He then asked her to walk into the house; but she declared herself not tired, and they stood together on the lawn. At such a time much might have been said, and silence was very awkward. She wanted to talk, but there seemed an embargo on every subject. At last she recollected that she had been travelling, and they talked of Matlock and Dovedale with great perseverance…

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 43.

Dovedale was and is a stunning part of the Peak district scenery. To curious travellers of the early 19th century it as one of the “must see” attractions. So, it was natural (and fortuitous!) that Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet were able to talk about it in to fill that dreadful silence on the lawn in front of Pemberley House.

John Cary’s Map of Derbyshire, 1812

But, of course, Jane Austen had no personal experience of this  part of England. She never made  any documented trip to Derbyshire. The most northerly part of England she visited was Hamstall Ridware , just north of Lichfield in Staffordshire, the home of her Cooper Cousins whom she visited in 1806. Those who contend that from there she could have made a trip into Derbyshire and to Chatsworth, are I think mistaken. It was at least 40 miles away from the Cooper’s village, and would have entailed at least 2 days on the road and at least one overnight stay at an inn. During Jane Austen’s only known visit there  in 1806 the Cooper children were unfortunately taken ill  with whooping-cough and therefore it seems unlikely, certainly to me, that such a  complicated and quite expensive trip  would have been taken at that time.

Cary’s Map of Staffordshire (1794)

(section from John Cary’s Map of Staffordshire (1794) showing the position of Hamstall Ridware)

Caroline, Mrs Phillip Lybbe Powys  who was Caroline Cooper’s mother does make one mention of Dovedale  in her diary when visiting the Coopers at Hamstall Ridwre in 1800. But as she was visiting Needwood Forest for a grand picnic at the time she saw it ,  it is clear that she was viewing not the Derbyshire Dovedale which is in fact near to Ashbourne but that from a distance she was viewing  the vale of the river Dove on the Staffordshire./Derbyshire border  which can be seen on the top right of the section of John Cary’s map of Staffordshire above:

When the gentlemen retir’d from the dinner-tables they were placed in a more shady situation for tea and coffee against  the return of the ladies from their walks, after which we again took a very long promenade to view the most picturesque scenes. From some parts we saw Dovedale and other parts of Derbyshire.

(Passages for the Diaries of Mrs Phillip Lybbe Powys, page 338.

So how did Jane Austen know of the  attractions that Dovedale held? The answer lies again in books, and William Gilpin one of her favourite writers. In his book Observations on the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland etc ( 1786)

he describes Dovedale in great detail,and for once. this irascible writer is genuinely impressed with the beautiful scenery  the vale has to offer:

From Ashurn, which is among the larger villages ,and stands sweetly, we made an excursion to Dove-Dale.

Dove-dale is the continuation of another familiar dale, which is sometimes called Bunster-dale; tho I believe both parts of the valley are known, except just on the spot, by the general name of Dove-dale.

Bunster-dale opens with a grand craggy mountain on the right. As you look up to the cliffs,which form the irregular sides of this precipice, your guide will not fail to tell you of the melancholy fate of a late dignitary of the church, who riding along the top of it with a young lady,a Miss Laroche, behind him, and pursuing a track, which happened to be only a sheep-path,and led him to a declivity; fell in attempting to turn his horse out of it. He was killed: but the young lady was caught by a bush, and saved – A dreadful story is an admirable introduction to an awful scene. It rouses the mind; and adds double terror to every impending rock.

(Do note all these illustrations can be enlarged merely by clicking on them)

The bare sides of these lofty craggs on the right , are contrasted by a woody mountain on the left. In the midst of the wood, a sort of rocky-wall rises perpendicular from the soil. These detached rocks are what chiefly characterize the scene- A little beyond them,we enter, what is properly called Dove-dale.

From the description given of Dove-dale, even by men of taste, we have conceived it to be a scene rather of curiosity, than of beauty. We supposed the rocks were formed into the most fantastic shapes; and expected to see a gigantic display of all the conic sections. But we were agreeably deceived. The whole composition is chaste and picturesquely beautiful in a high degree,

On the right you have a continuation of the same grand, craggy mountain, which ran along Bunster-dale; only the mountain in Dove-dale is higher, and the rocks still more majestic and more detached.

On the left, is a continuation also of the same hanging woods which began in Bunster-dale. In the midst of his woody scenery arises a grand solitary pointed rock, the characteristic feature of the whole scene; which by way of eminence is known by the name of Dove-dale-church. It consists of a large face of rock,with two or three little spiry heads and one very large one: and tho the form is rather peculiar, yet it is pleasing. It’s rising a single object among surrounding woods takes away the fantastic idea; and give it sublimity. It is the multiplicity of these spiry heads which makes them disgusting; as when we see several of them adorning the summits of alpine mountains. But a solitary rock tho spiry has often a good effect. A picturesque ornament of this kind marks a beautiful scene at a place called the New-Weir, on the banks of the Wye.

The colour of all these rocks is grey ; and harmonizes agreeably with the verdure, which runs in large patches down the channelled sides. Among all the picturesque accompaniments of rocks there is nothing which has a finer effect in painting than this variation and contrast of colour between the cold grey hue of a rocky surface and the rich tints of herbage.

The valley of Dove-dale is very narrow at the bottom consisting of little more than the channel of the Dove which is a considerable stream; and of a foot path along its banks. When the river rises, it swells over the whole area of the valley and has a fine effect. The grandeur of the river is then in harmony with the grandeur of its banks.

Dove-dale is a calm, sequestered scene; and yet not wholly the haunt of solitude and contemplation. It is too magnificent and too interesting a piece of scenery to leave the mind wholly disengaged.

The late Dr Brown comparing the scenery here with that of Keswick tells us that

“of the three circumferences beauty ,horror and immesity (by which last he means grandeur) of which Keswick consists the second alone is found in Dove-dale”.

In this description he seems in my opinion just to have inverted the truth. It is difficult to conceive why he should either rob this scene of beauty and grandeur; or fill it with horror. If beauty consist in a pleasing arrangement of pleasing parts, Dove-dale has certainly a great share of beauty. If grandeur consists in large parts, and large objects, it has certainly grandeur also.But if horror consist in the vastness, of those parts, it certainly predominates less here than in the regions of Keswick. The hills, the woods and the rocks of Dove-dale are sufficient to raise the idea of grandeur; but not to impress that of horror.

On the whole Dove-dale is perhaps one of the most pleasing pieces of scenery of the kind we any where meet with. It has something in it peculiarly characteristic. Its detatched, perpendicular rocks stamp it with an image intirely its own: and for that reason it affords the greater pleasure. For it is in scenery as in life ; we are so struck with the peculiarity of a original character; provided there is nothing offensive in it.

So,even if she did not visit it in life, with the aid of guides and contemporary prints, as above, Jane Austen coud easily have discerned the character of the place,and realised it a such a subject as  could occupy two awkward loves-to-be  who were desperately searching for some neutral topic of conversation.