As this 200th anniversary year of the first publication of Sense and Sensibility draws to a close my conscience has got the better of me and I thought I ought offer to you some  more detailed articles about points of the novel that interest me, for as you know this is my least favourite of all the novels and I do tend to drag my feet about it all. I apologise.

Today, I thought we might take a look at the discussion between Edward Ferrars and Marianne Dashwood in Chapter 18, and discuss what it reveals about them and their creator’s views on blasted trees and other things Picturesque….


In Chapter 18 of Sense and Sensibility,we are given an acute illustration of Marianne Dashwood and Edward Ferrars differing personalities by their reaction to the landscape around them. Jane Austen was said to be an admirer of William Gilpin and his writings on the “picturesque”, which I have written about before in this post here. In Chapter 18 we get something of her views, I think, on both Gilpin, his followers and on beauty in landscape.

Edward Ferrers, professional, practical and not at all romantic especially in Marianne’s use of the word, professes to see the landscape in practical terms only and almost chides Marianne for her far more poetic approach:

 Edward returned to them with fresh admiration of the surrounding country; in his walk to the village, he had seen many parts of the valley to advantage; and the village itself, in a much higher situation than the cottage, afforded a general view of the whole, which had exceedingly pleased him. This was a subject which ensured Marianne’s attention, and she was beginning to describe her own admiration of these scenes, and to question him more minutely on the objects that had particularly struck him, when Edward interrupted her by saying, “You must not inquire too far, Marianne — remember, I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste, if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold! surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country — the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug — with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility — and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque.”

Interestingly, while Elinor Dashwood gently berates Edward for his boast of knowing nothing of the picturesque ( which in fact is not quite true, for  in the speech in the quoted paragraph from Chapter 18, above, Edward demonstrates very clearly that he  is perfectly aware of the language used by admirers of William Gilpin’s books: rather than knowing nothing about the picturesque, he seems to have read all about it ,thought about it and then rejected its tenets). Marianne, while despairing of Edward’s view, takes agin those who, unlike her, know nothing of real beauty in the landscape, but merely parrot Gilpin’s jargon, without thinking for themselves about the merits of their surroundings:

“It is very true,” said Marianne, “that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Everybody pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning.”

In the end the debate between them is really about the poetic versus the practical:

“I am convinced,” said Edward, “that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower — and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

William Gilpin wrote a book specifically about the beauty( or lack of it) to be found in trees, and it is very probable from the language used in this passage to suppose that Jane Austen read it and was referring to it here. In his Remarks on Forest Scenery , first published in 1791, he set out his principles of the picturesque as applied to the trees, hedges, copses and forests he knew. He did, of course, live for a long time in the New Forest in Hampshire and was basing his writings on years of observations. Born in the north, in the Lakes , an area then devoid of the plantations since made by individuals such as Thomas Storey and organisations such as the Forestry Commission, he moved south to Cheam in Surrey and then in 1777 Gilpin left Cheam to become vicar of Boldre in the New Forest in Hampshire. As he explains in the preface to his book:

The subject( of forest scenery-jfw) was new to me. I had been much among lakes and mountains; but I had never lived in a forest. I know little of it’s scenery. Every thing caught my attention; and as I generally had a memorandum book in my hand I made minutes of what I observed; throwing my remarks under the two heads of forest scenery in general and the scenery of particular places. Thus as small things led to greater, an evening walk or ride became to foundations of a volume…

So exactly what, for Gilpin, constituted a picturesque tree? He absolutely hated any manner of interference by man in the shaping of trees: for him only natural forms could be truly picturesque :

All forms that are unnatural displease.A tree lopped into a may pole, as you generally see in the hedgerows of Surry (sic) and some other countries is disgusting. Clipped yews,lime hedges and pollards for the same reason are disagreeable: and yet I have sometimes seen a pollard produce a good effect, when nature has been suffered for some years to bring it again into form; but I never saw a good effect produced by a pollard on which some single stem was left to grow into a tree. The stem is of a different growth: it is disproportioned;and always unites awkwardly with the trunk…

Above is the illustration of A Pollard on which a single stem has been left to grow into a tree.

He considered that a picturesque tree was one that possessed the following characteristics:

Lightness also is a characteristic of beauty in a tree : for though there are beautiful trees of a heavy as well as of a light form; yet their extremity must in some parts be separated and hang with a degree of looseness from the fulness of the foliage which occupies the middle of the tree, or the whole will only be a large bush…

A tree also had to be well balanced:

It may have form and it may have lightness ; and yet lose all its effect, by wanting a proper poise. The bole must appear to support the branches.We do not wish to see it supporting its burden with the perpendicular formless of a column. An easy sweep is always agreeable; but at the same time it should not be such a sweep as discovers one side plainly overbalanced

This is the illustration of an unbalanced tree bending over a road

To sum up:

Without these requisites therefore form,lightness and a proper glance no tree can have that species of beauty which we call picturesque.

However, Gilpin considered that trees growing wild often had “defects” caused by wind and weather and  these “injuries” added to their beauty:

What is more beautiful for instance on a rugged foreground, than an old tree with a hollow trunk ? Or with a dead arm,  a drooping bough or a dying branch? All which phrases I apprehend are nearly synonymous…

He was especially approving of the blasted tree (a phrase used by Edward Ferrars, note):

The blasted tree has often a fine effect both in natural and in artificial landscape. When the dreary heath is spread before the eye and ideas of wildness and desolation are required what  more suitable accompaniment can be imagined than the blasted oak, ragged, scathed and leafless: shooting its peeled white branches athwart the gathering blackness of some rising storm?

It is interesting that in the debate with Edward, Marianne talks of Gilpin in these terms:

Everybody pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was.

She is clearly an admirer. It is those who pretend to understand him she despises. But did Jane Austen agree with her?I think she may have been poking fun at her creation, who at this point in the novel is unable to appreciate any other view than her own on almost any topic. On loving only once, on preferring the beauty of a blasted tree as opposed to a well-grown straight and  productive piece of timber that would be worth money. Jane Austen was clearly a practical woman, who took great interest in the running of her brother Edward’s estate at Chawton. She, like Edward Ferrers, knew the value of well grown timber. I think she could  poke fun not only at Gilpin but  at his followers, who like Marianne, thought that only they knew true picturesque beauty when they saw it ,as opposed to other, less perceptive souls who while they thought they were following Gilpin’s dictates, were merely spouting jargon.

Despite having been described by her brother Henry in his Biographical Notice of her as being “enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque” and as seldom changing her opinions either on books or men, I think her admiration of Gilpin was not particularly slavish. I often wonder if Jane Austen’s admiration was tongue in cheek. I cannot but see her reacting against his rather overblown sentiments and forcefully stated opinions. Like Marianne he is quite dogmatic and really does not allow for differing opinions. Luckily for Marianne, her harsh life experiences mean that she eventually becomes more reasonable. We know that she changes her mind with regard to the important matter  of second attachments, and I wonder if this maturing affected her view on the value of straight, productive trees ;)