Twenty five years before Jane Austen’s birth, Samuel Johnson published Rambler No. 4, in which he critiques the practice of writing romance novels where characters are placed in scenes of dubious morality. Warning authors of their influence on the minds of their readers, Johnson states that when a heroine “ 1 He encourages authors and readers alike to observe the world, read to a text, and then go out into the world again to apply or disprove the lessons found in books. Many years later, Jane Austen emends Johnson’s instruction by turning to contemporary discussions of the picturesque. Following writers on the picturesque who insist that it takes an educated eye to rightly appreciate the aesthetic concept, Austen’s novels teach her readers to refrain from relying too heavily upon appearances and first impressions. Instead, through her heroines, Austen urges her readers to adopt a revisionary approach. Extending the picturesque emphasis on study, education, and practice much further, Austen insists that readers learn to attend to details, to shift point of view, and to revise their judgments in areas of moral as well as aesthetic perception.
Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a debate over the picturesque raged in England, concerning the correct way of looking at the English landscape. Austen’s relationship to the debate over the picturesque is a complicated one. In her novels, she satirizes the language of the picturesque and gently mocks the fashionable and forceful debates that arose in England over where it might be found (in the mind’s eye or in the landscape itself), what its characteristics might be, and whether and how the various theories of the picturesque might authorize changes to the landscape. Uvedale Price, one of the chief theorists of the picturesque, outlines in his essay, “A Dialogue on the Distinct Characters of the Picturesque and the Beautiful,” his model for a picturesque education. In the “Dialogue,” the protagonist, Mr. Seymour, is shown a picturesque view of a group of gypsies encamped by a “ruinous hovel” by his guides.2But as he has no understanding of the picturesque or its features; he fails to appreciate the beauty of the scene. Mr. Seymour is then led through the picture gallery of an estate where he examines the works of art and is taught by his companions to see the variety, detail and seemingly random features of the picturesque, which balance an artistic composition and tie it together. Mr. Seymour then returns to the view and, having studied painting, is literally able to “see more” and apply his new knowledge to the landscape.3
Although she ridicules the fashionable excesses of picturesque connoisseurs, and their overenthusiastic application of the concept to the landscape at the expense of their grounds and traditions, Austen does not reject the notion entirely. Instead, she emphasizes the importance of revision. She stresses that both her characters and readers alike need to look again at a scene, an idea, or a person; to focus with attention—noticing neglected details, overcoming biases, and trying to see the subject more accurately by reforming impressions obtained from a first glance. Therefore, Austen’s view of the picturesque can be characterized as a practice of revisionary looking, an exercise in reassessing one’s perceptions of the world, rather than merely relying on aesthetic or emotional feeling. Through her process of revisionary looking, Austen places familiar landscapes and characters under scrutiny, making them the focus of her reader’s gaze. This intense gaze situates her readers and protagonists in a state of constant surprise, as impressions they once firmly held are changed and revised when they look again. With each look comes a new perspective, a way of seeing more clearly and correctly. Following these shifting scenes, the reader’s subjectivity mirrors that of the heroine, who is, as Deidre Lynch describes, “misunderstood by everyone but the reader.”4 Thus, aligned with both the heroine’s and the narrator’s privileged gaze, the reader learns to see things as they ought to be seen, expanding a singular point of view to confront the unexpected in the expected.
Leading both her characters and her readers through this process of revision, Austen teaches them to revisit and look again at impressions they initially formed based on sentiment rather than reason. Austen urges her readers to uncover the secrets of her work on two levels. First, her characters’ interaction with the landscape around them shrewdly reveals elements of their dispositions that the reader might not otherwise notice. Second, by witnessing as Austen’s characters learn to improve their perception, not just of places, but also of people, a reader finds her own perceptions changing as well. This process can be seen most fully in Persuasion, Austen’s last completed and (ironically) least revised work. Within the text there is an intense concern with landscapes and seascapes, with portraits and their frames, and with second glances that illustrate the importance of looking again from alternative points of view. The numerous examples of incidental detail, that the reader might easily overlook or ignore, illuminate Austen’s desire to extend the notion of picturesque seeing.
