Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Surveying Jane's Landscape: Jane and the Genius of the Place

It's not every day that a complete stranger walks up to you in the middle of a crowded bookstore and confesses, in a distinctly audible voice, My mother was a whore.

There are a range of possible responses every author has mastered.  Fixed smile, sympathetic nod, sidelong glance at bookstore security--or just the polite question: "And how would you like your book signed?"  Two things prevented me from completely embarrassing myself on this occasion, however--the speaker's English accent, and her burst of laughter immediately following her extraordinary confidence.

She meant Hoare, of course.  As in: My mother was raised in one of the most privileged banking families in Britain.

Henry Hoare II and his heirs created Stourhead, a glorious Wiltshire estate that should be on every garden-lover's bucket list.  (If you've seen the movie Barry Lyndon, you've seen Stourhead--it was partly filmed there.)  I was fortunate enough to wander through its extraordinary valley, beautiful woodland paths, and around its lake--complete with grotto and statuary hermit--on a day of fitful rain, when visitors were few.  Stourhead must be seen to be fully appreciated, much less believed--a constructed landscape that appears to have existed forever; a staggeringly expensive undertaking intended to reach its apogee long after its architects were dead.  I used it as a model for The Larches, home of banker Mr. Grey and his mysterious wife, in Jane and the Genius of the Place.

A friend of mine insists that my titles in the Jane series are ridiculously complicated, and probably put readers off.  She advises me to name each of my books Jane and Mr. Darcy.  She figures they'd sell gangbusters if I did.  And Genius of the Place wins her prize for Stupid Title of All Time.  I mean, what was I thinking?

I was thinking of Alexander Pope, who once wrote: "In laying out a garden, the first and chief thing to be considered is the genius of the place."  By this he meant the atmosphere, the animating spirit, the overwhelming emotional sensation one receives in a particular spot--and that the gardener violates it at her peril.  In ancient times, it was common to believe in the actual Spirit of the place--Horace refers to the resident genie--and propitiate it with sacrifices. 

What does all this have to do with Jane Austen?

She thought about landscape a good deal, although her novelistic descriptions are famously brief.  There was a rage for landscape design in the late Georgian and Regency periods, as the naturalistic concepts of Lancelot Capability Brown gave way to the Gothic vogue of Humphrey Repton.  The "improvement of the estate" became the object of every gentleman of Fashion; and Jane's tongue-in-cheek treatment of this bit of pop culture is most obvious in Mansfield Park.  Poor, dull, Mr. Rushworth hankers after an Improver for his estate at Sotherton; his friend Smith has employed Repton; his affianced bride is certain only Mr. Repton will do for her--and Rushworth even states, with careless insouciance, that Repton's terms are five guineas a day, an astronomic sum that signifies Rushworth's wealth.  (Mansfield Park, Oxford edition, p. 53).  How did Jane know all this?  One of her relatives employed Repton to transform Stoneleigh Abbey when he inherited it--the estate Jane is commonly thought to have used as a model for Rushworth's Sotherton.  She would have made a point of getting the man's fees exactly right.

But of course, landscape is chiefly valuable as metaphor, in Austen's work--Rushworth's need to dress up his noble pile is unwitting evidence of a value for form over substance.  His sham landscape--decorated with faux Gothic ruins and other Follies--is a metaphor for his sham marriage, where all the expense in the world cannot compensate for a lack of real feeling.  Similarly, Henry Crawford--the consummate Improver--tries to remake simple Edmund's honest home in the style of a gentleman--representing a clergyman's living as a fashionable residence for a man of the world, which is what Edmund has no desire to pretend to be.  Even Mary Crawford unconsciously invokes Alexander Pope in urging her brother's help:  "Only think how useful he was at Sotherton!  Only think what grand things were produced there by our all going with him one hot day in August to drive about the grounds, and see his genius take fire."  (Emphasis mine.  MP, p. 244). 

