Monday, January 25, 2016

Jane Austen Tech Geek

Farleigh Hungerford Castle 1730. A ruin near Bath.

"As they drew near the end of their journey, her impatience for a sight of the abbey...returned in full force, and every bend in the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows." Northanger Abbey chapter 20.

Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen's masterpiece exploring the real versus the imaginary. Catherine Morland is the heroine of Northanger Abbey, although "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine." As she grows older her passion is for Gothic novels.

When visiting Bath with her friends Mr. and Mrs, Allen she meets Henry Tilney who "seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was rather near it." Eventually, Catherine receives an invitation to visit the Tilney home at Northanger Abbey. Of course, the opportunity to visit an ancient abbey brings out the inner Gothic in Catherine and she expects old ramparts, turrets, and dark drafty corridors.

On the way to the abbey, Henry fuels her Gothic interests. "How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment! -- And what will you discern?-- not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other, a ponderous chest which no efforts can open, and over the fire-place the portrait of some handsome warrior, whose features will so incomprehensibly strike you, that you will not be able to withdraw your eyes from it."

Catherine in primed for a true Gothic adventure. However, when she arrives at the abbey she finds it is actually furnished with all the modern comforts. "An abbey!--yes, it was delightful to be really in an abbey!--but she doubted, as she looked round the room, whether anything within her observation would have given her the consciousness. The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. The fireplace, where she had expected the ample width and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain though handsome marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china."

I always enjoy the mention of the Rumford as it was designed by one of the cadre of scientists and engineers who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, began creating our modern world.

But what is a Rumford? The Rumford was a new design for a fireplace. It was originally proposed by Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford.

Benjamin Thompson 1753-1814

Benjamin Thompson was born in 1753 in Woburn, Massachusetts. He met and married a wealthy widow named Sarah Rolfe and through her acquired a property called Rumford in Concord, New Hampshire.

Thompson was a Tory and was forced to abandon his property and his wife and flee to England during the American Revolution. After the war he moved to Germany, where he became an aide to the Prince Elector Charles Theodore. Working for Prince Charles he created the Englischer Garten in Munich in 1789. For his efforts, Charles made him a Count of the Holy Roman Empire and he took the name Rumford after his property in New Hampshire.

The beer garden "Am chinesischen Turm" in the Englischer Garten Munich
"Englischer garten gfo2 by Fritz Geller-Grimm

Thompson was a scientist and engineer. His most important contribution to science was his recognition that heat was a result of the motion of atoms and not a liquid, as was commonly believed. As an engineer, he developed the Rumford fireplace that appears in Northanger Abbey to Catherine's disappointment. Rumford's design angled the walls of the fireplace and narrowed the neck of the chimney in order to produce a better updraft. This led to more efficient burning and much less smoke in the room.

Thompson published his ideas in 1796, and his fireplace was an immediate success in London. Very soon after, fashionable drawing rooms became much less smoky.

Jane Austen worked on Northanger Abbey (called Susan at the time) between 1798 and 1799, and she incorporated the latest technology to let readers know just much the real Northanger Abbey differed from Catherine's vision. This is just the first of several rude awakenings Catherine will receive during her visit.

As a final note, you can still buy a Rumford fireplace today. They generally produce less emissions then regular wood burning fireplaces. Sitting beside a modern Rumford might be a the best way to read a Gothic novel, or a Jane Austen satire of a Gothic novel.


  1. I'm sure I've passed over this without another thought.
    I love that Miss Austen chose to include it

  2. Thanks, Chris, for another great post! As you say, the Rumford is among the first modern disillusionments Catherine encounters at Northanger. Because I'm the great-granddaughter of a man who tried and failed to make a go of raising pineapples in Florida in the early 1900s, my own favorite is General Tilney's "pinery" (hothouse for growing pineapples), which had yielded "only one hundred in the last year"!