Jane Austen and the "Wilderness"

"Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favor me with your company."

Lady Catherine de Bourgh to Elizabeth Bennet
from Chapter LVI
of Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen

There are those who believe that Lady Catherine was yet again being condescending when she referred to the "wilderness" at one side of the lawn at Longbourn. But in actual fact, her condescension was in the use of the word "little" and the implication that the Bennet’s lawn was not as grand as her own estate at Rosings.

The enclosed wilderness at Mr. Rushworth’s estate of Sotherton Court is a point of discussion and the setting for some interesting interchanges between various characters in Chapters IX and X of Mansfield Park. The author of both these novels, Jane Austen, was well aware that a garden wilderness was not open country when she wrote these novels. She knew that a wilderness was a common feature of many of the larger English gardens during the Regency, just as it had been for at least a century prior to the publication of her books.

Many of these garden wildernesses were related to the evolution of the garden maze. For that reason, this article takes its place as another in my series on mazes. And now, a wilderness adventure  …

Man-made gardens date back to ancient times. In fact, our word paradise has its roots in the ancient Persian word for garden. But these gardens were extremely formal, nature under man’s firm control. Untamed, wild nature was inordinately threatening to most people for many centuries. In their gardens our ancestors wanted the sense that nature had been subdued, that it was under their dominion. The dread of the awesome, unforgiving power of nature, and the preference for formal, regimented gardens persisted through the Middle Ages. But then came the Renaissance.

As the Renaissance flowered, so did man’s confidence in himself and a more rational perception of the world began to hold sway. Superstition was loosing its grip on the human mind, man felt more in control of the world in which he lived. This new attitude fostered an appreciation of nature, fear giving way to enjoyment. And nature, in less constrained forms, was welcomed into Renaissance gardens. The most popular form of "wild" nature invited into these gardens was an area planted with trees and shrubbery through which a number of labyrinthine paths were cut, similar to a maze. This new fashion began in Italy, then spread slowly northward across the Continent, reaching England near the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

By the seventeenth century, the gardens of most large English estates were a patchwork of knot gardens or parterres in which nature was still laid out with great precision and control, with a much more informal area beyond, known as the "wild grove" or the "wilderness." Typically, the parterres were placed in closest proximity to the house, as their formal layout was perceived as an extension of the family’s interior living space. At many of the very large royal and aristocratic estates, the parterres extended out from the house for several acres, demonstrating not only their owner’s wealth and taste, but his dominion over nature. But the fashion from Renaissance Italy was well-entrenched by this time, and beyond the formal, domesticated parterres most noblemen had given over space on their estates for a wilderness. King William III had his own wilderness constructed at Hampton Court on the site of the tilt-yard created by Henry VIII. The landscape architect George London, and his partner, Henry Wise, laid out a large geometric design which was traced by yew, box and holly hedges bordering broad walkways. Two mazes were incorporated into this wilderness, one in the shape of two half circles, the second in the form of a triangular lozenge. This second of the two mazes still remains at Hampton Court, the last vestige of William III’s wilderness.

Most wildernesses in seventeenth-century English gardens were groves of trees, similar to the French bosquets, though they tended to cover much more area and to be placed further from the house. They were also often surrounded by a wall or high fence, and could only be entered through a door or gate. English wildernesses were also more likely to have a significant amount of shrubberies in varying heights planted amongst the trees, giving them a more closed effect than a bosquet. As this shrubbery grew, it was trimmed and pruned to create many straight and curving paths through the tree-canopied wilderness, punctuated with the occasional thicket or copse in which might be placed a small stone seat or bench. Courting couples took to these wildernesses with alacrity, as did those solitary souls who wished for a bit of privacy and shade out of doors, neither of which was available in the garden parterres.

