Thanks to every TV and cinema adaptation of Pride and Prejudice it isn’t hard for a modern reader to imagine the quiet corner of England that Elizabeth Macarthur left behind.
Elizabeth Veale, as she was then, was born in 1766 and raised in the very English village of Bridgerule, on the border of Cornwall and Devon. Rolling green hills, flowering hedgerows, majestic trees surrounding an ancient church, picturesque gardens beside quaint little cottages — the location ticks every English stereotype on the bonnet drama list.
And it is easy, upon visiting Bridgerule, to assume that little has changed since the late eighteenth century. Georgian Bridgerule was more accurately a hamlet, rather than a village, and twenty-first century Bridgerule remains similarly humble. It is a place of soft air and quiet light. The east-west road through the village is sealed now and punctuated with telephone poles but it remains tempting to imagine young Elizabeth strolling along the verge.
Yet any resemblance between the Bridgerule of today to the Bridgerule of the late eighteenth century can only be superficial, at best.
Yes, the village topography remains the same: homes loosely clustered along the road; the Tamar River sliding under the central bridge; St Bridget’s church on the hill above. Five miles west lays the sea and the same distance to the east stands the market town of Holsworthy: in Elizabeth’s day home to some one thousand souls.
The Bridgerule mill is still there, with waterwheel clanking, and it was definitely there in Elizabeth’s day but it was substantially rebuilt in the late nineteenth century so it really can’t contribute to our imaginary reconstruction.
The vicarage (called The Glebe) is still there too, recently restored although I doubt that the original eighteenth century cooking fires or privies served as models for the new kitchen and en suite. It is now a rather lovely bed and breakfast and guests can pay to stay in the refurbished outbuildings — choice of coach house, granary, hay barn or former piggery.
But the outbuildings date back only to the 1840s, long after Elizabeth had left for New South Wales, so no joy there, either.
We’ll have to imagine it as the new building that it was in the 1770s.
The railway came to Bridgerule long after Elizabeth was gone: it was decommissioned in the 1960s, leaving behind a station and culverts. The modern houses, the playing field and football club, the primary school and the children’s playground — these played no part in Elizabeth’s world.
But the church, with its beautiful tower, Saxon font and medieval fretwork, surely that hasn’t changed?
Probably not much, except for the electricity, heating, the nineteenth century renovation and the fact that the modern bells were installed in 1928. Besides, as any vicar will tell you, a church is not the building; it is the community within. The Bridgerule community of Elizabeth Veale is long gone, available to us only through fragments and hints. In trying to capture that past community, parish and legal records provide some clues, as do Elizabeth’s own letters to her family and friends. These skeletal hints can, to some degree, be further fleshed out from contemporary accounts about the way people in the region lived and worked and died.
Essentially, though, Elizabeth’s Bridgerule is now as much a place of the mind as any of Jane Austen’s fictional villages.
Georgian Bridgerule was a place with a way of life intimately familiar to any reader (or watcher) of Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park. Elizabeth’s story could well fit the genre: In 1788 a young gentlewoman raised in the parsonage of a picturesque English village ignores the advice of her friends and marries a handsome, haughty and penniless army officer. Austen, only nine years younger than Elizabeth, also lived in southern England — in Hampshire, less than 190 miles away. Austen’s fictional depictions of the Bennets, or of Fanny Price, might just as easily have taken place in Elizabeth’s real-life Bridgerule. Austen wrote fiction, of course, yet contemporary reviewers considered her work so true to life as to completely lack imagination.
Austen is now thought to have produced an early draft of Sense and Sensibility, her first novel, in the mid 1790s, although it was not published until 1811. As it happens the heroines of Sense and Sensibility, sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, move to Devon in Chapter Six and in their home at Barton Cottage ‘lived’ only fifty miles away from Bridgerule.
So for the purposes of my biography, Austen’s depictions of village mores and manners have as much weight as do those made by other of Elizabeth’s contemporaries.
Yet it remains a balancing act. As Inga Clendinnen explained at length in The History Question: Who owns the past? “We cannot post ourselves back in time. People really did think differently then – or at least we must proceed on that assumption.” Clendinnen goes on to demonstrate the impossibility of genuinely knowing how people in the past thought about anything. Necessarily then, the biographer must be explicit about what are the facts, what are the assumptions and what are the speculations while at the same time maintaining narrative momentum.
Essentially, having gathered what facts we can, it is a matter of trust and imagination.
More blog posts about Bridgerule:
- Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (what I learned about biographical visiting)
- Bridgerule (it’s the people that really matter)