Ellen Brown

Landscape in Jane Austen’s Time

One phenomenon in the category of landscape that began to happen during Jane’s lifetime was “enclosure.” This was a change in the farming techniques. Before enclosure, the farmland was in scattered, disorganized strips tended by yeoman farmers, who worked their own land and supported themselves.  Enclosure made the farmland into organized parcels so that more efficient farming techniques could be used, with larger parcels owned by a gentleman farmer, who would then hire laborers to work for him.

Jane Austen’s life fell at the early end of this movement. Later on, the trend of enclosure began to lead to more disparity between the rich and poor. It was also connected with the trend towards industrialism and the eventual move of many people from the countryside to the city, which also meant increased populations and more poverty. In Austen’s time, however, the most noticeable effect of enclosure was the appearance of the landscape as organized and quilt-like.

Another thing that was happening during Jane’s lifetime related to the landscape was the idea of “improvement.” In some of the novels, such as Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility, the characters have conversations about the picturesque. This illustrates that people had theories about how a landscape should be looked at and what comprised a pleasing view. In Mansfield Park we encountered the effects of these theories on rich owners of large estates. People would hire a consultant to help them alter or “improve” their landscape to make it more picturesque.  Estates had to look more “natural” by eliminating straight lines (the reason that the avenue had to go at Sotherton), and the view had to be balanced and pleasing.  The idea of “improvement” is actually quite ironic, because people were trying to make their estates look natural, but they had to do things like moving hills and cutting down trees to achieve that effect.

One famous improver was Lancelot “Capability” Brown. His nickname came from the fact that he would tell his clients that their land had great “capabilities.” His theory of improvement was to have huge sweeping lawns leading up to the house, interrupted only by small clumps of trees, strategically placed.

After Brown came Sir Humphry Repton, the landscaper mentioned in Mansfield Park. Repton’s theory of improvement was to create a gradual transition between the house and the grounds with more variety than Brown’s landscapes had contained. He emphasized the need for shelter from sun and wind for people who walked in the garden, which was not supplied by Brown’s wide lawns.  He would paint pictures for prospective clients with translucent sheets that would lay over a view of the estate so that the client could see the “before” and “after” effects of Repton’s plans. These paintings were bound into catalogs.

Repton also combined the use of architecture with landscaping. One of the places that Repton’s work was used was Blaise castle, the not-very-old “ruin” mentioned by John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. Such fake ruins were very popular during this period, and people desired both classic and medieval styles to compliment a pleasing view of trees, water, and lawn.

Another tool that improvers used on large estates was a “ha-ha.”  This is mentioned in Mansfield Park. A ha-ha is a fence that is sunk into the ground. They were used because it was believed that a fence would disrupt the picturesque view of a landscape. A ha-ha could not be seen by someone looking out across an expanse of lawn, but it prevented livestock from entering the pleasure grounds of the rich. Its name apparently comes from the fact that people would laugh when they came upon one that they hadn’t known was there.

An English ha-ha.