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Landscape as Literary Criticism in Jane Austen’s Fiction

The following is the third in a series of posts on Jane Austen. This is a guest post written by Anne Toner, contributor to a special issue of Critical Survey which is devoted to the subject of Jane Austen. Anne Toner is the author of the article titled “Landscape as Literary Criticism: Jane Austen, Anna Barbauld and the Narratological Application of the Picturesque.” 

 

We are in the midst of Jane Austen bicentenary celebrations. Formidably, in the six years preceding her death in 1817, when she was only 41, Austen saw four novels published, as well as writing another complete novel (Persuasion) and revising one more (Northanger Abbey), both to be published posthumously.

In 2013, Penny Pritchard marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, a novel set in Hertfordshire, with a conference at the University of Hertfordshire. The subject appropriately enough was The Locations of Austen, with delegates examining from a variety of historical and methodological standpoints how Austen’s writing is located geographically and topographically. Essays emerging from that conference appear in the current special issue of Critical Survey, including my own essay, ‘Landscape as Literary Criticism: Jane Austen, Anna Barbauld and the narratological application of the picturesque’.

 

In what way does landscape work as a form of literary criticism in Austen’s fiction?

 

Few direct comments by Austen about her own fiction and that of her contemporaries have reached us. What we do have of Austen’s critical views appear mainly in tantalizing bursts in her extant letters and there are only just over 160 of these. There are some fairly short comments on her reading, some more extended advice given to aspiring novelists among her nieces and nephews, and occasional reflections on her own fiction. But in these comments, we do get a sense of Austen’s strong opinions about literary form. Austen is dismissive of an excessively detailed or accretive style of novel-writing. She writes jokingly to her niece Anna Austen of her wish that there were “at least 4 vols more” of Mrs Rachel Hunter’s long, tearful novel, Lady Maclairn, the Victim of Villainy. Austen repeats a dislike of disconnected plot lines, again often in playful ways.

 

In my essay in Critical Survey, I try to show that Austen makes these same literary critical points in her fiction by means of analogies with landscape and in doing so, she reflects upon her own novelistic practice.

 

In Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth Bennet is making her way towards Derbyshire, Austen’s narrator comments on the necessary subordination of descriptive passages of scenery because it is Pemberley alone that is the focus and “object”. The sections on the Northern tour in Pride and Prejudice evoke in places an earlier unfinished novel written by Austen when she was only sixteen, ‘Catharine, or the Bower’. In this, the young Austen uses a direct comparison between the experience of reading a novel and traveling through a landscape, by presenting a character—Camilla Stanley—who jumps over descriptive passages of scenery (of the Lake District specifically) when reading, in order to reach the novel’s end. Similarly, when traveling to the Lake District, Camilla has no idea of the route she takes or the landscapes she passes through, thinking only of the frocks she will wear when she gets to certain stops.

 

While Austen satirizes such vacuous, end-focused readers, she also seems in part to take them seriously, or at least to learn something from them. Austen herself commented with evident excitement in two letters to her sister Cassandra on various principles of contraction and circumscription that she adopted when preparing Pride and Prejudice for publication. Austen made sure that she avoided the possibility of distracting or boring a reader with extraneous, detached incidents.

 

Austen was not alone in her preference for the carefully-shaped, circumscribed plot. In fact, some of her comments on novel form resonate strongly with emergent criticism on the novel at this time. In particular, Anna Barbauld who compiled a fifty-volume anthology of British novelists, published in 1810, and in doing so contributed considerably to the establishment of a canon of British novels, also valorized, in this anthology and elsewhere, carefully connected and organized plots.

 

Not only that, but Barbauld explicitly used contemporary theories of the picturesque to make narratological points. Barbauld drew on the aesthetic theories of Uvedale Price who in his 1794 Essay on the Picturesque promoted the superiority of connectedness in a landscape in contrast to the interrupted viewpoints of modern garden design. Barbauld alludes to Price’s preference for the sustained single view when describing what she saw as the exemplary composition of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, a novel she imagines in terms of the approach to a grand mansion.

 

Austen too was an admirer of Uvedale Price (and Richardson) and in Mansfield Park she refers to the same section of Price’s work as Barbauld. Austen may well have known Barbauld’s writing. But whatever the case regarding Barbauld’s direct influence on Austen, both writers present their thoughts on narrative design through topographical description. Both writers reject interrupted, discordant parts in a composition for the virtues of connection, in a manner that is familiar from picturesque theories of the day.

 

George Lewes, a great advocate of Austen’s fiction in the following generation, wrote in 1859 that “no novelist has approached her in what we may style the ‘economy of art,’ by which is meant the easy adaptation of means to ends, with no aid from extraneous or superfluous elements.” This ‘economy of art’ is the focus of my work more generally as I am currently preoccupied with Austen’s formal and stylistic choices that repeatedly tend towards minimalism, brevity, contraction and omission. These stylistic choices engage in subtle ways with aesthetic debates about the best way of planning a garden.

 

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Anne Toner is a fellow and director of studies in English at Trinity College, Cambridge.

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