Thursday 15 August 2013

Philosophy in the Garden by Damon Young

I first stumbled upon Philosophy in the Garden at the Sydney Writers Festival when Damon Young was part of the panel discussing the merits of Jane Austen.

His book undertakes to highlight "eleven great authors, and the ideas they discovered in parks, yards and pots."

Naturally, one of these great authors is Jane Austen.

Young begins by telling us that JA "looked to her cottage garden for the comforts of perfection." And that her last three books (Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion) were written at a small twelve-sided walnut table near the front door of Chawton Cottage. Any time she needed a break from writing, to clear her head or to escape the confines of domestic life, Jane would walk out into the garden to be refreshed.

In fact, Young argues, Jane needed the garden to write. The family move to Bath basically stopped JA from writing for a decade. The shock of the move plus the lack of garden made her lose her voice.

As I've been rereading Mansfield Park, I've been on the look out for garden references to see how they stack up to this idea of the garden as consolation and comfort.

Early on at a dinner with the Grants and Crawford's, Fanny seeks peace and quiet at the window. She is joined by Edmund

"where all that was solemn and soothing, and lovely, appeared in the brilliancy of an unclouded night, and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods. Fanny spoke her feelings. 'Here's harmony!' said she, 'Here's repose! Here's what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe. Here's what may tranquilize every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene."

After Crawford proposes to Fanny, her uncle advises her to

"go out, the air will do you good; go out for an hour on the gravel, you will have the shrubbery to yourself, and will be better for the air and the exercise."

The visit to Sotherton and the walk around the grounds revealed all the main characters and their key personality traits. Mother Nature brought out their true natures!

Fanny's preference for strolling in the shrubbery to seek solace and comfort also flies in the face of Mrs Norris' need for speed and control. She berates Fanny for going out for a "private walk" without telling her, as she would have asked her to "go as far as my house with some orders for Nanny...which I have since, to my very great inconvenience, been obliged to go and carry myself....It would have made no difference to you, I suppose, whether you had walked in the shrubbery, or gone to my house."

I'm also reminded of how often JA used the great outdoors for some of the major scenes in her earlier work. Elizabeth's muddy walk to visit the ill Jane, the walks around the Collins' place where Mr Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, her visit to Pemeberly with her aunt and uncle, the angry scene with Catherine de Burgh....

Marianne's meeting of Willoughby on a rainy hillside....

I'm sure you can all think of plenty more!


  1. Hi Brona,

    We have a relatively modest sized garden and I must admit, that at times, it is good to be able to just step away from the confines of the house and sit on the garden bench. It is indeed, a great way to gather one's thoughts and establish a modicum of peace and tranquility. As our garden borders a bridal track and hedgerow and isn't too overlooked by neighbours, it is generally peaceful and quiet, with the noise, if any, comprising the song of a myriad birds.

    I am not so sure that my personal thoughts are that philosophical, however parks and gardens have inspired generations of authors over the years!

    A 'nice' peaceful post, thanks for sharing,


  2. I never thought about how often key scenes in Jane Austen's books occur in a garden. Great post! I'll definitely be looking for more garden walks as I read her books.

  3. Fabulous post Brona, I'll pass it along to a friend who is a major Austenite. Many of the important scenes are outdoors aren't they? It sounds an interesting book.


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.