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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jane Austen and Capability Brown

The 50 miles of good road in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy's 10,000 a year, and the "ha-ha" in Manfield Park are all features of the times and background for Capability Brown's influence on English gardening.

August 30th 2016 marked the tercentenary of the baptism (his date of birth is unrecorded) of Lancelot 'Capability’ Brown (1716-1783). If you were in England this year, you may have seen certain events dedicated to this man who transformed the British landscape with his vision of naturalistic gardens See The genius of Capability Brown. People in Britain  were  even given the opportunity to buy special stamps to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown's birth. 

But you don't have to travel all the way to England to see examples of Capability Brown's work, you can travel as far as New Haven, Connecticut to the Yale Center for British Art. That's where the painting of Warwick Castle is housed. Lancelot Capability Brown was commissioned to design the grounds in 1750.  I only came across this in May 2018, though I heard of Capability Brown back in 2016 on a visit to an attraction that he wasn't directly involved in but had inspired.
Francis Harding, active 1730–1766, British, Warwick Castle, ca. 1764, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection 

I only heard about him on this side of the Atlantic because on one of the tours of Old Westbury Gardens  (which were designed to emulate English estates to appeal to the taste of the owner's British bride) the guide mentioned Capability Brown as the designer. Of course, he couldn't have designed the Long Island estate directly, but his influence came through in the play of lawns, trees, and water to be found even on Long Island.

thatched cottage at Old Westbury Gardens

Curious about the person who shares our last name, my husband looked for books about him in our library system. We only succeeded in obtaining one: Roger Turner's  Capability Brown and the Eighteenth-Century English LandscapeThe History Press Rizzoli International Publications, 1985. While Turner frequently quotes the poet Alexander Pope to give some literary background and one time quotes the writer Hannah More, he fails to mention Jane Austen in connection with the transformation of the landscape at all, and this is an omission I intend to rectify here. 
In Ch. 32 of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy tells Elizabeth,  "`And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day's journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance.''  Darcy was particularly appreciative of "good road"  because it was still a relatively recent convenience that made a dramatic difference to travelers. As Turner writes on p. 17,  "During Brown's practising years, 1750-80, the time taken between London and the major towns was halved. Before these improvements bad weather and wintry conditions made travel impossible for wheeled traffic."  

Earlier in the book, we have the famous pronouncement about Darcy's wealth amounting to 10,000 a year. That figure is also one that Turner mentions as requisite for an estate owner to really maintain a good figure in society: "At least five or six thousand pounds a year was required to support a great house, to allow for the expenses of the London season and to enable the owner to patronize the arts. More comfortably it required ten thousand a year" (p. 17). 
Awareness of garden features gains prominence in Austen's Mansfield Park. In chapter 10, Maria Bertram complains,“Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,' as the starling said.” Refusing to remain restrained, she goes through, ignoring Fanny's warning of the danger of slipping into the ha-ha.

 Of course, all this foreshadows Maria's breaking through the set boundaries of her marriage and becoming a fallen woman. But there still had to be a physical ha-ha, a type of sunken fence that created a barrier between the extended grounds of the estate where animals could graze and the gardens near the house without obstructing the view. This was not a feature that Brown invented but one that he did use. 

Taylor refers to this device and the explanation for its name on p. 29 in  quotes Horace Walpole's 1770 essay On Modern Gardening: 
"The capital stroke, the leading step to all that has followed, was (I believe the first thought was Bridgeman's) the destruction of walls for boundaries, and the invention of fosses -- an attempt then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them Ha! Ha!s to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk."
In fact, though, Charles Bridgeman (1680?-1738) could not have been the first to make use of this 
sunken fence, as it already was in use in Versailles before it appeared in England.  Howeve, it appears to have become increasingly common in England in Jane Austen's time, enough so that she could safely assume her readers would be able to picture the obstruction posed by the ha-ha she references several times in Mansfield Park

 The woman writer Turner does quote, Hannah  More (p. 78) was already quoted by a prior biographer of the master gardener, Dorothy Stroud. She records what the writer said about here"friend Mr. Brown" who "illustrates everything he says about gardening by some literary or grammatical allusion."
She said:
"He told me he compared his art to literary composition. 'Now there," pointing a finger, “I make a comma, and there”, pointing to another spot, “where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon, at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis, now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.”

While Taylor doesn't like the literary take on landscaping, it strikes me as an inverse of what Austen said about her own writing in the expression about her own miniature scale. The quote comes from a letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh: "What should I do with your strong, manly, vigorous sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?"

Capability Brown's landscaping took a great deal of labor to produce subtle effects that could be appreciated many years later. The same can be said of Austen's novels. 

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