ON THE PICTURESQUE: JANE AUSTEN

From Sense and Sensibility

Edward returned to them with fresh admiration of the surrounding country; in his walk to the village, he had seen many parts of the valley to advantage; and the village itself, in a much higher situation than the cottage, afforded a general view of the whole, which had exceedingly pleased him. This was a subject which ensured Marianne’s attention, and she was beginning to describe her own admiration of these scenes, and to question him more minutely on the objects that had particularly struck him when Edward interrupted her by saying, “You must not enquire too far , Marianne- remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth , which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought to be only indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country- the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug-with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility- and I dare say it is a picturesque one too because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush-wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque.

I am afraid it is but too true,” said Marianne; “but why should you boast of it?”

I suspect,” said Elinor, “that to avoid one kind of affectation, Edward here falls into another. Because he believes many people pretend to more admiration than they feel, and is disgusted with such pretensions, he affects greater indifference and less discrimination in viewing them himself than he possesses. He is fastidious, and will have an affectation of his own.

It is very true ” says Marianne, “that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense of meaning”

I am convinced ” said Edward,” that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined,tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farmhouse than a watch-tower-and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with compassion at his sister. Elinor only laughed.

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility Vol. 1 xv111

One of the delights of reading Jane Austen is coming across conversations like this-lively and clever bringing out character in its relation to the topic at hand as well as the thematic development of the novel. He points to the terminology he uses as opposed to that which he should use if pre-disposed to the picturesque (“bold” rather than “steep” for hills, and instead of”distant objects out of sight” what “ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere”) in a way that demonstrates amusingly that Edward knows a lot about the picturesque while disclaiming such knowledge. In doing so we appreciate the wit of clever judgement.

Elinor, with rational perceptiveness, recognises the discrepancy between what Edward is claiming and how he is doing it and she sees it as a way of avoiding “one kind of affectation” by “falling into another”. Such a claim points to the relevance for us of the way argument in general is conducted. It is not simply about an old aesthetic topic now irrelevant ( though in fact this argument continues to resonate for a population of scenery admirers where we are always engaged with the question as to what particularly raises or lessens our admiration for such a particular scene) it is about the way people argue. Marianne, with sensitive intelligence, recognises the general tendency to adopt particular terms or stereotypical notions disallowing nuance. So she often stays quiet rather than using language which is “worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning”.

Edward then furthers the debate by developing the argument he has earlier made based on an admiration combining beauty and utility (which word of course points to the philosophy Bentham was at that point developing and which will have a major effect on the nineteenth century and beyond in utilitarianism) with a more specific criticism of the picturesque: “I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles” using contrasting illustrations-“I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing.”

The theme of the novel, indicated by the title, balances sense with sensibility. Marianne is the character who represents “sensibility” which emphasises fine feeling. In a recent blog on the development of the word “romantic” we saw how its emphasis became associated not so much with the old romances as with suitable settings and attraction to these. The word developed strong subjective connection of how it looks to how I feel about its appearance. This prepared for a development of “picturesque” ideas distinguishing what looks good (“romantic”) at the expense of more objective ideas of value. To Edward the “cottage” is a ruin,its justification as a building is lost. Picturesque values might emphasise the cottage’s graceful appropriateness for overall effect of a view. And such internalised effects were thoroughly investigated, as Edward mockingly shows in his use of the vocabulary.

The argument concludes unresolved. Elinor keeps her balanced appreciation of the two sides of the argument by laughing. Marianne is too inclined towards a romanticism upholding the feelings to understand a counter point of view. With her primacy of the feelings commands her reason.

We can see in the movement from the rational minded Edward to the romantic Marianne the balancing centre of the Elinor who laughs- her laugh representing the wit and wisdom of the artist who could appreciate both points of view.

It is a wisdom of which we are sorely in need to this day. During Lockdown, after three months there is increasing sense of imbalance and lack of proportion. A widely respected professional novelist, mainly of children’s books, tweeted a witty ironic comment -not unworthy of Jane Austen- on a proposed definition of women, which was met with outrage. No considered argument -that I saw publicised- was used to answer the implied criticism. The author was simply traduced for not being on the side of approved opinion.

Oh, for the sense of balance a Jane Austen’s laugh might bring!

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

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