Persuasions #1, 1979 Pages 13-15, 20-24
The Picturesque in Pride and Prejudice
by A. Walton Litz
When I learned that Donald Greene would be talking this evening about possible models for Pemberley, it set me thinking again about the role of landscape – both natural and “improved” – in Jane Austen’s fiction. Over the past few years, following the early lead of E. M. Forster, a number of critics have examined Jane Austen’s uses of landscape, and have discovered that she was affected far more profoundly than one might have thought – given her essentially classical mind – by the great shifts in taste and feeling that we call Romanticism. In the later novels landscape is used to express “states of feeling,” and in Persuasion especially the intensely physical nature of Anne’s life – her loss and recovery of “bloom,” as Jane Austen calls it – is movingly imaged in the rhythms and moods of the changing seasons, which finally bring Anne “a second spring of youth and beauty.”
Tonight, however, I want to build on Donald Greene’s remarks by focusing on landscape in Pride and Prejudice. You might call my little talk, in imitation of the title-pages affixed to accounts of late eighteenth-century sketching tours, “Some Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty in Pride and Prejudice, With Particular Attention Given to the Approach to Pemberley House.”
In the Biographical Notice of the Author supplied for Northanger Abbey and Persuasion by Henry Austen, Jane’s favorite brother, we learn that 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.” Among the works of William Gilpin that Jane Austen certainly knew was his Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, On Several Parts of England; Particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland. It was published in 1786 with aquatint illustrations and was an immediate success, going through four editions by 1808. Vestiges of this book have been located in Pride and Prejudice by many readers; but I would go further and speculate that Gilpin’s tour provided the ground-plan for First Impressions, the lost original of Pride and Prejudice written in 1796-97. At the end of Book Two of Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle embark on their tour, Jane Austen comments: “It is not the object of this work to give a description of Derbyshire, nor of any of the remarkable places through which their route thither lay; Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick, Kenilworth, Birmingham, etc. are sufficiently known.” They were sufficiently known to Jane Austen because of Gilpin’s book, which describes the area around Haddon Hall and Chatsworth in a late chapter that opens with a “General description of the peak of Derbyshire.” Moreover, the route followed by Elizabeth and the Gardiners, by no means the only approach to the Lake Country, is exactly that followed by Gilpin in his first four chapters. Gilpin’s tour culminates in a detailed and ecstatic survey of the Lake country, and we remember that Elizabeth is delighted when a trip to the Lakes is first proposed, and “excessively disappointed” when it has to be curtailed because of Mr. Gardiner’s business commitments: “she had set her heart on seeing the Lakes.”
But more than a ground-plan is visible in the revised novel. Some of Elizabeth’s more obscure remarks have their explanations in Gilpin. When she decides to risk a visit to Pemberley, Elizabeth muses: “But surely … I may enter his county with impunity, and rob it of a few petrified spars without his perceiving me.” The “spars” have puzzled commentators, but Gilpin has a paragraph on “that curious, variegated mineral … supposed to be a petrifaction … known in London by the name of the Derbyshire Drop.” According to the OED this is one of the first literary references to “Derbyshire spar” (flourspar), which could be held before a candle to reveal picturesque patterns.
There are many other details from Gilpin embedded in the revised novel, but the real interest in Jane Austen’s relationship to Gilpin lies, of course, in a different world from “petrified spars.” The picturesque tells us something important about her development as an artist, and about Elizabeth’s changing sensibility in the novel, which reflects the changes in Jane Austen’s own sensibility between 1797 and 1811-12. I think Jane Austen was so strongly attracted to Gilpin in her youth because his work appealed to her warm, pre-Romantic feelings about nature and her love of the comic, which is founded on her unshakeable good sense. The “picturesque moment,” as Martin Price has so aptly named it, was a brief phase in English taste when the new sense of landscape already apparent in poets such as Jane Austen’s favorite, William Cowper, was systematized in the language of sketching and painting. Jane Austen’s early attitude toward the picturesque is neatly embodied in a passage which I think we all feel must be a substantial survivor from First Impressions. Elizabeth has just heard that the tour with the Gardiners may reach “perhaps to the Lakes.”
“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone – we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers, shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.”
The language here is that of the late Juvenilia, and the attitude toward the picturesque – enthusiastic participation tempered by a sense of the absurdities in the vocabulary of “transport” – is very much the attitude of the young Jane Austen.
Jane Austen’s keen, almost professional grasp of the techniques and jargon of the picturesque is reflected also in that marvelous passage in Northanger Abbey where Henry Tilney, who views the country with an eye “accustomed to drawing,” lectures so brilliantly on “foregrounds, distances, and second distances – side-screens and perspectives – lights and shades” that Catherine is ready to reject the whole city of Bath as “unworthy to make part of a landscape.” Although the young Jane Austen was deeply attracted to the picturesque, which organized her emotional responses to Nature and gave her a language for seeing, she was endlessly delighted by its pedantic absurdities, especially those of William Gilpin. In the section on Henry the 8th in her juvenile “History of England,” Jane Austen comments: “nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing it.” Here she is spoofing a paragraph in the introduction to Gilpin’s Observations, where he exults over the number of ruined and therefore picturesque abbeys in England, which naturally make England superior to the continent: “Where popery prevails, the abbey is still entire and inhabited; and of course less adapted to landscape.” But we must not think of Gilpin as an easy target for Jane Austen’s satire. He can on occasion sound like Mr. Collins, yet at other times he resembles the ironic Mr. Bennet – or Elizabeth herself. The following passage on Scaleby-castle must have delighted the youthful author of “The History of England” and First Impressions.
