Oofy here: Editorial: More on Jane Austen. What about French?
A gloss from the Type-Setter. The perspicacity of our editor brings to his attention a rift to be discerned in the thinking of Humphry Repton and Jane Austen. It is however the Professor who ripostes, with what follows, I am happy to credit the suggestion that he does so by way of taking a swipe at the opinions of our noble editor, which he regards as ill-founded.
‘Here is Repton at Thoresby in 1791: “It is hardly possible for any Admirer of Nature to be more enthusiastically fond of her romantic Scenery than myself, but her wildest designs are not within the common reach of man’s habitation. The rugged paths of Alpine regions will not be daily trodden by the feet of affluence, nor will the thundering cataracts of Lodore seduce the votaries of pleasure to visit their wonders frequently. It is only by a sort of illusion that we can avail ourselves of the means which Nature herself furnishes in tame Scenery to imitate her bold effects & to this illusion if well conducted the eye of genuine taste will not refuse its assent.
‘La Nature fuit les lieux fréquentés; c’est au sommet des montagnes, au fond des forêts, dans des îles désertes, qu’elle étale ses charmes les plus touchants. Ceux qui l’aiment et ne peuvent l’aller chercher si loin sont réduits à lui faire violence, à la forcer en quelque sorte à venir habiter avec eux ; et tout cela ne peut se faire sans un peu d’illusion.’ Rousseau”
Here is Repton again, equally a Rousseau-ist, at Vinters in Kent and not so far from the war in 1797 – the very year in which Admiral Sir John Jervis defeated the Spanish in the Battle of Cape St Vincent, off Portugal: “Labour and hardship attend the operations of agriculture, whether cattle are tearing up the surface of the soil, or man reaping its produce. On the contrary a pasture shews us the same animals enjoying rest after fatigue.” The idea of pasture and grass as a more pure way of life than arable farming is pure Rousseau.
Then we have Repton’s appreciation of the flower garden at Nuneham, to which he remained constant even in the 19th century, though it was built as an homage to Rousseau and his Julie’s Garden (by William Mason in the 1770s). Again in Scotland, advising at Valleyfield in 1801, shortly before the Battle of Copenhagen where Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and Horatio Nelson defeated the Danes in order to prevent them joining forces with the French, his mind turned to it: ‘‘A Flower garden should be an object detached & distinct from the general scenery of the place; & whether large or small, whether formal or varied, it ought to be inclosed by an inner fence to keep out hares: … Thus at Nuneham a seat of Earl Harcourt, the flower garden without being formal, is highly enriched, but not too much crouded with seats & temples, & statues, & vases & other ornaments, which being works of Art, beautifully harmonize with that profusion of flowers & curious plants which distinguishes the flower garden from natural Landscape, altho’ the walks are not in straight lines.”
More again in 1803 at the very outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars proper – could he have made a more incendiary reference than this? – “Some of the most ingenious hints, and even some just principles in the art, are to be found in the works of … Rousseau …”.
Take Repton, and then take Dr Johnson in conversation with James Boswell: ”Rousseau, Sir, is a very bad man, I would rather sign a sentence for his transportation, than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years.” Next consider The Loiterer, launched by Jane Austen’s brothers James and Henry in 1789. It was a Johnsonian, anti-sentimental, anti-romantic periodical and it condemned that “excess of sentiment and susceptibility which the works of the great Rousseau chiefly introduced, which every subsequent Novel has since foster’d and which the voluptuous manners of the present age but too eagerly embrace.”
Henry Austen went on in a later issue to warn all those who indulged in Rousseau’s ideas and were “tortured by the poignant delicacy of their own feelings” that they would inevitably “fall martyrs to their own susceptibilities.” One such was Jane Austen’s Laura of Love and Freindship. She had, in her own words, “a sensibility too tremblingly alive to every affliction of my friends, my acquaintance and particularly in every affliction of my own” and so dismissed Graham for lack of soul because he had never read the Sorrows of Werther.
Rousseau’s message that we should abandon convention and look only to the dictates of our own hearts to guide our actions, was anathema to the self-controlled Austens. They would have been at one with Mr Knightly when he replied to Mrs Elton’s proposal that they and their friends should organise “a sort of gypsy party” with “everything as natural and simple as possible” for the strawberry picking: “My idea of the simple and the natural will be to have a table spread in the dining room”, he said caustically. “The nature and simplicity of ladies and gentlemen, with their servants and furniture, I think is best observed by meals within doors.” – hero or not, Jane Austen could not resist the chance to poke fun at his priggishness. However the evident condemnation of Rousseau by the Austens predates the French Revolution. Yet even after the Terror, with Rousseau regarded as one of its instigators, Repton remained loyal. This remains an unbridgeable chasm for those who would identify the thinking and politics of Jane Austen and Humphry Repton. Like all the English before Wordsworth, Jane Austen could never acknowledge the strength of her attachment to the natural world, for fear of where it might lead her. [Notes from the Professor, trans. the Type-Setter]