I’ve spent a large amount of time this past month rereading and connecting with Mansfield Park, and last week when our JASNA meeting hosted, Linda Chisholm, Ph.D., from Columbia University, who teaches the history of landscape design at the New York Botanical Garden, I truly had no idea that I would walk away finding so many new layers to enjoy from Austen’s work, particularly pertaining to Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice, while at the same time carrying away with me some vital questions about what Austen was really trying to say about her characters throughout the descriptions of the landscapes in her stories.
As a historian, whose special interest is in 18th-century English landscape design, Linda’s former career in international education has enabled her to visit many of the world’s great gardens. Her expertise was shared through her extensive collections of English landscapes and landscape features that she allowed us to see through her critical lenses of thoughtful analysis.
I knew I’d found a kindred soul in her when she started her presentation by saying, “Will you allow me just tonight to call her Jane because she has been so very long, my friend.” Linda became acquainted with Austen when her own mother shared with her Austen’s beloved classic story as a young woman, telling her, “Now you’re ready for Jane Austen,” as she handed her Pride & Prejudice.
So what does a woman who loves Austen have to teach Janeites about gardens? It turns out we had quite a lot to learn from Linda, as she shared with us some of the highlights pertinent to the history of the evolution of the English garden, which was changing in a significant way during Jane’s lifetime. An example of this that was quickly brought to my mind was when I recalled the way that Austen attempted to contract Darcy’s personality and values with those of his esteemed aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, when Austen describes Lady Catherine’s formal and severely manicured landscapes, which feel artificial and imposing, while Austen’s descriptions of Pemberley’s “natural” and less formal landscapes, summons within the reader a feeling of deep admiration and hopeful anticipation:
Elizabeth, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter.
The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood stretching over a wide extent.
Elizabeth’s mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half-a-mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!
Yes, to be the mistress of Pemberley would definitely be something, but before we explore the significance of landscapes in Austen’s time, let’s step back in time to the 16th and 17th centuries, when garden design in Europe was heavily focused on various geometric designs, which included hedges trimmed to display these shapes. The formal look emphasized carefully manicured shrubs, hedges and flowers. Trees were limited to perimeter areas in order to maintain openness.
Let’s take as an example, the gardens at Versailles, where the designs of its gardens, along with the infamous gold Apollo fountain, boldly reminds visitors that “The King’s power is absolute,” as an enormous statue of Apollo is seen literally pulling the sun from the sky. To a visitor in the 17th century, this work of art narrated a story that Louis XIV longed to make known throughout the world; No light, nor life, would be within their world without the King. Louis XIV, who was also known as The Sun King, reinforced this in his own mind each time he paused to savor the view from his magnificent bedroom windows.
However, the climate of Europe was changing, as power moved from the court to the countryside, which also included the ways that the English viewed their own ambitions. Now it was desirable to obtain a great country seat to obtain power and become elected to the House of Commons. This movement of power was reflected in their gardens as well.
In the 18th century, you had to be a property owner to vote; therefore, power was found in these great country seats, as it is still today in many places of the world. As the English developed their houses, they called this task “placemaking.” Enter on the scene a man named Lancelot Brown, aka, Capability Brown, and the English countryside was groomed from one vast estate to another, changing the landscape of England for numerous years to come. However, Capability Brown didn’t go to Italy to study gardens, like many of the other gardeners of his time. He received his first big commission at 18 years old when and he was offered his first job at Stowe through the Temple family.
The beauty of Stowe’s landscapes eventually became masterpieces under Brown’s leadership, which moved even the greatest of writers, including Alexander Pope, to labor over finding the right words to capture its magical elegance. Pope wrote the following passage celebrating the design of Stowe gardens as part of a poetic tribute to Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, who was largely responsible for developing the new taste for gardening and architecture in England during the early eighteenth century:
After designing over 200 commissions throughout England, what have we learned about the landscaping preferences of Capability Brown? Well, you have to love grass, grass, and more grass… The charm of grass is that it doesn’t detract from the magnificence of the estate while it shows off the simple grandeur of the estate in a manner similar to a mat surrounding a work of art.
Another appealing aspect of maintaining grass was that it was groomed by the grazing of hundreds of sheep or cut by men to synth the grass. With an abundance of men cutting your lawns by hand for approximately fourteen hours a day, you’re communicating to everyone how very rich you truly are!
The way Brown contoured the land became another one of his prominent landscape design features, as he had large amounts of Earth moved to create these varying slopes, such as the slopes seen at Stowe. Do you recall the magnificent scenes from Downton Abbey? Highclere Castle is also an estate whose landscapes were designed by Capability Brown. The most characteristic features of his style are the circular clumps of trees, the grassy meadow in front of the mansion house, the serpentine lake, the enclosing tree belt, and the encircling carriage drive. Does this remind you of that long drive through Pemberley woods?
