Short Takes on Jane Austen “Austen in the Wilderness”


(Applause) So, if my title seems incongruous that’s because we have inherited an idea of wilderness as pristine untouched landscapes that owes a great deal to romanticism but more in the William Wordsworth tradition of seeking nature with a capital “n.” That seems a bit out of place in the ballrooms of bath or even the gardens and manicured landscapes of Jane Austen. However, the word “wilderness” recurs throughout Austin’s works. And, in the next few minutes I want to trace a kind of an alternative genealogy of the idea of wilderness as it comes out in estates that are settings for most of Jane Austen’s novels. The estates are both the source of wealth and also
this sort of model of taste. That’s where all of the pounds that everyone’s always talking about come from. But, at the same time it is when she is visiting Camberly and looking at the sort of tastefully managed estate that Elizabeth Bennet of course comes to the sense that being a mistress of Camberly would be something. 18th century and early 19th century landscape architecture totally
transformed the landscapes of these estates. Everything was managed, everything was put in its place. Rivers were moved, streams, ponds were moved, hills were moved all by hand. There was an area known for the wilderness that sort of skirts the edge of the garden that’s closest to the house. All of this, of course being maintained by hand by an incredible number of people. But all designed to hide the fact that this is an
economically productive landscape. So, not only are you trying to not see the gardeners who are doing all of this work. But the design for the landscape architecture, and this is by Humphrey Repton who is one of the prominent architects. You can see in the top images, this is a before and after, what’s been obscured in the after to the bottom is the fact that these are fields that are actively being worked And then you get an explicitly aesthetic landscape in the end. Austen is both critical of and deeply indebted to that landscape architecture tradition.
Especially, one of her deaths is especially in terms of point of view. You can map a lot of the scenes in her novels according to people’s lines of sight from where they’re standing, especially outside. She’s also indebted to the rise of greenhouses, and especially the trade in exotic plants, growing orchids and other flowers. This is the Botanical Gardens that cue. But a lot of these estates also added greenhouses, and the greenhouses or glass houses were both the kind of epitome of the control of nature that is elsewhere legible in the landscape and also the point at which people, including Austen, started to declare that is was going a bit too far that this is actually unnatural at this point. Nonetheless, there’s this transformation
of the landscape often served to keep a certain kind of modernity at bay. So, this is going to be another before and after image where you see the manufacturing houses that
are those are gone, all the riffraff playing in the park is gone. And, the fences that were initially keeping the riffraff out are
also gone. It’s all been carefully scuplted to be a beautiful landscape. At the same time that it is an exclusionary. So, now I just want to change notes for a second and talk a little bit about how this lines up with Wordsworth. This is Tintern Abbey, the site of one of Wordsworth’s famous poems where he says that nature never betrayed the heart that loved her. And Wordsworth was self-consciously creating the idea of nature with a capital n. The lake district where people went, both to see nature with a capital n and with a capital n according to Wordsworth. So that there were lots of guide books filled with his poetry. So then at the same time that this is creating the idea of wilderness, of nature, this is now, this lake district is now a National Park. At the same time that this is creating the idea of nature on which American national parks are based It too, very much like Austen’s nature and Austen’s wilderness is explicitly an aesthetic construction. It is one that we can certainly see in the American West as the aesthetics of this lime get mapped onto landscapes that are the wilderness that probably pops through most of our minds. And on one hand, these things seem like they’re in congress. On the other hand, the American National Parks are similarly based on the idea of “we are going to create a beautiful landscape and keep it separate from people.” Keep it as, sort of high that the signs of economic productivity. And, that’s great up to a point, but environmentalists are increasingly interested in the rest of the landscape. What Emma Marris calls the rambunctious garden, disturbed landscapes, places like these railroad
tracks Where you didn’t necessarily expect to see nature and certainly whereas it becomes impossible to imagine that nature has not been touched by people. And so, latter day Wordsworths are going around investigating the urban wilderness. The wilderness of urban ruins, that’s acually an abandoned school in Atlanta believe it or not. Latter day Austens may be inviting us back into the garden to imagine the ways in which these site are literal backyards that can be re-imagined as habitat and a part of the rambunctious garden that is the wilderness that we actually all inhabit.

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