" reveals, she was very familiar with the conventions of country-house poetry, suggesting that she read a range of examples from the genre.
The most striking characteristic of "On the Situation of Highbury" is Austen's tentative relationship to the estate about which she writes. As Malcolm Kelsall observes, "the English country house tradition is originated by, and belongs to, outsiders." 6 Such "outsiders" can be social equals to the hosts for whom they write their epideictic verse (as in the case of Thomas Carew's "To Saxham" and Mildmay Fane's "A Peppercorn or Small Rent Sent to My Lord Campden for the Loan of His House at Kensington, 9 February 1651"), or they can have unequal status, either lower or higher, with respect to their hosts (as in the case of Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst," Emilia Lanier's "The Description of Cooke-ham," or King James's "Verses Made by the King, when He was Entertained at Burly in Rutland-shire, by my Lord Marquess of Buckingham. August 1621"). Austen, however, is not simply an "outsider," a visitor to Highbury; "On the Situation of Highbury" praises an estate that she hopes to secure as her own. She appears to have composed her poem in September 1665, when Highbury came out of lease to another holder and entered into Austen's possession. Yet waiting for the estate to come out of lease had been only one obstacle to her ownership of the estate. There had been a separate movement in Parliament earlier that year that would, if successful, have made the estate unavailable to her. 7 Therefore, while Austen seems to have been positioned...