The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
Jane Austen took delight in the gardens and landscaping of Chawton Cottage, the Hampshire home she shared with her widowed mother; her sister, Cassandra; and their family friend Martha Lloyd, beginning in 1809, when Jane was 33 years old. The never-married daughter of an Anglican parish rector, she and the other women were invited to live in the “cottage”—in fact, it was a large brick house—on an estate owned by one of her six brothers, Edward.
In May 1811, Jane sent garden news from Chawton to Cassandra, who was visiting Edward’s second estate in Kent: “the Shrubbery Border will soon be very gay with Pinks & Sweet Williams, in addition to the Columbines already in bloom.” In another letter, written two days later, she was positively effusive about the landscaping: “You cannot imagine—it is not in Human Nature to imagine what a nice walk we have round the Orchard—The row of Beech look very well indeed.” She also had a sense of humor when her family’s gardening efforts failed: “I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead,” she informed her sister, “but I am afraid they are not alive.”
Chawton Cottage had a kitchen garden with vegetables, herbs and ornamentals, as well as an orchard to supply fresh fruit and jams. The family raised poultry for the table. There was also careful attention to landscaping, with the flower beds and tree plantings designed to create a pleasant experience for “walking out,” the gentry’s ideal of leisure exercise.
It is no surprise, then, that the settings of Austen’s novels abound with walking paths, garden gates, beds abundant with flowers, informal shrubbery, well-appointed groves, rolling lawns, outdoor vistas and romantic cottage gardens. The fictional characters imitate the habits of actual landowners in Regency England who were preoccupied with “estate improvement” and hired Humphry Repton and other sought-after landscape designers to dig up their old formal gardens and replace them with a carefully curated “natural” landscape that typified the new English style.
If these fictional landscapes and gardens form an appealing backdrop to the stories, they also provide commentary on Austen’s characters and their society. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is distinguished by her love of walking through country parks and lanes. She is judged harshly by the genteel women of the neighborhood, who gossip about her untidy hair and mud-spattered petticoat—the result of her having flouted ladylike convention by walking three miles through wet fields to tend to her ailing sister.
Indoors, the characters of Pride and Prejudice are snobbish and mistrustful. Outdoors, in parks and gardens, they are self-aware and fair-minded. When Mr. Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth Bennet in a drawing-room, the experience is deeply unpleasant for both parties. He offers his hand with arrogant pride, while she declines the proposal with a curt reply born of prejudice. At the end of the novel, as the reconciled couple “walk out,” the second, successful proposal to Elizabeth takes place with honesty and generosity on both sides, as they stroll for miles through the English countryside.
Carol Howard is Dean of the Faculty at Warren Wilson College and author of the introduction and notes to the Barnes and Noble Classics edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.