Friday, 14 December 2012

Jane Austen Birthday Lecture

Review of Jane Austen Birthday Lecture by Professor Malcolm Andrews
Tonbridge Church, 14 December 2012
With acknowledgements to the style of Jane Austen

There can scarcely be a pleasure more congenial to a literary mind in wintry weather than a learned lecture upon “the picturesque” in the novels of Miss Austen, amply illustrated by etchings and portraits.  

A good-sized audience assembled in the dignified setting of Tonbridge Church and was addressed by a speaker of both distinction and erudition. Though primarily an expert on Mr Charles Dickens, an author on the trials on poverty and crime and largely native to the County of Kent, our speaker had also taken an interest in Miss Austen, whom he regards as a writer about domesticity. 

He explained to those gathered the notion of the “picturesque”, once the mark of those with high taste in the late 18th century, which had also led him to a greater understanding of our authoress’s ideas about the kind of novel which is appropriate to this country.

We soon learnt that the “picturesque” in scenery had been developed in the early 18th century out of an appreciation of the classical paintings of Poussin and Claude.  It was thought, at that time, that Nature was an uncivilised “wilderness”, a "desert" caused by the Fall of Man. Left to itself, it could not produce the quality of the picturesqueness. In other words, Nature provided the materials for the picturesque but could not arrange itself to meet its requirements. Hence the artist must readjust Nature to create a pleasing and uplifting effect for the viewer.

He could do this by giving his composition a foreground of arching or bending trees, behind which stretched out a second, more sunlit scene, showed a classical or artistic object such as a classical temple or castle, which stood against yet a third, rugged, far wilderness, which was frequently shaped as indistinct bluish mountains.  It was thought that a picturesque scene must be viewed from a point level with the distance and that the viewer's eye should not be positioned on a hill. Groups of animals and people could be picturesque in twos or threes -  but certainly not in fours.

The originator of this theory was a clergyman who toured with his sketchbook, seeking scenes and improving them, the Reverend William Gilpin. His rules provided those of class, education and taste with a “language of the picturesque”. This also enabled them to evaluate critically the natural scenes around them, while taking country walks.  Indeed, our authoress creates such scenes in her novels, showing some heroines unable to join in tasteful conversations, due to their educational and social deficiencies.

In our learned lecturer’s opinion, in her novels, the authoress showed little sympathy for Mrs Radcliffe's Gothic fashion for “goodness” being the sole preserve of heroines and heroes. Miss Austen thought England is a place of harmony and like its inhabitants, it lacks extremes. In its gentle landscape, the authoress places characters like those she observed around her, who were a fairly balanced mix of “good” and “bad”.  In this sense, she withdraws from the artifice, to paint nature.

Our speaker believed that while Jane Austen, in her earlier years, had been a keen enthusiast for the picturesque movement, she had grown to dislike artificiality. As a result, she had wanted her most refined characters to prefer naturalistic scenes which also value utility.  Therefore, farms and villages should not be erased or removed to make way, as Capability Brown did, for long views, beyond the “ha ha”, a creation which prevented country creatures, roaming into the gardens, while maintaining the long view.

He maintained that Jane Austen preferred her heroes to be aware of the need for lack of artifice in scenery. Instead, the tasteful and morally discerning valued a balance of “utility and beauty”. Therefore, a working farm on a manor could be just as valuable as the long artificial view to rising ground;  ancient, productive woods or wilderness just as worthy as the artificial lake and bridge, created by the newly rich.  

Among the members of the Jane Austen Society present, there was little or no dissent from these learned views and indeed much appreciation of them. 

Thus, after a civil speech or two and some polite applause, we adjourned to the comforts of high tea and home-made cake.


  1. Why Tonbridge Church? Jane's orphaned father Rev George Austen and Jane's Aunt Philadephia attended Tonbridge Church as children. George was usher (teacher) at Tonbridge School, until he removed to Steventon. Twenty two members of Jane Austen's clan lived in Tonbridge, for part of their lives. Rev John Papillon, vicar of Tonbridge became Jane's parish priest in Chawton. Her grandfather William Austen, a country surgeon (1701-1737) and her grandmother, Rebecca Walter (died 1732), daughter of Sir George Hampson (Baronet and physician), are buried in the north aisle of Tonbridge Church. I am sure that Jane must have visited their graves, when staying at Sevenoaks, though no record of the visit survives.

  2. Hi Annis

    Just re-read Mansfield Park which I am sure illustrates the topic with the less worthy characters wanting to 'improve' their estates in this fashion eg. Mr Rushworth at Sotherton and the patronising remarks of that rogue Mr Crawford to Edmund on 'improving' the vicarage at Thornton Lacey. Lots of references to Repton which I did not pick up before.

    It sounds like a lovely talk.