|Armed with a Claude Glass |
Prospect and Refuge in the Landscape of Jane Austen
By Barbara Britton Wenner.
Ashgate, 2006. xvi + 124 pages. 5 B/W illustrations. Hardcover. $79.95.
Reviewed by Janine Barchas.
Although Austen’s descriptions rarely linger on any particular landscape, her small references to gardens are ubiquitous. Mansfield Park, of course, prominently records the cultural preoccupation with so-called “improvements,” or large-scale alterations, to a landed estate, and mentions landscape architect Humphry Repton by name. Yet even the names of imaginary characters and locales bespeak Austen’s steady interest in natural scenery. Indeed her choices might lead one to muse about her strange antipathy to groves (from the carelessness of the Miss Musgroves to the snobbery of Maple Grove) or, conversely, about her inexplicable fondness for fields (from Netherfield and Mansfield to Hartfield). Woods also populate Austen’s texts (in the form of families such as Dashwood, Woodhouse, and Heywood) even when the outdoors does not serve as a sustained setting for plot. Puns aside (and Wenner, for better or worse, does not consider Austen’s horticultural habits of naming), the many direct and oblique garden references in Austen offer fertile ground for any study of landscape in her works.
Wenner’s academic monograph offers “geography and feminism as two different lenses with which to approach Austen’s fictions.” Wenner argues that Austen’s female characters seek both prospect or refuge and must cultivate an “edge-of-the-wood” perspective—a stance simultaneously within and without the landscape—in order to thrive. Wenner’s dominant metaphor of the lens is, in fact, a Claude glass. Inspired by the popular landscape paintings of Claude Loraine, a Claude glass, Wenner explains, was a portable mirror and framing gadget that could be used to place limitations on the view of a landscape. Equipped with “this hinged device the size of a lady’s compact,” a traveler in Austen’s day could admire a part of the scenery (reflected in the mirror) as though it were a small painted composition. The Claude glass was a cunning tool for isolating the picturesque.
Armed with a metaphorical Claude glass, Wenner travels quickly through a number of Austen’s fictions, especially her Juvenilia, as well as through novels by contemporaries such as Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe, and Sir Walter Scott. She also spends quite a bit of time (for so short a book and so much territory) detailing landscapes by modern fiction-writers such as Margaret Atwood as well as modern theorists such as Jay Appleton and Gérard Genette. Indeed, Janeites eager to glimpse Austen’s scenery may feel the views are occasionally obscured by other, surprisingly modern, structures. The result of Wenner’s ambitious approach is a kind of intellectual “scenehopping” that resembles the frenetic search for the picturesque that she describes as popular with tourists in the 1790s. As she covers ground in Atwood, Scott, Gainsborough, and Wordsworth in the span of a few pages, for example, the book strides through the fields of literature, architecture, painting, and history. In this fast-paced search for references to natural settings, the topic of landscape expands into a catchall term for any type of space. For example, the term landscape encompasses for Wenner both Portsmouth and the Eastroom in Mansfield Park and both The Cobb at Lyme Regis and the seascape in Persuasion.
While such flowering of the book’s central concern with landscape is, of course, laudable, the absorption of seascape into landscape is, well, a little silly. Land and sea represent, respectively, old and new money in Austen. Not only does the term landscape lose all meaning when it can denote even the watery ocean, but it seems to miss the point of a critical financial distinction embedded in Austen’s opposition. Landed wealth, which had dominated the eighteenth century, was quickly being supplanted by the monied wealth that would dominate the nineteenth century (think “the funds”). In Persuasion, the landed gentry of Sir Walter Elliot’s ilk is unseated by a new class, represented by the Crofts and Wentworth, that made its money profiteering in floating, unanchored goods. Wentworth’s is a miraculously landless and modern wealth. Mixing land and sea in Persuasion is like scrambling East Egg and West Egg in The Great Gatsby.
Equally frustrating is the book’s stubborn fidelity to Appleton’s vocabulary from 1975. As a result, the book seems slightly dated from the outset, and its rhetoric of “habitat theory” more evocative of a Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom episode than an academic discussion of Austen. That said, the book’s most robust section concerns the fascinating observation that the term natural is used more than 50 times in Emma, garnering interpretive attention for the role of Nature in that novel. Indeed, besides the book’s notably easy opening on walking tours through Austen’s former haunts, the strongest of the book’s arguments comprise sections (such as that on Emma) previously published as articles elsewhere. In sum, the uneven topography of this book’s crowded intellectual landscape makes for an eccentric expedition through Austen.
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