July 2021 meeting: Come into the shrubbery with Jane

August 1, 2021

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

September and October 2016 meeting: Gardens and Money

November 18, 2016

Using notes from members Sally, Jenny and Cheng.

Northanger Abbey, Anxious attentions to the weather

Anxious attentions to the weather, Northanger Abbey (CE Brock)

After several attempts to hold our September ‘meeting’ at the Tulip Top Gardens near Sutton were thwarted by intemperate weather, we met at our usual location in October. Perhaps it was meant to be, because we were joined by two unexpected but very welcome visitors, Robyn and Joan, from JASA Sydney.

We talked about our September topic, gardening styles during Jane Austen’s lifetime, as well as the designated October topic, ‘How much money is enough?” into which we managed to include some discussion about the cost of gardens and the incomes of the ‘celebrity’ landscape designers of the era.

To compensate in a small way for our inability to visit the Tulip Tops Garden, Sally showed her slideshow from a previous visit. She also showed a slideshow of her 2014 visit to Chawton Cottage (which included many photos of the garden) and Chawton village, followed by a slideshow of her visit to Blaise Castle House in Bristol. Blaise Castle House is famous both for its Humphrey Repton-designed garden (and the related Red Book which is on display), as well as for being the location of Blaise Castle, which Catherine Morland did not succeed in visiting in ‘Northanger Abbey’.

And why not? Because of inclement weather, of course.

English gardening styles in the late 18th and early 19th centuries

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown  (1715/16 – 1783)

Brown created 170 gardens, and worked for many of the wealthiest aristocrats in Britain. He carved large landscape parks out of old formal gardens and agricultural land, with lawns sweeping right up to the house and parks surrounded by a continuous perimeter.

He was a large-scale contractor who not only designed by also but also arranged the realisation of his works. By the 1760s his earnings averaged £6000 a year ( ie £740,000) a year, usually £500 (ie £61,000) for one commission

He wasn’t ‘picturesque’ enough, and by the 1780s, his harmony and calmness were seen to lack the sublime thrills, climactic conflict and awesome power of wild nature.

Humphrey Repton (1752 – 1818)

Repton created 400 or so gardens, but many remained wholly or partially unexecuted. Unlike Brown, he acted as a consultant. He also charged for his Red Books. He worked for equally important clients (eg Dukes of Bedford and Portland) but often fine tuning earlier work, often Brown’s.

He would sometimes stake out the ground, leaving the client to arrange the actual execution. Where he got the chance to lay out grounds from scratch, it was generally on a much more modest scale. He would cut ‘vistas’ through to ‘borrowed’ items such as church towers, making them part of the designed landscape.

His was a more contrived approach, creating entrance drives and lodges to create impressions of size and importance. He even monogramed milestones on the roads around some estates. He converted farmland into wooded parkland, and often called the areas ‘parks’. (Hence Mansfield Park?)

Repton defended Brown’s reputation during the ‘picturesque controversy’ (1794), but was also the precursor of 19th century styles which saw the re-introduction of formal terraces, balustrades, trellis works and flower gardens. He created garden areas – Chinese gardens, arboretums etc. He also made cricket pitches/home lawns, and bowling green lawns.

He emphasised utility and convenience over more extravagant principles of contrived irregularity, and believed that good design had a social and moral aspect.

Money and Jane Austen

In the 18th century, novelists wrestled with the same question as Adam Smith – Does the pursuit of money diminish a person’s moral integrity?

Characters are defined by their incomes and fortunes as much as they are by their appearances and their manners in Austen’s novels.

How much money is enough? What is a competence? What is the very sum necessary to support one’s gentility? According to Marianne Dashwood, it is approximately £2,000 a year or AUD183,000. “I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands,” she announced.  Elinor, on the other hand, says she would be happy with half that amount. She is quite content with £850 to live on. Marianne achieves the £2,000 by marrying Col Brandon.  While it all depends on expectations, all Jane Austen’s heroines are “hunters.” They need security. Mrs Bennet is so afraid of what will happen when her husband dies that she can only think of how to marry off her daughters. They would have been left with only £450 a year. This was the same amount as Jane, Cassandra and her mother had after the death of Mr Austen. Fortunately they had brothers/sons to augment their income unlike Mrs and Miss Bates.