In the eighteenth century, during the Age of Enlightenment, Englishmen had come to embrace all that was natural rationally and without the fear their ancestors had known. As the garden had once been, quite literally, paradise to the ancient Persians, so it was once again to the "enlightened" men and women of the eighteenth century. By the time of Jane Austen’s birth, in 1775, nearly every garden of any size, whether on the estates of the nobility or the gentry, had an area known as the wilderness. The eighteenth-century English wilderness gardens still tended to be dominated by a generous planting of trees and shrubbery, but they were now even more informal than they had been in the previous century. Flowering shrubs and plants had been introduced to add color and fragrance. Most of these more modern wildernesses still offered those secluded thickets for private moments, but the once straight or curving paths now wound about much more irregularly, in an attempt to more closely emulate nature. Instead of the gravel which had once covered the paths of most wildernesses of the seventeenth century, the later wilderness paths were more likely to be covered with grass or even moss. These new surfaces were considered much more natural, as they blended more completely into the environment, and removed the hard crunching sound of gravel underfoot as a visitor communed with nature in this "wild" place.

By the eighteenth century, few wildernesses were enclosed with any kind of wall or fencing. This, therefore, would suggest that the wilderness at Sotherton Court, in Mansfield Park, which had to be entered by a door, was an earlier, seventeenth-century wilderness, constructed when such areas were often enclosed. Further evidence is provided by the description of the wilderness as having been "laid out with too much regularity," something strenuously avoided in Enlightenment wilderness gardens. Regency-era readers of Jane Austen’s novel would have immediately understood the old-fashioned character of the wilderness at Southerton Court.

In many of these later wilderness gardens, instead of simple stone benches, furniture makers began designing special seating and other furniture for use in these "wild groves." For a selection of plates illustrating the fanciful garden furniture of the eighteenth century, scroll through the Garden Furniture post at the Early American Gardens blog. Though this article is primarily focused on gardens in America, several of the images in the Garden Furniture post are those of plates from the design books of eighteenth-century English furniture designers. Many of their designs, particularly those incorporating root and branch motifs, were made of either wood or wrought iron for seating in wilderness gardens all over England. Such furniture was typically painted a dark green or a rich brown, so that it would blend into the wilderness in which it was placed. In addition to furniture in a rustic style, some wildernesses might feature a garden folly or two, also in a rustic style. Such follies could take the shape of a small cottage or pavilion, ruined or intact; bridges, usually over a small brook or stream; or, in keeping with the water theme, a well or a fountain.

Wilderness gardens continued to be designed and built in Britain right through the decade of the Regency. They retained their fashion and popularity due in large part to the new ideal of the picturesque. The Enlightenment, which took a rational approach to all things, was giving ground to the picturesque and a more romantic view of nature. Where once rationalism had rejected a superstitious fear of nature, now the romantic ideal of the picturesque embraced nature as simple and spontaneous, a balm against the encroaching regularity, mechanization and urbanization of the Industrial Revolution.

Though, in truth, all wildernesses were unnatural, since they were the result of human design and construction, they were seldom perceived in that way by their visitors. Instead, they were experienced as places of fanciful, benevolent, unthreatening nature where human beings found solace from the reality of their daily lives. Over the centuries, these wildernesses lost their walls and gates, their straight or semi-circular paths became decidedly serpentine, and were covered with soft grass or moss instead of hard gravel. Fragrant flowering plants were introduced, as well as rustic furniture and follies, and in many cases a water feature was incorporated, such as a small stream or brook. Most gentleman of fashion and taste had a wilderness as part of the gardens on their estate and were proud to show it off to their visitors. Lovers, and others seeking privacy, would resort to the nearest wilderness where they could enjoy shaded seclusion away from prying eyes. This is the wilderness Jane Austen knew, and of which she wrote in both Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. She did not use that word to mean the raw, wild, uncivilized lands beyond human habitation, which many have mistakenly assumed was her intent.

When Lady Catherine requested Lizzie’s company in the "prettyish kind of a little wilderness" at Longbourn, she was, without doubt, by her use of the word "little," implying Longbourn was no match for her grand estate of Rosings. But her use of the word "wilderness" was perfectly natural, and would have been well-understood by both herself and Lizzie as a designation for an area of any gentleman’s garden in which one might have some peace and privacy.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Jane Austen and the "Wilderness"

  1. Pingback: A Maze Miscellany | The Regency Redingote

  2. dwwilkin says:

    Reblogged this on The Things That Catch My Eye and commented:
    We wrote of Longbourn in Colonel Fitzwilliam’s Correspondence, which of course is a continuation of Pride and Prejudice. A novel that many people have found quite enjoyable. If I had read this post a scene of Kitty and the Colonel in the a wilderness might have been added…

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