In order to understand Austen’s revisions at work, it is first necessary to comprehend the notion of the picturesque as an aesthetic and intellectual undertaking. Although the term has a fluid quality to it, the visible attributes typically associated with the picturesque are intricacy, variety, roughness, sudden variation, and irregularity. Moreover, the picturesque is typically associated with ruins and decay, aspects that provide a visual indication of the gradual passing of time. Or, as Jill Heydt-Stevenson so vividly phrased: “the picturesque landscape is lush in texture and detail; energetic and vital in its sense of animation; abundant in its foliage; rich in its contrasts of light and shade . . . represent[ing] a nature that is gone, a relationship with the land that no longer exists, and a recognition of one's own mortality.5 In one sense, Austen’s insistence on attention to detail, on going beyond first impressions to appreciate little surprises and irregularities one by one, is, as we shall see, exactly what the writers of the picturesque recommend. But her insistence on revision goes beyond the aesthetic aspects of the theory, and she extends the practice of picturesque viewing to a process of making moral judgments.
Led through the text, as Mr. Seymour is led through the picture gallery, readers practice their moral judgments, observing not paintings but the characters themselves. Austen’s use of the picturesque does not rely on heavy descriptions of paintings and the scenes expressed within their frames. She realizes that mere aesthetic appreciation of an artwork, or merely aesthetically pleasing features in a picture, or a scene, aren't the only things that matter, just as improvements without respect for tradition become ridiculous. Rather, Austen uses paintings as a device to demonstrate how they inspire curiosity within the minds of her characters. As Peter Sabor explains, “when pictures appear in Austen’s fiction, the focus is on their effect on character’s attitudes to the pictures, rather than on the pictures themselves.”6 When an artwork is mentioned in the text it is not described in eloquent and evocative detail. Rather, much like her characters, Austen provides a few brief descriptions and then moves on. These descriptions provide an imaginative framework that can be revised and altered as the reader follows the story. As Sabor indicates this “gulf between image and text” is closely aligned “the disparity between visual images and the lives they purport to display.”7 Instead of focusing on an aesthetic object, Austen instead invites the reader to observe how her characters react to pictures or those landscapes. These reactions are the aspects on which the reader is invited to focus. The reflective reader who observes these responses can then use them as examples with which to make or revise her own views on those characters. These revisionings are not of aesthetic qualities but of moral ones, as Austen teaches her readers how to judge a character’s character. And having familiarized herself with such character judgements throughout the text, the reader can then go out into the world and apply her knowledge.
Toward the end of Persuasion, there is a moment when a work of art and its effect on a character comes into focus. Anne comes across Admiral Croft musing over a print hanging in a shop window. Deep in contemplation, the Admiral fails to notice her at first, but when he becomes sensible of her presence he turns to her cheerfully and says:
Here I am, you see, staring at a picture. I can never get by this shop without stopping. But what a thing here is, by way of a boat! Do look at it. Did you ever see the like? What queer fellows your fine painters must be, to think that anybody would venture their lives in such a shapeless old cockleshell as that? And yet here are two gentlemen stuck up in it mightily at their ease, and looking about them at the rocks and mountains, as if they were not to be upset the next moment, which they certainly must be. I wonder where that boat was built! (laughing heartily); I would not venture over a horsepond in it. . . . Lord! what a boat it is! taking a last look at the picture, as they began to be in motion.8
The real problem with the print for the Admiral is not its overwhelming sublimity, but rather that the boat is not rendered realistically, depicted as a “shapeless old cockleshell” instead of a seaworthy vessel. The admiral’s criticism of the work lies in the nautical, not natural, depictions of the print which represent man being overwhelmed by his own folly. As a man who rose through the naval ranks, the Admiral can distinguish details about ships that would not be apparent to landlubbers. The ability to correctly identify types of ships, their class, and their tonnage could mean life or death to a sailor on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars. This identification would allow a captain to decide whether his vessel and crew could fight and take an approaching ship, or should flee. In the print, the rocks, mountains and sea are only rendered sublime by the poor construction of the sailing craft. The artistic license used in the print portrays a vessel inadequately equipped to confront nature.
