Monday, 2 July 2007

Austen and The Picturesque. Part Two.

While Horace Walpole's taste developed to appreciate the more grandly Gothic, and Thomas Gray the more neoclassical aesthetics of The Beautiful and The Sublime, the nitty gritty of the Picturesque was taken up by Wordsworth in poetry, William Gilpin in travel essays and Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight and, later in his career, Humphry Repton, in essays and landscape design. The popularity of the Picturesque owed much to the rhapsodizing essays of Gilpin, who transplanted the ideal from the paintings of Europe to the countryside of Britain, revolutionizing the pre-existing ideas about tourism and allowing more humble English scenery seekers to experience a tour of the landscape, a hereto aristocratic privilege, without going abroad.

Much like the fashion for Gothic novels, the rage the Picturesque, though not unsound in itself, rose to melodramatic and silly heights, as at Knight's residence Downton Castle for example, where
'large fragments of stone were irregularly thrown amongst briers and weeds, to imitate the foreground of a picture'. Austen represents the ideal has having qualities verging on the absurd, in Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, and even as dangerous in Sense and Sensibility, by associating the Picturesque with the exaggerated, emotion-driven and almost deadly sensibilities of Marianne Dashwood.

In Pride and Prejudice Austen touches but lightly on the ideal, in a short exercise in ridicule. When Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst oust Elizabeth Bennet from a walk with Darcy by positioning themselves in a way that monopolizes a garden path, Darcy tries to offset their rudeness by inviting her to continue with them regardless. Elizabeth replies
'You are charmingly group'd, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth', indicating the enthusiasm for scenic objects grouped in threes by expounders of the ideal. This clever remark hints at the absurdity of Picturesque fastidiousness and casts that aura of silliness onto the trio, leaving the charming group, and The Picturesque, looking somewhat deflated.

To be continued

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