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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

21 December 2007

Two Views of a Countryside

"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."

"By some such improvements as I have suggested... you may raise it into a
place. From being the mere gentleman's residence, it becomes, by judicious improvement, the residence of a man of education, taste, modern manners, good connexions."
The first quotation, of course, describes Pemberley, that greatest of all the great good places in the romance canon, as first seen by Lizzy Bennet -- a "first impression." Which is significant, because First Impressions was Austen's working title for a novel that has taught us just how misleading first impressions can be.

Surely, though, this first felicitous glimpse of Pemberley is a truer view of the man resident within that our heroine has hitherto been afforded.

Or is it?

Because upon closer scrutiny, that description isn't quite as limpid or self-evident as it first appeared. Surprisingly, the sentence demands a little work before its meanings are completely unpacked. The banks of the stream, "neither formal nor falsely adorned," are so delightful, both to us and to Lizzy, who "had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste," that we may see the landscape as a wholly natural spot -- even while Lizzy is moved to feel "that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!"

To be mistress of Pemberly is something indeed. But Lizzy’s and our view of the place can profit from the second quote at the top of this post. This one is in the voice of one of Jane Austen's lesser gentlemen. Actually no gentleman at all, but a charming seducer, Henry Crawford from Mansfield Park. Mr. Crawford knows something about landed property: he's got some of his own in Norfolk, upon which he's worked his own "judicious improvements." And what Henry Crawford (and Jane Austen as well) know about property improvements is that they shouldn’t be obvious.

So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at how tricky Austen's description of Pemberley turns out to be. Because upon first reading, it may escape the reader's notice that the "stream of some natural importance" has been "swelled into greater." "Without any artificial appearance," the stream has doubtless been widened by one of the period's great landscape gardeners, perhaps employing one of those new Watt & Boulton earthmoving engines.

Then as now, "natural" didn't come cheap or easy -- and nature wasn't to be trusted to do the job on its own.

Nor is appearance necessarily a guarantee of true inner nature. "Improvement" and "cultivation" can be slippery, ironic terms in an Austen novel. No wonder successful love is such hard work for an Austen heroine.

Ironic or sincere, one can't overestimate the importance of a "pleasing prospect" in the Georgian/Regency worldview. Power in landed society is power to turn nature into landscape and to dictate point of view. English estate owners of the eighteenth and nineteenth century invested large amounts in "improving" their property, creating seductive, natural-seeming vistas, to be seen from elevated spots or through enlarged windows. Some of the greatest English fiction takes place against this landscape, upon the great and near-great estates where the dramas of marriage and inheritance took place.

The literature has taught us to how to see such landscape. What has it hidden from us?

Lately, I've been taking some peeks beyond the outside the gates of the park and the stone walls of fields newly enclosed for improved agriculture -- in the poetry of John Clare (1793-1864).

An agricultural laborer and self-educated poet, Clare enjoyed a brief popularity with English readers in his youth, and a longer, painful obscurity, the last half of his life spent in a madhouse.

And while it's impossible to know what drives anyone mad, it's difficult not to suppose that the pressures of supporting a family through hard manual labor, combined with a lifelong pursuit of writing (and he wrote a lot) wouldn't have something to do with it. As Geoffrey Summerfield says in his introduction to Clare's Collected Poems:
By 1832, some difficult truths had shaken Clare's delicate and vulnerable sensibility: very early he had made the crucial and irreversible shift from a primarily oral culture to a literate and literary culture. But even as his work was in fact published, meeting with a confusing variety of responses from his readers, the integrity of his vision and his native language was challenged and compromised by well-meaning friends, patrons and editors, and he continued inescapably to live among people to whom poetry was a closed book.

How lonely he must have been, stranded between a disappearing world of farm laborers enclosure was rendering increasingly redundant, and the great, glittering one of English letters.

A lot of his poetry betrays its lack of formal education - until I read Clare, I hadn't realized how accustomed I was to the romantic poets’ wide education in form and meter (or even the formidable breadth of what Jane Austen picked up from her father’s library). But the best of Clare is an astonishment and you should check it out.

A particularly lovely way to discover Clare (and what Michael and I have been doing) is to read his Shepherd’s Calendar poems every month, here, online.

Long, detailed, sometimes meandering, sometimes stumbling on their clunky meters, these poems nonetheless bring us to a hidden, almost Darwinian world of creatures struggling for survival in the forgotten byways of a changing society gearing up for industrial revolution.

It’s a word of multiple, contending points of view, everything going on at once, with no grand landscaper to tell you whether to look at the birds, the trees or the clouds, or to blend them into pleasing prospect. This world takes its orders, its order and its complexity too, from the changing seasons, a world of many small ongoing dramas and wars - like this one (not in the Calendar poems) between gypsies, their dogs, and the hedgehogs they’re hunting:

But still they hunt the hedges all about

And shepherd dogs are trained to hunt them out

They hurl with savage force the stick and stone
And no one cares and still the strife goes on
Not only does no one see (their view directed onto the pleasing prospects of great, natural/artificial/natural vistas), but no one cares.

