Gardens make regular appearances in Jane Austen’s novels, often as the setting of key scenes, a source of pleasure or concern, or a place for the heroines to escape when they need some alone time.
But how should we imagine these gardens, and why does it matter?
The Rise of the Pleasure Garden
Until the early XVIII century, the favoured design for gardens was very formal, with sharp edges and straight avenues. Things changed dramatically during the Georgian era and the emergence of the naturalistic look.
Georgian gardens found inspiration in the classical world, but also in international travel, such as the European Grand Tours. Outdoor spaces were all about delight, surprise and pleasure, and many incorporated lakes, cascades, grottos, summer houses and little temples or follies to add interest to the landscape.
As well as beautiful surroundings, gardens were the perfect setting for tea parties, games, music, bowling, cricket, walks, boating – not to mention love.
A Georgian landscape favourite was the ha-ha, a sunken fence that separated the house grounds from the rest of the park and prevented stock from crossing over to the garden side.
Ha-has were not visible from the main house and thus very discreet, and Austen uses one in Sotherton Estate to great effect in Mansfield Park.
The design of Georgian gardens also intended to stir up feelings, with sunny little meadows to spur happiness and dark tunnels to encourage reflection. For example, Catherine Morland feels a “delightful melancholy” when she takes “a narrow winding path through a thick grove of old Scotch firs” shortly after her arrival at Northanger Abbey.
A Georgian Garden for Everyone
As with all fashions, the taste for this type of garden trickled down beyond the aristocratic trend-setters, and the middle classes also demanded their share of outdoor pleasure, adapting the core ideas to the more modest scale of their homes.
For example, in Emma, Harriet Smith gushes about the Martins, who have “a very handsome summer-house in their garden, where some day next year they were all to drink tea:-_ a very handsome summer house, large enough to hold a dozen people.” The Martins, as we all remember, are relatively well off, but still a family of farmers.
In Georgian times, gardens were also inevitably linked to food. They were at their best in summer, when the London season was over. That’s when the crops in the kitchen gardens and glasshouses of country estates would have been at their freshest and most plentiful.
Eating in the fresh air was a source of pleasure, with bon-vivants such as Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility “in summer for ever forming parties to eat cold ham and chicken out of doors.”
Picnics were also very fashionable. In Emma, Mrs Elton explains to Mr Knightley what the perfect outdoor excursion should look like:
“It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing. I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm. Here, probably this basket with pink ribbon. (…) We are to walk about your gardens, and gather the strawberries ourselves, and sit under trees; – and whatever else you may like to provide, it is to be all out of doors – a table spread in the shade, you know.”
Emma, Chapter VI
(Unfortunately for Mrs Elton, Mr Knightley isn’t fond of eating outdoors. His response? “When you are tired of eating strawberries in the garden, there shall be cold meat in the house.”)
So, as Midsummer approaches (and provided you are in the northern hemisphere) I invite you to take a leaf out of the Georgian garden’s playbook and seek your pleasure outdoors.
What is your ideal garden like? Do you agree with some of the precepts so loved by the Georgians?