July 2021 meeting: Come into the shrubbery with Jane

JASACT’s July meeting was inspired by Jane Austen’s juvenilia work, Catharine, or the Bower. As usual, members tackled the subject from different angles.

Shrubbery? Wilderness?

Definition, of course, is important, and we found some interesting variations. Most of us were surprised to find that “wilderness” gardens were, at the time, far more formal and organised than their name suggests. However, as the JASNA’s “Trees and shrubs” article says:

Readers in Austen’s times would have known what a shrubbery or wilderness garden looks like, although many modern readers do not.  Wilderness gardens were constructed at an earlier period than when Austen was writing (Wilson; Clark) and were large tracts of land planted with a variety of trees with both straight avenues and winding paths. Mr. Rushworth’s estate, Sotherton, in Mansfield Park, has a large wilderness garden and is described as being from the Elizabethan era (Clark).  Shrubbery tended to be closer to the house and had both flowering shrubs, trees, and flowers, along with places to sit and gravel walks.  Sometimes shrubbery was closed (had shrubs and trees on both sides of gravel) and sometimes it was open with shrubs and trees on one side and then open grass with occasional trees on the other side to allow views around the estate. (Clark; Wilson).  Shrubbery is mentioned in all of the six novels.

One member found a description of wilderness as being the area between the cultivated garden and the pasture area of the estate. A good collection of pictures of wilderness gardens and shrubberies can be found in Robert Clark’s article linked below.

Both terms in fact have some vagueness, partly due to the time period over which they were created, which would result in changes, and partly because they could be found in a range of households from huge estates to much smaller ones. As one member said, shrubbery was used loosely to describe various gardens. Richer people had elevated gardens with vistas, and complex paths.

Uses in Austen

Most of us, of course, talked about the way Austen used shrubberies and wildernesses in her novels. One member listed ways in which Austen used shrubberies, and to some degree wildernesses, with some examples:

  • Freedom to speak, to be private, particularly for lovers (legal or otherwise) eg Bingley and Jane in P&P go into the shrubbery when Lady Catherine visits, Lady Susan tries to woo Reginald in a shrubbery
  • Freedom to be equal: the housekeeper in P&P feels more free to speak to Jane and Elizabeth in the neutral space of the shrubbery
  • Place to recoup one’s emotions: Fanny in MP, Catharine in Catharine, or the Bower, both use the shrubbery as a place of respite.
  • Neighbourliness: Admiral Croft suggests Anne visit her old home any time via the shrubbery, like neighbours using “the back door”?
  • Place to exercise: Marianne likes to exercise (and escape) in shrubberies and wildernesses in S&S.
  • Place of safety: Mr Woodhouse wants Emma to stay in the shrubbery after the gypsy incident, in Emma
  • Place to escape: Emma goes into the shrubbery to escape from her father, while Fanny in MP feels she can’t even escape from meeting Henry Crawford there after his unwelcome proposal.

Most of these, partly overlapping, ways were explored during our discussion.

Book cover

One member also suggested that shrubberies provided a good escape from stuffy, poorly ventilated houses. She looked at Pride and prejudice, and the morning after Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first proposal. Mentally distracted, Elizabeth decides to “indulge herself in air and exercise” by walking in Rosings Park, and inadvertently runs into the man she was trying to avoid, Darcy. Later, when she and the Gardiners come across him at Pemberley, they are in the garden, and as they walk, our member quoted “every step was bringing forward a nobler fall of ground, or a finer reach of the woods”. She noted that “nobler” and “finer” could very well also be describing the owner of those grounds and woods!

One member felt that the first reference to a shrubbery in Pride and prejudice is somewhat ambiguous, because it describes a meeting between Darcy and Miss Bingley, and Mrs Hurst and Elizabeth. On meeting them, Mrs Hurst immediately takes Darcy’s arm, leaving Elizabeth alone. When Darcy suggests they make their way to the avenue, Elizabeth rejects the idea and goes her own way.

