Great House Therapy: The Dashwoods’ Casual and Tolerably Comfortable Cottage -The Toast

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Name: Elinor Dashwood, responsible eldest sister, daughter, and heroine who demonstrates strength of understanding and coolness of judgment, even when people are real jerkwads
Location: Devonshire, England
Size: Comfortable and compact, with four bedrooms, two garrets, offices, unhandsome stairs, and two sixteen square-foot sitting rooms (too cramped for parties, obviously), which is all just another way of saying REALLY DISAPPOINTINGLY SMALL
Years lived in: For several months, since leaving the family’s enormo Sussex estate of Norland Park, where for many generations the Dashwoods had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance (so that was nice of them); rented

Death is a real bummer under most circumstances, but it’s a particular bummer when it means that you get kicked out of your house. Such was the situation for Elinor Dashwood, her sisters Marianne and Margaret, and their mother Mrs. Dashwood upon the death of their beloved father-slash-husband. Norland Park was passed to the sisters’ half-brother John (thanks, patriarchy), and his highly unpleasing wife Fanny immediately set to work alienating all of the Dashwood women and forcing them from the premises.

“John is not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be cold-hearted and rather selfish is to be ill-disposed,” said Elinor. “You know, just as I’m saying this, I’m realizing that it totally is. We thought he would be like the Property Brothers – helping us out and everything. But he’s no Jonathan and Drew.”


Luckily, the Dashwoods received a letter in the true spirit of friendly accommodation from Sir John Middleton, who offered them a cottage on his estate of Barton Park, four miles northward of Exeter. Although the Dashwoods were unfamiliar with the area, they tried to see their banishment from Norland as an opportunity for a new real estate adventure.

Devonshire is known for its rich pastures, downs, pleasant woods, and total lack of beaux.

“The weather was nice when we arrived, which cheered us up, as did our three lovely servants, which is the number of servants you have when you’re poor,” said Elinor. “But then the reality of our diminished marriage prospects started to dawn on us, and I’m not going to lie: we really overdid it on tea that evening. Marianne had a terrible tea headache the next day.”

Barton Cottage has a neat wicket gate, and a small green court is the whole of its demesne in front. “Demesne” derives from the Old French demeine, and ultimately from the Latin dominus, which translates as, “Feudalism is still a thing, so none of this sh*t belongs to you.”

Friends have been quick to offer decorating advice, as well as effusive praise of the kind of house that they themselves will never be required to inhabit.

“Willoughby loves the place,” said Elinor. “He suggested that we hang a white plastic faux stag mount on the wall, but we told him that we needed the money for flour and socks.”

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A Chat with Elinor:

Her Style: I esteem funky, mismatched drawer pulls from Anthropologie, distressed stools, and Rococo anything – really just the word “Rococo.” I think very highly of dishes that are designed to look like they already have crazing on them. I like things that don’t bring to mind the agony of grief and melancholy remembrances. Otherwise, I sort of let Etsy be my guide.

Important Influences: Rain is a big influence. It never really stops raining here, so we have a lot of time to stay in and think about what kinds of window coverings would be best and how many more cushions we need to embroider. Marianne is always taking walks in the rain. I swear: one day she’s going to get really sick in a flushed, sweating, erotic way, and I’m just going to be like: I told you the rain was bad.

Interesting Features: Our rent is uncommonly moderate, which is great, but when we moved in, the cottage was lacking all the cottage things: a tiled roof, green window shutters, and honeysuckle. It’s like the Middletons had never read a single blog about charming cottages. I don’t know what the hell they do with their time.

Her Inspiration: Not shabby chic. Ugh. It looks like you ate a bunch of pink roses and then vomited them up. Oh, a cottage! How shabby chic! everyone says. If I have to hear that phrase one more time, I swear I’m going to just stop making polite conversation.

Important Pieces: We have gotten some nice gifts from people who are supposedly our friends. Charlotte Palmer and Mrs. Jennings got us a Serpentine front chest and a serpent. Lucy Steele sent us a mahogany chair with a Georgian splat. I mean, what the hell is a splat?

Key Features: Not a horse, I can tell you that. We don’t have a friggin’ horse.

Biggest Splurge: Marianne was pretty excited about the Marimekko line at Target, but I told her that we could only get one tray. We really haven’t budgeted for Finnish trays.

Most Romantic Feature: Probably our total isolation (#pastoral). I could say a lot more about the prospect of the cottage and the picturesque – a lot more – but I won’t.

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What Friends Say: Everyone keeps referring to the cottage as our ‘beach house,’ but we don’t have lobster-printed flip-flops or a monogrammed L.L. Bean Boat and Tote bag or anything. Honestly, we don’t get a lot of visitors because it’s a challenge to feed them, but sometimes Colonel Brandon comes by for a half-hour and sits and doesn’t talk.

Proudest DIY: We sort of DIYed almost everything, so it’s hard to say. Maybe setting up Marianne’s pianoforte? It was a real pain to fit it into our sitting room, but the music does help to fill the endless hours of waiting for Edward to maybe grace us with his presence. On the days when there’s nothing to do, we just walk around, taking our aprons on and off.

Biggest Embarrassment: The walls still need some embellishment. I want to start an art collection as I’m rather artistic myself, but not in a way that would make me not want to be a wife. Right now, we just have a lot of my drawings up on the walls, but I’d like a piece by Man Ray or Lucian Freud, once we can afford sugar.

Biggest Challenge: Sir John is always stopping by to drop off a nice side of an animal, but these cuts can be hard to cook as we don’t have our large Le Creuset casserole anymore. Fanny insisted that it stay at Norland. I have a few other pieces in ‘Flame,’ myself, she said. She is so deficient in natural taste.

Plans for the Future: We’re keen to make some improvements because that’s what you do when you have a house in the nineteenth century. Marianne would like her own nook where she can read Cowper and Scott in the afternoons, and I’d like a military-grade bunker where I can go to escape all the crap that everyone constantly dumps on me. Did I ask you to tell me your dirty little secrets????? Most of the time, I just want a stiff cup of tea.

Best Advice: Consider familial and collective responsibility over individual feeling when it comes to selecting paint colors, especially if you want to paint a room a glamorous glossy black, which I really did think would work. And don’t get discouraged. Am I sometimes a wee bit melancholy about our lack of patterned poufs and marriage prospects? Sure. But we’ll probably do surprisingly well in the latter department because we’re heroines in a Jane Austen novel. And when it comes to patterned poufs, well: I’ve known a few of those in my day, and her name begins with Lucy Steele.

Susan Harlan is an English professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in Shakespeare. Her essays have appeared in venues such as The Guardian US, The Morning News, Roads & Kingdoms, Nowhere, The Awl, Public Books, and Curbed.

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