"I Have Just Learnt to Love a Hyacinth": Jane Austen's Heroines in Their Novelistic Landscape
Wenner, Barbara, Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
She was a warm and judicious admirer of landscape, both in nature and on canvas. At a very early age she was enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque; and she seldom changed her opinions either on books or men.
--Henry Austen ("Biographical Notice")
EVEN AS A FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL, Jane Austen had a sharp appreciation of landscape and landscape art. When we read "Evelyn" and see Jane Austen's mildly satirical view of "perhaps one of the most beautiful Spots in the south of England" (MW 180), we can smile at the hero Mr. Gower's enchantment with a house in "the exact centre of a small circular paddock," borders of poplars and firs "alternatively placed in three rows" and--best yet--a field "grazed by four white Cows which were disposed at equal distances from each other" (181). Landscape strongly influenced Jane Austen's early works as well as her novels, and the situating of her heroines in that landscape reflected Austen's sense of aesthetic geography.
Austen knew that a way of seeing and a way of being within a landscape were crucial for her novelistic heroines. She worked to create spaces for her heroines to negotiate positions of greater power with more opportunities for freedom and happiness on their own terms. Here we will examine how Austen's own ways of seeing the early nineteenth-century English countryside are linked with her heroines' abilities to find prospects and refuges in their novelistic landscapes.
As we know from her brother's "Biographical Notice," Jane Austen read William Gilpin and knew about his prescribed ways of viewing the landscape through a Claude glass, a mirror device that allowed the viewer to frame the scene, leaving out the areas considered less than picturesque. Gilpin recommended that travelers use a Claude glass to frame the landscape, emphasizing the "correct" picturesque scene. His books instructed the viewer where to stand, what to keep in the view, and what to leave out. As a girl, Jane Austen "learnt to love a hyacinth," so to speak, in the Gilpinesque way, and she also knew early on how to mock such artificial constraints, taking care to place her heroines in locations which were geographically (and emotionally) advantageous to them.
The topography of Hampshire and Somerset, even today, gives us a number of views with which Jane Austen was familiar. The hedgerows near her first home in Steventon have been discussed by her nephew in his Memoir. First, he describes the countryside:
It is certainly not a picturesque country; it presents no grand or extensive views; but the features are small rather than plain. The surface continually swells and sinks, but the hills are not bold, nor the valleys deep; and though it is sufficiently well clothed with woods and hedgerows, yet the poverty of the soil in most places prevents the timber from attaining a large size. (Austen-Leigh 285)
Soon after, he gives a description of the hedgerows:
But the chief beauty of Steventon consisted in its hedgerows. A hedgerow, in that country, does not mean a thin formal line of quickset, but an irregular border of copse-wood, and timber, often wide enough to contain within it a winding footpath, or a rough cart track. Under its shelter the earliest primroses, anemones, and wild hyacinths were to be found.... Two such hedgerows radiated, as it were, from the parsonage garden. One, a continuation of the turf terrace, proceeded westward, forming the southern boundary of the home meadows; and was formed into a rustic shrubbery, with occasional seats, entitled "The Wood Walk." (286-87)
So we can tell the kind of landscape with which Jane Austen was familiar in Hampshire, Steventon being only about eighteen miles from her last home in Chawton. Later we will see how the hyacinths and hedgerows serve her heroines.
As her early heroine, Catherine Morland, learned the conventions of landscape art from lover/mentor Henry Tilney, so Jane Austen learned from Gilpin how the male proprietary landscape owners viewed the scene. …