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!