If you’ve been following “An Invitation to Mansfield Park” since the series began, you’ll remember that Jacqui Grainger contributed a post last month in which she reported on the fascinating symposium that explored “The Great Novels of 1814: Austen, Burney, Edgeworth and Scott.” Next month, she’ll tell us more about the Austen aspect of the exhibition on the “Great Novels of 1814” that she curated at the University of Sydney, where she is currently Manager of Rare Books and Special Collections. And today, I’m very pleased to share with you her analysis of the discussion in Chapter 6 of Mansfield Park about the proposed fate of the trees at Sotherton. Thank you, Jacqui, for all these contributions to the Mansfield Park celebrations!
Here’s Jacqui’s account of what inspired her to focus on this particular passage:
In the last few years I have found myself continually circling back to the section of Mansfield Park where Mr. Rushworth talks of his plans for ‘improvements’ at Sotherton. Whilst Librarian at Chawton House Library I curated an exhibition that complemented a talk I gave to the members of the Hampshire Gardens Trust; this became an article for one of their magazines. A version can be found here and I began with: ‘But the woods are fine, and there is a stream.’ In exploring the depth of materials on estates and gardens in both the Knight and the Main Collections at Chawton it seemed somewhat inevitable that I should begin with the first edition of Mansfield Park. Five years later in curating an exhibition on the ‘Great Novels of 1814: Austen, Burney, Edgeworth and Scott’ I seemed to be in very familiar territory because the collections here in Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Sydney are predominantly those of eighteenth-century gentlemen: colonial legislators, officers of the navy and marines, naturalists, explorers, settlers and the more affluent transportees. There are sets of county antiquaries with ‘views of gentlemen’s seats,’ books by Humphrey Repton, John Loudon, Richard Payne Knight and William Cowper. This passage became central to the Austen section of the exhibition and led to a theme of place and identity throughout the exhibition.
Mr. Rushworth, however, though not usually a great talker, had still more to say on the subject next his heart. “Smith has not much above a hundred acres altogether in his grounds, which is little enough, and makes it more surprising that the place can have been so improved. Now at Sotherton, we have a good seven hundred, without reckoning the water meadows; so that I think, if so much can be done at Compton, we need not despair. There have been two or three fine old trees cut down, that grew too near the house, and it opens the prospect amazingly, which makes me think that Repton, or any body of that sort, would certainly have the avenue at Sotherton down; the avenue that leads from the west front to the top of the hill you know,” turning to Miss Bertram particularly as he spoke. But Miss Bertram thought it most becoming to reply:
Fanny, who was sitting on the other side of Edmund, exactly opposite Miss Crawford, and who had been attentively listening, now looked at him, and said in a low voice,
“Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”
He smiled as he answered, “I am afraid the avenue stands a bad chance, Fanny.”
“I should like to see Sotherton before it is cut down, to see the place as it is now, in its old state; but I do not suppose I shall.”
“Have you never been there? No, you never can; and unluckily it is out of distance for a ride. I wish we could contrive it.”
“Oh! it does not signify. Whenever I do see it, you will tell me how it has been altered.”
“I collect,” said Miss Crawford, “that Sotherton is an old place, and a place of some grandeur. In any particular style of building?”
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 6 (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2001)
Wealth and status, power and the responsible use of money are persistent themes in the work of Jane Austen. Austen uses the idea of improvement to reflect varying attitudes to money and its appropriate disposal.
Mr. Rushworth illustrates an extravagant readiness to dispose of his money in a demonstration of his wealth and status. A most fashionable young man, he plans to “improve” his estate according to the latest obsession in landscape design and the employment of Mr. Repton. Humphry Repton (1752-1818) refashioned the estates of the wealthy with dramatic scenic improvements like the example Rushworth gives: “two or three fine old trees cut down . . . and it opens up the prospect amazingly.”
As Rushworth’s estate is so much larger than the friend’s he is describing his expectation seems to be that anything Repton could do at Sotherton will be even more impressive. Simultaneously he displays his ignorance of Repton’s writing on the principles of landscape design in his treatises, Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1794), Observation on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803), and An Inquiry into the Changes of Taste in Landscape Gardening (1806). Repton’s ideas were more subtle than Rushworth’s speculations and dealt with locations’ unique character.
In Rushworth’s speculations Austen ironically presents us with some of the criticism Repton had faced from Richard Payne Knight in The Landscape: a Didactic Poem (1794) and Uvedale Price in Essay on the Picturesque (1794). Both Knight and Price had opposed the ideas of Capability Brown (1716-1783) and other landscape designers, such as Repton, for being standardized and erasing the picturesque qualities of parks and gardens.
Fanny’s whispered exclamation, “Cut down an avenue!”, mirrors the contemporary controversy on the picturesque and it is Cowper Fanny refers to, not Repton. Fanny’s concerns are Romantic – she longs to see it “in its old state.” She quotes from The Task: a Poem, in Six Books published by William Cowper in 1785; a poem in blank verse, The Task was extremely influential on Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb, as well as Austen, with its writing of every day English life and the consolations of nature.
Miss Crawford’s interjection into the conversation brings it back from Fanny’s meagre consolations to the “grandeur” of Sotherton, Rushworth’s status as a wealthy landowner and what his plans to dispose of his money say about his character.
Brooke, Christopher. Jane Austen: Illusion and Reality. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999.
Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Duckworth, Alistair. The Improvement of the Estate: a study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins, 1971.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park.