The ship’s poor rendering leaves it liable to being overwhelmed by the sea and capsized at any moment. However, the artist’s representation is an implausible depiction of reality and reveals the pitfalls of a picturesque education. Mr. Seymour would be hard pressed to judge the seaworthiness of a boat if his education focuses only on making aesthetic, not practical judgments, for the irregularity and ruin of the boat in reality would bring about the sinking of the ship. Admiral Croft is able, through his practical knowledge of maritime life, to pull himself out of immediate engagement with a scene and consider it practically from a different point of view. From the perspective of a nautical man, the best ship it would seem is not the most beautiful, or the most suitable for portrayal in a picture, but rather is one that conveys its passengers safely over the dangerous dark blue seas. Admiral Croft considers an artwork’s meaning and its subject’s purpose in real life more important than the aesthetic and artistic effects it conveys.
The speciousness of the sublime is upended by the Admiral’s curiosity and humor at the mistakes and melodrama of the artist. He repeatedly studies the painting in detail, much as a picturesque education might require, but cannot overcome his feeling of its ridiculousness. The artist expects the viewer to suspend all conceptions of reality and trust only her immediate impressions. Yet held up to repeated scrutiny, the effect fails to impress. After repeatedly observing the overwhelming effect of a ship caught in a storm about to be dashed against the rocks, or run aground on dangerous shoals, the admiral realizes that the artist has played a cheap trick on him, sacrificing intellectual engagement for overwhelming emotional pleasure. His consternation at the nonsensical scene arises from his desire to have both his emotions and his mind piqued. In the same way, Austen suggests that studying or applying aesthetic theories and practices without considering their moral and intellectual effects is wrong. Mr. Seymour’s gypsies picturesquely shivering over a fire in their hovel may seem beautiful in the moment, but as a viewer struck by such scenes he must also think of the past that led them there and the future that awaits them.
Admiral Croft’s print demands attention and reflection. While the Admiral’s practical judgement enables him to feel that there is a problem with the print, Anne’s instinct cannot overcome her reservations toward the younger Mr. Elliot, her father's nephew and heir. By all accounts Mr. Elliot is everything he appears to be, which should do nothing but recommend him. Instead of feeling confidence, however, Anne, and thereby the reader, is filled with doubt. Austen paints him with a deceptive, yet subtle, brush:
His manners were an immediate recommendation; and on conversing with him [Lady Russell] found the solid so fully supporting the superficial, that she was at first, as she told Anne, almost ready to exclaim, “Can this be Mr. Elliot?” and could not seriously picture to herself a more agreeable or estimable man. Everything united in him; good understanding, correct opinions, knowledge of the world, and a warm heart.9
In Mr. Elliot we find none of the roughness or variety of the picturesque. Instead, in him is united everything to please and nothing to disgust. Yet, Anne distrusts his perfection, and the rather slippery way he has reestablished himself in her family for “as various as were the tempers in her father's house, he pleased them all. He endured too well, stood too well with everybody.”10 He is pleasing company for all, but this does not make him good company.
Mr. Elliot, like the Admiral’s artist, knows how to manipulate appearances for effect. His company brings about only pleasure, no curiosity. His character so fits the picture of what a gentleman should be that he immediately ingratiates himself with the Elliots and is accepted into the inner circle of the family. Socially, Mr. Elliot presents a flawless veneer of gentlemanliness and good breeding. But Anne doubts that his manners and deference toward his family, with whom he had earlier wished to have nothing to do, could have changed so radically over the years. Austen wrote in one of her letters that “pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked.”11 In presenting Mr. Elliot as a “picture of perfection” Austen warns her reader that those who appear too good to be true, usually are. Mr. Elliot lacks the sudden variations, the quirks of temperament and of character that reveal a flawed, yet human, person. Austen suggests that, to truly understand a person’s character, one must develop a habit of practiced judgment, one that looks beyond first impressions, aesthetic feeling, and prejudice.