Mr Bennet’s income is £2,000 a year but his daughters cost him £500 a year. He was not wise with money always having hoped for a son to inherit.

Jane Austen used money to indicate status, but she condemned greed – those who married merely for money (Maria Bertram); Mary Crawford’s desire for Edmund’s elder brother to die so that he can inherit the family fortune; John Dashwood who, having £6,000 a year, denies his step family; his wife, who persuades her husband to do so, even begrudges her step mother-in-law her gifted china and furniture.

Mrs Dashwood senior is able to employ two maids and a man. Five to 10 guineas year was paid to maids.

Curates earned between £20 and £40 a year. One wonders what Mr Collins was earning from Lady Catherine De Burgh. A certain Rev. Thomas Archer earned £85 a year which he found insufficient to support a wife and five children in 1802. However Jane’s brother, James Austen, earned £1,100 a year and possessed two horses.

Navy families depended on wars. Fanny Price’s mother could have brought £7,000 to her marriage if she got the same as Lady Bertram. This would yield £350 a year and her husband’s half naval officer pay would have been about £45 a year. This enabled the Price family to have two servants. The example of Captain Harville’s family was incredible (unless Mrs Harville had brought a dowry.) Clearly they could not afford servants and sought cheap lodgings, but they were enormously hospitable.

The cost of living is hard to gauge. Jane apparently allowed £10 a year for gifts, charities and entertainment, and put aside £40 for clothes and personal items. She earned £684 for her books during her lifetime.

Before Mr Austen’s retirement, the family derived food from their farm. Elinor appears to do the same and Charlotte also kept hens or ducks. A great deal depended upon the skills of housekeeping and economy exhibited by the wives of spendthrifts like Sir Walter Elliot, and the less well-off characters.

The cost of food as revealed in the Letters was as follows compared with approximate buying power in English pounds two hundred years later:

Item 1810 2005
Meat (lb) 8d £1.13
Butter (lb) 12d £1.70
Cheese 9d £1.43
Salmon (whole lb) 2/9d £4.67
4 small soles 6/- £10.14
Bread  (4lb) 2/6d £4.25

While all the monetary conversions may not be entirely accurate it is possible to get some idea from the following table:

Title 1810 GDP 2016 AUD
John Dashwood’s income 6,000 547,654
Mrs Dashwood and daughters’ income 500 45,817
Edward and Elinor’s income 850 77,446
Col Brandon and Marianne’s income 2,000 183,270
Mr Darcy’s income 10,000 916,351
Mr Bingley’s income 5,000 458,176
Mr Bennet’s income 2,000 183,270
Mr Rushworth’s income 12,000 1,099,620
Edmund and Fanny’s income 700 63,617
Emma’s inheritance 30,000 2,749,060
Mrs Elton’s fortune 10,000 916,351
Elliot daughters’ inheritance 10,000 916,351
Wentworth’s fortune 25,000 2,290,880
Catherine Morland’s dowry 3,000 274,905

It is perhaps amazing just how much detail Jane Austen did reveal about money in her time. It was certainly a very important consideration for her.

Young women, not to mention their mothers, generally had but one serious occupation once the girls were of marriageable age, to find a husband with adequate means, who was reliable and not a gambler.


Chamberlain, Shannon (2014) “The Economics of Jane Austen”, The Atlantic
Copeland, Edward (1995) Women Writing About Money Women’s Fiction in England 1790 -1820
Heldman, James (1990) “How Wealthy is Mr Darcy – Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice“, Persuasions 12, 38-49
“Pride and Prejudice Economics: Or Why a Single Man with a Fortune of 4,000 pounds Per Year is a Desirable Husband”,  Jane Austen’s World (2008)