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."
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.
"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."
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:
Not only does no one see (their view directed onto the pleasing prospects of great, natural/artificial/natural vistas), but no one cares.
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
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?