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Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Jane Austen's Landscapes

This year is the bicentenary of Humphry Repton's death, and several events are planned: visit

My latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World magazine (Mar/April issue) is on the way Austen uses landscapes in her novels. 

Jane Austen grew up during the great age of the ‘improvers’ like Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton. Austen loved William Cowper's poetry. In his poem The Task, Cowper deplores the rage for 'improvement' which swept away the past:

Capability Brown
Improvement too, the idol of the age,
Is fed with many a victim.  Lo! he comes—
The omnipotent magician, Brown, appears.
Down falls the venerable pile, the abode
Of our forefathers, a grave whiskered race,
But tasteless…
He speaks.  The lake in front becomes a lawn,
Woods vanish, hills subside, and valleys rise,
And streams, as if created for his use,
Pursue the track of his directed wand
Sinuous or straight, now rapid and now slow,
Now murmuring soft, now roaring in cascades,
Even as he bids.  The enraptured owner smiles.
’Tis finished.

This tension between the old and new is explored by Jane Austen in her last, unfinished novel, Sanditon. The enthusiastic Mr Parker has built a new home at the seaside: ‘Trafalgar House, on the most elevated spot on the down’. It is a 'light, elegant building, standing in a small lawn with a very young plantation round it’ 

He pours scorn on his wife's fondness for their old home, in a ‘little contracted nook, without air or view’. 

Mrs Parker, more practical, reminds him 'It was always a very comfortable house'. Parker ripostes that ‘We have all the grandeur of the storm’ at Trafalgar House.  His wife still longs for their old garden, however: ‘a nice place for the children to run about in. So shady in summer!' 

Images from the author's collection:
Wooburn (Woburn) in Surrey, the seat of Philip Southcote. He designed it as a ‘ferme ornee’ (ornamental farm garden). The Universal Magazine c.1770. 
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore & Legend, Walter Scott, 1889

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