Academic journal article Style

Approaching the Interior of the Eighteenth-Century English Country House

Academic journal article Style

Approaching the Interior of the Eighteenth-Century English Country House

Article excerpt

In the late eighteenth century in England, the term "approach" became a noun, with a very specific architectural meaning. As a verb, of course, it primarily meant "the act of drawing near" (Johnson's Dictionary, 1755). (1) Humphry Repton (1752-1818), inventor of the term "landscape gardening," conceptualized the idea of the approach as a carefully designed experience in perspective, a drive from the lodges at the entrance of an estate "through the most interesting part of the grounds, and ... displaying] the scenery of the place to the greatest advantage" (Observations 34). John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), Scottish botanist and Reptonian landscape planner, defined "approach" in his Treatise on Forming, Improving, and Managing Country Residences (1806) as "a variety of road peculiar to a house in the country. In direction it should, on the one hand, neither be affectedly graceful or waving ...; nor, on the other, vulgarly rectilineal, direct, or abrupt" (2:590; original emphasis). The approach should "form new combinations on every movement of the spectator" (2:591).

This idea of approach as a constructed experience, predicated on movement, is part of the picturesque aesthetic, of course, but it more largely might be characterized as part of a shifting cultural interest in angles of perception in a variety of modes. "In the ancient style, the grand object is, to obtain a straight line," Loudon explains, while "in the modern style, a winding line is preferred, as being more easy and natural, and ... displaying a greater variety of scenery" (Encyclopedia 769). Not just architecture but a whole host of cultural enterprises were becoming interested in something other than a straight line as a way of approaching something else. In this essay I will use the historically specific concept of the architectural approach to enter the interiors of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novels from a different perspective. I make three intertwined claims.

First, architectural treatises and novels self-consciously invoked each other. Any Austen reader knows how often her characters call on Repton to improve their estates. And as Peter Collins argues, "[i]t was the desire to live the experiences of a novel which constituted the original essence of architectural romanticism" (39). In synchronized step with the novel, the narratives of the architectural manuals and the guides to the country estates became increasingly interested in describing domestic interiors.

Second, these descriptions adopt patterns that take "a winding line" and "form new combinations" for the reader, both visually and narratively, on approaching and entering the house. The approach is perspectival, reflecting what Collins sees as the eighteenth-century architectural interest in parallax, or "the apparent displacement of objects caused by an actual change in the point of observation" (27). That is, in architecture, things (objects, buildings, views) are designed to produce the perception of movement in the observer. I argue that the narrative strategies of architectural manuals, country house guides, and novels attempt the same effect. Narrative parallax, we might say, is achieved when one sentence winds into the next for a different perspective, as in the new approach of free indirect discourse to psychological interiors.

And third, the perceptual experiences of changing perspectives--these designed "approaches" in architecture, country house tours, and novels--find a common linguistic denominator in a changing grammatical and typographical landscape, away from objects and things (and capitalized common nouns) to the spaces in between (verbs and participles, prepositions and adjectives). (2) A preposition, as defined by one nineteenth-century grammarian, is a word that "enter[s] into a complex proposition, in combination with a Noun or Pronoun, to express some relation" (Fowler 319). In a period where the dominant aesthetic was the picturesque, the architecture was parallaxed, the approach was winding, and narrative explored the indirect, we could say that the cultural perspective was tending towards the prepositional. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.