Dorothy Stroud attributes 211 designs for English parks to Brown and a surprising number remain in good condition , often because they have adapted well to modern use as public parks, farms, golf courses and schools. The best of them are magnificent, probably more so today than when seen by Brown’s critics in the 1790s. My own favourites are the arcadian glade at Prior Park, the Grecian valley at Stowe, the lakes at Luton Hoo and Blenheim Park, the embankment outside Alnwick Castle, the riverside scenery at Chatsworth and the grand views at Petworth and Harewood which J M W Turner painted.
Some of Brown’s other designs are so ‘natural’ and ‘English’ that it is difficult to appreciate them without a survey of the site as it was and a plan of the works executed by Brown. His lakes lie in comfortable depressions, his woods clothe hills which would resist the plough and his green pastures roll to the rhythm of the English countryside. A large collection of Brown’s professional papers, which might have provided more information on what he actually did, was given to Repton by Brown’s son and have since disappeared. The paucity of documentation on so many sites makes Bowood a park of special interest. Here the plan and the estate survive in good condition. There is even a small palladian temple designed by Brown on the edge of the lake. (GardenVisit.com / The Landscape Guide)
So what does this all mean for Janeites, you ask? When one looks at these grand, yet “natural-looking” estates, along with the places in her stories in which Austen incorporates these various features of landscaping to describe her settings, develop some of her characterizations, and insert some important moments of foreshadowing into her plots, it’s hard to imagine that she wasn’t aware of these monumental changes that were occurring to the English countrysides that she loved so dearly.
Linda asked us to think about whether or not we believed that Austen knew that Pemberley was built on this Capability Brown model of landscaping, along with his aim to display grand wealth in these lush, yet understated settings. If she was aware of this current evolution in English landscapes, can we truly believe that Pemberley’s grounds are displayed by Austen, as an attempt to show a lack of “artifice” to have Darcy appear less concerned with wealth and status than other members of the gentry class?
It’s important to remember that Austen’s novels provide an accurate record of that moment in English history in which high bourgeois society most evidently interlocked with an agrarian capitalism. Even though Darcy is viewed as the steward of many generations, one has to speculate whether or not he did indeed contribute during his eight and twenty years in any significant ways to Pemberley’s landscape designs? After all, both he and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are members of an ancient family, and they are highly conscious of the power they possess. Both control the lives and incomes of scores of people on their estates (Brown, 2003). Would they both not deem it essential that their estates and their surrounding landscapes reflect the values of their stations?
Although women in the gentry had less authority than men, some had considerable power. When Elizabeth visits Pemberley for the very first time and she muses to herself that “To be mistress of Pemberley might be something…” can readers truly believe that she held no mercenary ambitions for her own life? Family and marriage occupied a far more public and central position in the social government and economic arrangements of English society than they would later. In the novels of Austen, marriage is then accurately seen as an institution that both determines and is determined by history….(Brown, 2003).
I believe now, more than ever before, that there is at least a slice of truth to Elizabeth’s jestful reply to Jane when she declared that, as to her love for Darcy, “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”
A few days after Linda’s lecture, I began feeling my ideas about Elizabeth and Darcy and their shared ambitions for their own futures had taken a shift in a new direction. I find myself going back to her questions regarding Darcy, as she asked us, “Did Darcy develop his property solely for nature’s sake, or were his ambitions similar to other landholders of his time, where he sought to find his identity and power through the landscapes of Pemberley?” I now believe that Darcy and Elizabeth found within one another not only a kindred spirit to love and confide in, but most likely a person with ambitions equal to his/her own, and in some ways, those ambitions may have been even more equal in scale to the grandeur of Pemberley than I had ever before cared to imagine.
Thank you, Linda Chisholm, for allowing JASNA-NY Metro members to explore new layers of meaning within the pages of a story that continues to intrigue and delight readers throughout the world. Part II, the last part of my series, will be based on Linda’s presentation where she discussed Brown’s work at Blenheim Palace and how landscape features also play a role in Austen’s Mansfield Park.
Linda’s upcoming book, Nature to Advantage Dress’D: The Art and History of Landscape Design Told Through 100 Great Gardens, will be published this year.
1. Brown, Julia Prewitt. “The ‘Social History’ of Pride and Prejudice.” EXPLORING Novels, Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EJ2111200090/SUIC?u=dove10524&xid=b7ea49ee. Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.
For a wonderful introductory video to Capability Brown’s work, view the video below:
My dear readers, not it’s your turn to have your share in the conversation. I am so curious to hear your thoughts about Linda’s questions, particularly whether of not Darcy developed his property solely for nature’s sake, or were his ambitions similar to other landholders of his time, where he sought to find his identity and power through the landscapes of Pemberley?”
Also, do you think maybe Elizabeth was a bit more ambitious about her own future prospects than you may have initially thought her character was and that there now may be more truth to the fact that seeing Pemberley did influence her feelings towards Darcy? Oh, the joys of rereading Austen through a new lens!