To my shame I failed to review some very interesting books which were published last year, and so, before we begin our Pride and Prejudice adventure, do allow me to make amends.
The first book I wish to recommend to you this week is a biography of Uvedale Price by Charles Watkins and Ben Cowell, published by The Boydell Press, as part of their garden and landscape history series. This is a series which is overseen by the doyen of British landscape history, Professor Tom Williamson of the University of East Anglia, whose books I admire very much, so we can be assured that the books in this series are going to be interesting and worthwhile
Attentive readers of Jane Austen’s works will note that she appears to have been very interested in the debate that raged in polite society during the 1790s regarding the “picturesque” as a result of a pamphlet war between Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight and Humphrey Repton. Conversations on this topic were often included in her works, illuminating aspects of her characters’ attitudes not only to landscape and beauty but to life in general. In Northanger Abbey , written between 1798-9, Henry and Eleanor Tilney speak the painterly language of the picturesque and of the adherents of William Gilpin while accompanying the wonderingly practical Catherine Morland on a walk around Beechen Cliff near Bath. Edward Ferrars and Marianne Dashwood disagree as to the usefulness of a straight, well-grown tree as opposed to an old twisted tree looming on the landscape. And in Mansfield Park the relentless improvers are certainly not to be admired. Mr Rushworth ( who intends to employ Humphrey Repton like his friend, Mr Smith) is opposed in his schemes for Sotherton by the almost silent horror of Fanny Price:
“Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”
Edmund Bertram is resolutely practical in the face of Henry Crawford’s relentless plans for the improvement of his rectory at Thornton Lacy:
“And I have two or three ideas also,” said Edmund, “and one of them is, that very little of your plan for Thornton Lacey will ever be put in practice. I must be satisfied with rather less ornament and beauty. I think the house and premises may be made comfortable, and given the air of a gentleman’s residence, without any very heavy expense, and that must suffice me; and, I hope, may suffice all who care about me.
To understand the background to Jane Austen’s feelings and to those of her characters, it is not only necessary therefore to read the works of William Gilpin, and to understand why she was enamoured (ahem!)of him, but also to understand the debate that raged between Uvedale Price and Humphrey Repton in the 1790s. This book will amply reward any reading, especially if it is done with Mansfield Park in mind. It is the first biography of Uvedale Price to appear in print, and is fascinating.
Uvedale Price was born at Foxley, in the parish of Yazor, Herefordshire, where he was baptized on 14 April 1747. He was the eldest son of Robert Price, a gentleman artist, and his wife, Sarah. His work on his estate formed his ideas on landscape . He absolutely detested the work of Capability Brown, (and his imitators) whom he considered had inflicted a dire and unfortunate uniformity on the 250 plus estates he had “improved” by utilising the same landscaping elements -smooth lawns around the house, sweeping away ancient gardens; installing serpentine lakes; decorating this new landscape with similar types of clumps of trees- wherever the estates were throughout the country.
Price was convinced that an estate could be considered beautiful in all its parts, not merely the pleasure grounds around the main house, but also that the working parts- the farms, the woodlands etc. – could not only be domesticated, populous and productive parts of the landscape, but could also be attractive and beautiful. A notion Jane Austen appears to allow her character, Emma to espouse. See this scene from Chapter 42, when Emma surveys the beautiful but practical landscape of the Donwell estate in all its glory:
It was hot; and after walking some time over the gardens in a scattered, dispersed way, scarcely any three together, they insensibly followed one another to the delicious shade of a broad short avenue of limes, which stretching beyond the garden at an equal distance from the river, seemed the finish of the pleasure grounds. It led to nothing; nothing but a view at the end over a low stone wall with high pillars, which seemed intended, in their erection, to give the appearance of an approach to the house, which never had been there. Disputable, however, as might be the taste of such a termination, it was in itself a charming walk, and the view which closed it extremely pretty. The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey-Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.
It was a sweet view — sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive
This book is fascinating, explaining in great detail the nature of these esoteric arguments which were taken up by polite circles in the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th century. Reading it sets in context Jane Austen’s attitude to landscape and estates and furthermore explains her attitudes towards certain of her characters and why, to her, improvers and Humphrey Repton are never quite “the thing”. And again proves that, despite being the relatively impoverished daughter of a clergyman, living an apparently quiet, domestic life, she routinely involved herself and her characters in the famous debates of the day, allowing them and herself to take part and immortalise them. Reading this book is an illuminating experience for any admirer of Jane Austen.