Jane and the Genius of the Place is a riff on all of these themes.  It features an Improver rather like Humphrey Repton, one Julian Southey, who possesses a charm that masks a peculiar agenda.  Set at Godmersham, Edward Austen's home in Kent, during the summer of the Great Terror--1805--when the entire Channel coast was braced for Napoleon's invasion, it is a tale that blends horse racing, French spies, local militia movements, and the rhythms of country house life with brutal murder.  Southey is the particular friend of one of Edward's neighbours--Mr. Finch-Hatton--whose son, George, appears as a principal character in the forthcoming Jane and the Canterbury Tale, due out in late September 2011.  (And yes: those of you who remember Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham's separate accounts of their love affairs in Africa with Denys Finch-Hatton are not mistaken--he was a descendant of the same family.  Charm is genetic.)

Enjoy--and may we all realize our peculiar Genius!



  1. Ok now I have to re-read this book in prep for your newest book.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post on Regency "improvement of the estate." The landscape designer in me got goosebumps. Looking forward to the Edward Austen family connections in Canterbury Tale.

  3. In addition to the envy-inspiring settings and seemingly endless indolence (how these appeal to this working mother of four!), Genius struck me this time as a genius of language style. I wonder if, Ms. Barron, you find yourself using diction we associate with earlier prose (someone was "wont" to do something) or spelling words with an "s" in place of a "z" or with an "our" rather than an "or" even when you're outside the novels. I delighted in the use of "judgement" (with an "e") in Jane Austen's voice and judgment (sans "e") in your footnote as "editor" on the same page (94).. And "draughty" seems so much colder than merely drafty. What fun.

    I'm curious how adopting the language style affects a story's development. Do you immerse yourself in the language as you write so the characters behave as Georgian/Regency ladies and gentleman ought--speech seems so integral to their actions that it seems hearing them would facilitate the writing of their actions. Or are such details ones that are consciously added in revision for verisimilitude. Whichever, as a reader the details delight and I find myself expecting to see and hear the Knights and Austen et. al. when I close my book. Something of a bummer to hear hard Rs and encounter a dearth of bonnets instead.

    Finally, Lizzy is a riot (as bright as Lizzy Bennet though the former more languid and latter more biting?): those outside Elizabeth's Knight's family are struck by her elegance, but we also get her wit, her crack about persuading her husband to abandon his periwig eliciting a hearty chortle. I'm eager to re-read Jane's letters for more about their relationship--other recommended sources for the Knights? Speculation about a connection to Emma's Robert Knightley (Knight Leigh?)

    Thank you for such a literate escape--I'm in awe of your talent!

  4. Dear Darcy: Sorry it took me so long to reply; Easter intruded. Your queries about language are apt--I DO tend to speak in Austenese a good deal; and without quite realizing it, so do my two unfortunate sons. Kids inevitably acquire language from their environment, but this is occasionally embarrassing when their friends stare at them blankly after a peculiar comment. I find that when I'm writing a Jane novel, the language comes naturally--although it helps to read one of her books first. The American spellings in the footnotes are, however, usually maintained by my adept copyeditor at Bantam; I generally forget the difference and make everything British when I'm in the Austen zone.
    I'm glad you've enjoyed this version of Elizabeth Austen. Truth to tell, my character is almost entirely a construct, and I can't offer you good sources. I would love to know so much more about Edward's life after his adoption by the Knights in Kent: his introduction to Society, his wooing of Lizzy after his Grand Tour, their circle of friends--it smacks so much of Georgette Heyer. I find that little is recorded of Eliza's brief life, however. Knowing that she was the daughter of a baronet--married at 18, along with her closest sisters; that she was educated at a ladies' seminary; that she read feminist tracts; and that Edward Austen seems to have had a relentlessly passionate relationship with her--never remarrying after her death, when all of his widowed brothers married for a second time--I decided she had to have been a Force. It's probable she preferred Cassandra to Jane--Cassandra spent more lengthy visits at Godmersham--although I ignore that for the purposes of fiction. Jane never speaks ill of Eliza in her letters, as she persistently does of Mary Lloyd Austen, so I assume there was no animosity between them. Cassandra was simply a better babysitter of small children, of which there were so many at Godmersham during Eliza's lifetime. Jane bonded with her nieces and nephews once they reached the age of Reason I think.
    If anyone has suggestions for good sources on Eliza, please post!