Except, perhaps, for the perennial figure you find wandering through Clare's fields, farms and forests:

And now and then a solitary boy
Journeying and muttering o’er his dreams of joy

Writers and readers both: are you conscious of the role that landscape and the natural world play in novels, even in romance novels that are so character based?

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15 Comments:

Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Fascinating Pam -- as I've mentioned before I spend an inordinate time thinking about the houses my characters inhabit and with your question in mind I realize that "the house" includes the landscape around it. So, the short answer is "yes" I do.

Thanks for making me more aware of it. Now I will think about what that imagined landscape says about my characters

Will also check out John Clares poetry...

10:20 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post, Pam. I'm in the process of writing a historical YA set in upstate New York, and I'm very conscious of the the landscape as well as the physical aspects of what a college campus would have looked like back then. How isolated they would be from the nearest town, and what places on the grounds could people hide, and what my heroine feels when she sees it for the first time, coming from an urban environment, knowing how her life is going to change going to college.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Very nice, Pam. I am definately aware of setting as character. Landscape images add such demension to the story. A frigid, frozen forest is one of my favorite landscapes, and woods that have primal, earthy feel. Very cool in romance especially if the landscape is reflecting the feelings of the heroine and hero toward each other at the time.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

In reply to an earlier question of yours, Mary, a lot of this stuff comes from British literary critic Raymond Williams' The Country and the City, which I have never finished -- it's so dense -- so I don't know if it exactly qualifies for a book I "return to." But which I absolutely recommend.

What a fascinating subject for a YA, Elizabeth. I've heard that Vassar is amazingly gorgeous.

And Kathrynn, I love the idea of a "frigid, frozen forest," too.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'm actually basing the campus partly on Vassar and partly on Elmira College. I smell a road trip coming up.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Great post! I do find I'm very conscious of the "lay of the land" in novels, both as a reader and as a writer. The houses and grounds can become as real for me as the characters.

Can anyone remember who it was who said he wanted to die before Capability Brown, lest he reach Heaven to find it remade?

4:51 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

LOL, great quote re Capability Brown

6:02 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great topic! Thinking through the grounds of any country house I write about goes hand in hand with thinking through the plan of the house itself. (In "Beneath a Silent Moon," the hero's mother has designed the gardens, so I tried make the gardens a reflection of her). As your post illustrates, grounds and gardens can't be a great metaphor for seeming naturalness hiding a great deal of artifice.

Happy Winter Solstice!

6:16 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

What an enlightening post, Pam. I hadn't really consciously thought of the landscape as a character, but on reading the first chapter of my first (and only completed) novel I realize that the Yorkshire countryside plays a big part in the story. And the great old houses are such a great canvas on which to paint a romance. I LOVE the Capability Brown quote. Too funny! I think even the weather can become a character if it is unique to the area and described in the right way.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I agree about gardens, Tracy -- one of the things I love about England is the beauty of the gardens you see everywhere -- not just major gardens (though the public one at Kew is spectacular) but little pocket front yards in London with perfect roses in them. And speaking of major gardens, I'd love to see Vita Sackville-West's gardens at Sissinghurst -- has anyone? Anyhow, a garden is a wonderful way to develop a character, imo (though I'd have to know a lot more about gardening than I do to be able to pull it off ;-})

And I definitely agree about using the weather, doglady

11:22 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

This is a wonderful, evocative, provocative post, Pam.

I think about the landscape all the time, not just how it might look to the characters, but how it might smell, depending on the plants at the time: firs? flowers? Which ones?

The changing landscape of England between the late Georgian era and the Regency very much mirrors what was happening socially and politically at the time, a certain reordering of one's terrain to one's taste -- wild, but consciously so (faux-wild, if you will), and therefore somewhat tamed. The times they were a-changin' to paraphrase Bob Dylan, and landscape architects like Capability Brown (or his fictional counterpart, "Culpability" Noakes, from Tom Stoppard's priceless drama ARCADIA, set during the early Regency) were instrumental in creating order out of chaos, which is also what we see happening in terms of social sexuality. The messy licentious abandonment of the Georgians was morphing into manners far more genteel (and gentle).

8:27 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I agree with so much of what you're saying, Amanda. And Arcadia was one of the things that first got me thinking about landscape and "improvements".

2:24 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

A final salvo from me before the holiday...

Hoydens, you've made this year a fun one for me and one filled with lots of learning. Thank you for your kind and warm welcome chez History Hoydens. I look forward to a great 2008 with you. Merry Christmas!!

3:51 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Merry Christmas to you, Keira. And to all.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

coming in really, really late... I recently re-read "Mansfield Park" which is chockful of stuff about landscaping and Repton--at least in the beginning. And I couldn't help wonder whether this is part of Austen's nature vs. nurture debate regarding her human subjects.

And thanks for talking about Clare, Pam. I mentioned elsewhere that my mother, in the late 1930s, I think, taught in the Northampton village where he lived, and a century after his death the villages were still talking about "their" eccentric poet.

9:17 AM  

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