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Friday, 30 September 2016

The Birth of Landscape Gardening

Rousham Park.

Temple of Echo.
Last weekend we enjoyed a visit to Rousham in Oxfordshire. The House and its beautiful gardens were designed by William Kent (1685–1748). Rousham has been the home of the Dormer family since the mid-1630s.

Kent’s design for the garden, begun c.1738, and those at Stowe, are thought to herald the beginning of the landscape garden movement in Britain. Kent was greatly influenced by Palladio. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown worked under Kent at Stowe and was later a famous landscape gardener in his own right – perhaps the most famous of all. 

Exploring Rousham is rather like stepping into a landscape painting. Not far from the house, longhorn cattle graze peacefully in a large field, safely curtailed by a ha-ha (shades of Mansfield Park). As you stroll further into the park, you encounter classical statues amidst its shady groves.  
Eighteenth century visitors were particularly pleased by the Temple of Echo and the Praeneste terrace. The river Cherwell wends its way around the bottom of the garden in a stately fashion, adding to the atmosphere of tranquillity.
Memorial to Ringwood above the cascade.
Praeneste terrace.

Like Elizabeth Bennet at Pemberley, I ‘saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view’. I particularly liked the memorial and poem dedicated to Ringwood, ‘an otter-hound of extraordinary sagacity’.
There’s also a wonderful walled garden with trained apple trees, a pigeon house, and spectacular herbaceous borders.
Pigeon House. It still has a ladder inside.
Dormer monument in the church.
We found time to explore the thirteenth century church, which has many monuments to the Dormer family

All photos © Sue Wilkes.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Jane Austen's Reading

Jane Austen refers to several female authors in her novels and letters. One author she particularly admired was Maria Edgeworth, one of the most famous writers of her day. In a letter to her niece Anna Austen (later Lefroy) in September 1814, Jane wrote, ‘I have made up my mind to like no novels really but Miss Edgeworth’s, yours, and my own’ (Anna was writing a novel).
Maria was the daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, an Irish politician and writer who also found the time to sire 22 children (he was married four times). She was born in Oxfordshire, but later moved to where her father’s estate at Edgeworthstown. Maria helped her father with his tenants, and also collaborated with him on an educational work for children.
Her first novel, Castle Rackrent (published anonymously in 1800), was a polemic on grasping Irish landlords. Another of Edgeworth’s novels, Belinda, was mentioned by Austen along with Fanny Burney’s works in her famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey.
Edgeworth’s urge to educate her readers, however praiseworthy, did not please the gentleman (possibly John W. Ward) who reviewed her 1814 novel Patronage for the Quarterly Review (January 1814). He praised her ‘remarkable talent for humour’, but ‘in the first and one of the most material branches of novel-writing, that of framing a story, she is remarkably deficient...there is too much downright lecturing’.
Maria Edgeworth never married, and lived to a ripe old age.

Another popular author of Austen’s day was Mary Brunton (1778–1818); her novels Self-Control (1811) and Discipline (1814) were widely read. Mary (nee Balfour), who was born in Orkney, eloped with a clergyman at the age of twenty; they were happily married. Mary died at the untimely age of forty, leaving an unfinished novel, Emmeline.
When Self-Control was published, Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra that she was anxious to get hold of a copy, but had failed. Evidently she eventually managed to find one, because in October 1813 Jane wrote to Cassandra, ‘I am looking over Self -Control again, and my opinion is confirmed of its being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written work, without anything of nature or probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura's passage down the American river is not the most natural, possible, everyday thing she ever does’.
Title page of Castle Rackrent, courtesy Google Books.
Review of Edgeworth’s novel Patronage in the Quarterly Review, January 1814. Author’s collection.
An Orkney sunset. © Sue Wilkes.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Fanny Burney

