A Changing View: Jane Austen's Landscape


  • Penny Gay


Who then shall grace, or who improve the soil? Who plants like Bathurst, or who builds like Boyle. 'Tis use alone that sanctifies expense, And splendour borrows all her rays from sense. His father's acres who enjoys in peace, Or makes his neighbours glad, if he increase: Whose cheerful tenants bless their yearly toil, Yet to their lord owe more than to the soil; Whose ample lawns are not ashamed to feed The milky heifer and deserving steed; Whose rising forests, not for pride or show, But future buildings, future navies grow: Let his plantations stretch from down to down, First shade a country, and then raise a town. Alexander Pope in 1731 defined an ideal relationship between a gentleman and the land in his possession, a relationship which subordinated the idea of 'improvement' to that of productivity. That ideal, in its turn, has a humane basis: the 'use of riches' is not a matter of gain for gain's sake, but rather of care and stewardship, which ensures that all people associated with the land, from the lowliest labourers to pensioned dependents, from tenant farmers to the members of the 'great house: are kept in health and comfort. Jane Austen, writing nearly a century later, does not depart from this ideal, though as an intelligent conservative, and a woman (not a landowner), she views its workings in reality with a critical eye.