Other members also discussed Pride and prejudice. It was suggested that the shrubbery is used for proper and improper purposes and behaviour. Wildernesses, said one, can be places of unbridled emotions. Lady Catherine insultingly refers to the “little wilderness” at Longbourn, and it is there that she unleashes her venom on, and insults, Elizabeth.

Mansfield Park

Austen often uses shrubberies as a setting, sometimes neutrally. However, Robert Clark puts forward a creative idea about the use of shrubbery and wilderness in Mansfield Park, arguing that Mary Crawford and Edmund’s discussion about distances in Sotherton’s wilderness is symbolic: “They play at testing the limits of the physical space as they test out each other’s moral limits …” And he goes on to say that “Mary’s disregard for regularity and her inability to understand the relationship of elapsed time to distance travelled will also her to condone Maria’s adultery”. We thought it was a long bow.

A few members talked about Mansfield Park, one saying that the Sotherton episode is claustrophobic, and layered. It could be read she said as a short story. It was suggested that Austen uses wilderness effectively in this novel. Indeed, for many of us, the Sotherton episode carries clues and keys to much of what happens later, including to Maria’s adultery and Julia’s elopement.

There are, however, other shrubbery scenes in the novel, including Sir Thomas sending Fanny into the shrubbery to calm down and reflect on her decision to refuse Henry Crawford.

Book cover

In Sense and sensibility, Marianne, at Cleveland, walks past the safety-net of the shrubbery, into the wilderness, and becomes ill. She took

Two delightful twilight walks on the third and fourth evenings of her being there, not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where there was something more of wildness than in the rest, where the trees were the oldest, and the grass was the longest and wettest, had — assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings — given Marianne a cold so violent …

Sense and sensibility also has the well-known discussion between Marianne and Edward, pitting Marianne’s romanticised view of landscape against Edward’s more rational, practical one.

It was also suggested that Austen’s use of shrubberies in domestic settings distinguishes her writing from the Gothic that was so popular in her time and which focused on dark forests, and overgrown or leafless shrubberies. Ann Radcliffe says the Gothic Nature Journal, “rarely fails to adorn the base of her sublime mountains with dark shadowy forests or her craggy rocks with gnarled old oaks”. Austen’s shrubberies, by contrast, are benign/ironic/satirical rather than fierce/foreboding. In Northanger Abbey, which spoofs readers of Gothic novels, Catherine Morland would rather see the Abbey than the garden and shrubbery which seemed boring to her.

Austen, as you’d expect uses shrubberies to convey the “character” of her characters, such as Marianne’s and Catherine’s sensibility, Lady Catherine’s snobbery (re the Bennet’s “little wilderness”), the Rushworths’ display of wealth, Mary Crawford’s snobbery (re being surprised that a country parsonage might aspire to having a shrubbery). And so on.

Chawton House

“I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I’m afraid they are not alive” (Jane Austen, letter from Chawton, 31 May 1811)

One member looked at Chawton House, where Jane lived for the last years of her life. There was a vegetable garden, which her mother was in charge of, and there were espaliered plums and greengages. There was also a shrubbery, and a shrubbery walk. Shrubberies, writes Speakman, confirming what we had found, were not just decorative! They were “designed to allow exercise”.

Middle class families, Speakman said, decorated their gardens much like the rich did.

She also mentioned Chris Clark’s article, which included discussion of Lancelot “Capability” Brown and his follower Humphry Repton. It suggests that Austen preferred natural gardens. She was not averse to improvements, but did not like slavish following of fashion. He says that “in Pride and prejudice Austen gives a clear allusion to her approval of the kind of improvements that Repton carried out. Considerable skill lay in making the contrived look completely natural and this is the effect Elizabeth Bennet so admires at Pemberley”.


Present: 6 members

2 Responses to July 2021 meeting: Come into the shrubbery with Jane

  1. john4827@bigpond.net.au says:

    An excellent summary of the ideas expressed.

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