Lord Byron, Childe Harold 1812
Like so many other readers of Jane Austen over the last few centuries, I was captivated by the charm of the Georgian England she wrote about in Pride & Prejudice. Jane Austen’s world was anchored in the turn of the seasons and in the sense of the countryside as a source of nourishment both physical and spiritual.
I thought it interesting to look at what influences brought her settings to life.
When Jane Austen’s fine language transformed the landscape into literature, it was the result of a profound change in man’s attitude to himself and his environment, which had begun some 70 years before her birth. The new way of thinking shaped the landscape, while offering the means to appreciate it.
Not only was the countryside at its most loveliest, but discussion of it at it’s most stimulating.
Box Hill, Surrey 1733. The renowned beauty spot which plays an important part in the plot of Emma.
In the past, Man had been a miserable creature, dourly battling against the forces of nature, pre-occupied by the state of his soul, but came to believe that rational happiness was attainable on earth through the cultivation of his mind and senses, and the educated enjoyment of the world’s delights. Guilt and superstition were shaken off. People became more sociable and acquisitive, and the concept of fashion influenced the way the country looked.
One of those places to first reflect this was Brighton. As travel became more popular, the southern English coast turned itself into a fashionable resort. Especially after the Prince of Wales began to build his Royal Pavilion there in 1787.
Two of Austen’s characters, Lydia Bennett and Maria Bertram were among the visitors to Brighton.
The Brighton Pavilion west front by Pugin. 1824
With fewer than 9 million people, the English countryside was mostly rural and only one-fifth lived in towns, none of which, apart from London, was very large.Georgian England was seen as a land of peace and plenty by those visiting the country. Households were self sufficient. The seasons, the weather and the the state of the harvest were of real importance and interest to everybody. Great landowners interested themselves in their estates and almost everybody at every level of society, cultivated something. Cottages grew vegetables and kept a pig, parsons had their glebe lands to farm. The game and garden-stuff furnished by Barton Park, the fruit trees and stew-ponds of Delaford and the greenhouse and poultry yard of Cleveland.
Characteristically, Jane Austen is sparse in her description of Barton Park, the home of the affable Sir John and the sadly less than pleasant Lady Middleton in Sense and Sensibility:
Barton Park was about half a mile from the cottage. The ladies had passed near it in their way along the valley, but it was screened from their view at home by the projection of an hill. The house was large and handsome; and the Middletons lived in a style of equal hospitality and elegance.
Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 7
How reminiscent of Emma when Jane writes in a letter: “Tell Henry that a hamper of apples is gone to him from Kintbury.” Food production was the concern of all. A labourer ate better than the period before or afterwards. And while there was certainly poverty, it didn’t overflow into one’s consciousness.
It wasn’t until 1815 that grinding rural poverty became a large-scale problem. By that time, the old interdependence and self-sufficiency of country communities, perhaps under an enlightened, involved and benevolent landlord of whom, in George Knightley, Jane Austen gave such an admirable example, had been irretrievably lost.
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