Fanny Burney (1752-1840) is one of the literary ladies I'd most like to visit, if I could go back in time (apart from Jane Austen, of course). In particular, I'd like to do the 18th-century equivalent of an 'intervention' and free her from her father's overbearing critical influence.
Fanny (Frances) began writing in an age when it was considered unseemly for a lady to dabble in novel or play-writing, and when a teenager she burnt all her early writings, which is a great pity for posterity. Nevertheless, greatly daring, she published her first novel anonymously in 1778. Evelina was an overnight success, and four years later, Cecilia appeared. This novel about the trials and tribulations of an heiress probably inspired the final title of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. In one scene a character says,'The whole of this unfortunate business...has been the result of pride and prejudice'.
However, Fanny's novel-writing career came to an abrupt halt when, following family pressure, she agreed to take a post in Queen Charlotte's household. She kept a diary, which is wonderfully evocative of the age. But the endless, boring routine of the royal court actually made Fanny ill, and eventually she resigned her position.
Fanny met the love of her life, General D'Arblay, shortly afterwards, and they married in 1793; they had a little boy the following year. Now restored to happiness, Fanny began work on a new novel, Camilla (1796); Jane Austen was one of the subscribers.
A real survivor, Fanny lived through the Napoleonic Wars (she was in Brussels during Waterloo), and famously endured a mastectomy without anaesthetic. After living to the grand old age of 87, she was buried at St Swithin's Church, Walcot, in Bath.
Jane Austen was a great admirer of Burney's works, and in a famous passage in Northanger Abbey, she defends the novel from its detractors: '"And what are you reading, Miss — ?' 'Oh! It is only a novel!' replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language'.

Engraving:Fanny Burney. Collotype after the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Dr Johnson’s Mrs Thrale, T.N. Foulis, 1910. Author’s collection. 
Photo: plaque commemorating Fanny Burney as St Swithin's Church, Walcot. © Sue Wilkes.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Love and Friendship Movie

Is a treat in store for Jane Austen fans? A movie of her novella, Lady Susan, is out now. Lady Susan is one of my favourite Austen works, not least because its eponymous anti-heroine is so unlike any other of Jane's characters in her more mature works. (It's believed that Jane probably wrote Lady Susan in her late teens). I haven't seen the movie yet, but the official website has a trailer, and the frocks and locations look lovely.
I have not been able to update my blogs for ages as I've been busy writing a new book, but I hope to resume normal service very soon and continue my literary theme on Jane Austen's predecessors as promised earlier this year.
Illustration: A satirical print of 1796 showing the latest fashions. Courtesy Library of Congress. 

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Pen Mightier Than The Pelisse?

In Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, Anne Elliot seemingly mourns the disparity between women’s and men’s education, and women’s lack of representation in history and the arts: ‘Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands’.

But in an age when society believed that a girl’s ultimate ambition should be a wife and mother, an increasing number of women (like Austen herself) took up their pens in the hope of earning some money of their own. In a letter to her brother Frank Austen in 1813, she told him of the success of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility: ‘I have now therefore written myself into £250 –which only makes me long for more' (worth approximately £16,000 in today's money).

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll be taking a look at some of Austen’s predecessors and contemporaries who created a fresh role for themselves in society as authors. However, to avoid society's censure, like Austen, they often wrote under a cloak of anonymity. 

Frontispiece of a French edition of Persuasion, Jane Austen's 'La Famille Elliot' (1821) courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

Monday, 28 March 2016


Ladies expected their female domestics should be clean and tidily dressed in muslin (not lace) caps, cotton and stuff gowns and petticoats, sturdy shawls of demure colours, and straw bonnets when going outdoors. In Persuasion, Mrs Musgrove complained that her daughter-in-law Mary’s ‘nursery-maid... is always upon the gad, and...she is such a fine-dressing lady, that she is enough to ruin any servants she comes near.’

And in Mansfield Park, Mrs Price was discomposed if she saw her servant Rebecca 'pass by with a flower in her hat' when out walking on Sundays.

A good master or mistress ensured that their servants received good, plain, plentiful food, and paid their medical expenses if ill. Servants were permitted to visit their friends and relations occasionally; Sunday was usually the most convenient day.
Ladies took great care to select servants with good references, and if possible hired those recommended by friends or family. A careless or slovenly maid could cause havoc in a household.

In January 1802, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra, 'We plan having a steady cook and a young, giddy housemaid, with a sedate, middle-aged man, who is to undertake the double office of husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter. No children, of course, to be allowed on either side'.
Illustrations: 'High life below stairs'. George Cruikshank, 1799.
‘Work for the plumber’. Thomas Rowlandson, 1810.  Both courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Hugh Thomson illustration for Mansfield Park. Author's collection.