Last month, during Jane Austen Regency Week, Professor Panine Barchas, President of the North American Friends of Chawton House (NAFCH) officially opened our Jane Austen Garden Trail.
In 2018, NAFCH coordinated a successful fundraising campaign for donors to sponsor one of 20 possible garden spots at Chawton House, choosing a Jane Austen quotation to grace a plaque at the site. Many of the sponsors were Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) regions. You can read Janine’s speech below, which highlights the many connections and allusions Jane Austen makes to English country gardens.
WORDS SPOKEN AT GARDEN OPENING
27 June 2019
by Janine Barchas
It is an honor to be here in my capacity as President of the North American Friends of Chawton House. Last October, your friends in North America raised needed funds and visibility by finding sponsors for twenty worthy spots in the garden. Sponsors were able to pick out a specific Jane Austen quotation for each location marking a new Garden Trail for visitors. The funds raised helped many aspects of the running of Chawton House.
The signage around the garden today therefore bears the names of fans in places as diverse as Vermont, Texas, California, Canada, Australia, and many others. These names reflect the world-wide support of this “Great House”—the wide appreciation of its history, its extensive book collection on early women writers, and its splendid grounds. The eye of the word is upon Chawton House! The garden signage attests that the history safeguarded here is now the shared investment and concern of many—as it always should have been.
I’ve never opened a garden before, but I often lecture about garden history in my classes on the 18th-century novel. Before we tour this history-filled garden today with its true experts (namely the garden volunteers who have been working hard to manage both plants and visitors), I want to offer one link that connects some early works by women writers housed inside this Elizabethan manor to the gardens that surround it. Gardening has always been a highly moral endeavor—and this was especially true during the landscaping craze of the eighteenth century that affected this property like so many others. After the denuding of Britain’s trees during the chaotic Civil War, landowners began necessary replanting. Tending to one’s garden at the turn of the 18th-century reflected social, religious, and cultural beliefs. Landowners were duty-bound to God and country to maximize the land’s beauty and productivity. Before the Romantics distorted our sense of aesthetics with what Elinor Dashwood terms a “passion for dead leaves,” gardening celebrated and demonstrated man’s control over nature with straight lines and geometric designs.
In many 18th-century novels in Chawton House’s collection, the serious morality and duty associated with gardens—that index of man’s control over nature—is turned upside down. In the early fictions by Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Frances Burney, and—yes indeed—Jane Austen, gardens are convenient locations of transgression, disobedience, and indiscretion. In many early novels, garden settings are places where the hero or heroine upsets the social order, all the while surrounded by contrasting clipped hedges, sculpted plants, and straight geometric walks.
I am thinking of the orange groves in Behn’s Oroonoko that bode ill, and the box hedges and walled gardens in Haywood’s Love in Excess that fail to keep characters in check. Burney’s heroine, Evelina, visits a number of fashionable gardens in London, where she ends up walking arm in arm between two prostitutes. Shocking stuff happens in fictional gardens! In Sense and Sensibility, a garden gate is recklessly left open for Willoughby to swoop into the Devonshire cottage with Marianne in his arms. In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram risks falling into the ha-ha to go out of bounds with Henry Crawford—only to disappear over the knoll at Sotherton. Picnics and walks in the outdoors prove social turns in Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Petticoats, six inches deep in mud from walking through the countryside, can turn the world upside down. Fittingly, Lady Catherine is rebuffed by Elizabeth in the little “wilderness” that is part of the garden at Longbourn.
In sum, be careful out there today. In a garden, you should probably not allow novels to be your guide, even if quotations from Jane Austen do mark our path today.