What share of picturesque genius Cromwell might have, I know not. Certain however it is, that no man, since Henry the eighth, has contributed more to adorn this country with picturesque ruins. The difference between these two masters lay chiefly in the style of ruins, in which they composed. Henry adorned his landscapes with the ruins of abbeys; Cromwell, with those of castles. I have seen many pieces by this master, executed in a very grand style; but seldom a finer monument of his masterly hand than this.
The delicate balance between affection and humor in Jane Austen’s early attitude toward the picturesque is revealed in another scene in Pride and Prejudice which I suspect was carried over intact from First Impressions. When Darcy asks Elizabeth to join him in a walk with Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, who has just been abusing Elizabeth’s family, Elizabeth replies with a laugh:
“No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly group’d, and appear to uncommon, advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good bye.”
She then ran gaily off …
As several critics have noted, the “subtext” here is Gilpin’s appendix on his prints, where he explains in technical jargon that there are problems in “forming two into a group,” while “four introduce a new difficulty in grouping.” But with three you “are almost sure of a good group.” Elizabeth shows herself to be a good student of Gilpin, like her creator; but the cause for her gay laugh is the little joke she shares with those of us who have read Gilpin, since what Gilpin is actually talking about is “the doctrine of grouping larger cattle.”
I think we all feel that the peculiar charm of Pride and Prejudice lies in the easy blending of youthful energy and humor, so evident in this scene, with a mature moral vision. In the years between First Impressions and the radical revisions that produced Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen had grown from adolescence to middle-age, from expectations of marriage to almost certain spinsterhood. She had witnessed death and family tragedy, and had come to understand the pressures that drive Charlotte Lucas into a humiliating marriage with the grotesque Mr. Collins. She had, in short, learned the lessons of Mansfield Park, the first complete product of her mature years. What gives Pride and Prejudice its special quality, and makes so many readers think of Mozart, is the innocence and playfulness of the original novel, which shine through and soften the harder outlines of adult experience.
But the picturesque in Pride and Prejudice is more than a vestige of First Impressions: the way Jane Austen accommodates it to her mature vision becomes part of the novel’s meaning and form. By the time she “lop’t and crop’t” Pride and Prejudice around 1811-12, the picturesque of William Gilpin was going out of fashion, replaced by the more sublime intimations of high Romanticism. It had also received a heavy blow in William Combe’s Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1809-12), which Jane Austen may have read while reworking Pride and Prejudice. Combe’s satire and the wonderful Rowlandson illustrations exposed all the absurdities that had so delighted the young Jane Austen. A way of seeing could not long survive that preferred ruins to sound buildings, bandits to solid citizens, blasted oaks to “great-rooted blossomers.” A world of painterly effects and aesthetic surfaces leaves too many of our deepest needs unsatisfied. Soon a new term evolved, reflecting a more profound involvement in landscape: the “moral picturesque.” Hawthorn used it to describe one of his stories in Mosses from an Old Manse, and Henry James picked up the phrase in his study of Hawthorne. Ruskin in Modern Painters carefully distinguished between the nobler (or moral) picturesque and the surface-picturesque, which he felt was a kind of irresponsible, witty play separated from the world of social responsibility.
I would contend that Elizabeth Bennet’s education in Pride and Prejudice involves a movement from the “surface-picturesque” to the “moral picturesque.” Her early prejudiced behavior is marked by a witty arrangement of people and ideas, a playing with emotional effects for aesthetic ends. She misunderstands Darcy’s inner nature because she is so delighted with surfaces, and enjoys seeing the world in artistic terms. She journeys to Derbyshire and the peak expecting to find Gilpin’s picturesque delights, but finds instead a house and grounds that embody what can only be called moral values. It has often been remarked that the description of Pemberley which opens Book Three is covertly a description of Darcy: the landscape foreshadows the startling discoveries of the next few pages. Like Donwell Abbey in Emma, which embodies Knightley’s frank personality – “It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was” – Pemberley speaks of its owner’s personality.
Elizabeth’s mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; – and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.
The difference between this landscape, filtered through the consciousness of Elizabeth Bennet, and the surface-picturesque of Gilpin tells us how far Elizabeth and her creator have come in their journeys toward maturity. The “picturesque moment” of Jane Austen’s youth has not been discarded; rather, it has been absorbed into a more complex and responsible view of life and art. As I have said before, Pride and Prejudice is so seductive because it allows us to feel that Elizabeth and Darcy are “right” for each other both morally and aesthetically: their marriage satisfies our desire to believe that what is “right” socially and ethically can also be stylish and beautiful. That belief may be an illusion, and Jane Austen could not rest with it, moving in her later fictions toward the calm, slow beauty of disciplined suffering. But it is an illusion so powerfully sustained within the created world of Pride and Prejudice that the novel has remained uniquely satisfying for over one hundred and fifty years, and has brought us together tonight.