Saturday, 8 February 2014

Wilderness or shrubbery?

'"Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favour me with your company."

"Go, my dear," cried her mother, "and shew her ladyship about the different walks..."'

The term wilderness isn't one we often use any more and so trying to imagine the environment Elizabeth and Lady Catherine have just strolled into in Pride and Prejudice can be frustrating.

A wilderness however was an exceedingly popular garden feature from the seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century. Unlike the wildness that the word conjures up, it was actually a highly structured space. Developing from bosquets (formal lines and rows of trees), wildernesses were places where you could walk on gravel or grass paths, through neatly ordered geometric lines or curves of trees.

To understand what they were like, it is worth quoting Philip Miller from his Gardener’s Dictionary of 1735 at length:
The usual Method of contriving Wildernesses is, to divide the whole Compass of Ground, either into Squares' Angles, Circles, or other Figures, …  the Walks are commonly made to intersect each other in Angles...and the more these Walks are turned, the greater Pleasure they will afford. These should now and then lead into an open circular Piece of Grass; in the Center of which may be placed either an Obelisk, Statue, or Fountain.

An eighteenth century wilderness, as planted

The idea was that you could lose yourself within the shady walks, deep in contemplation, similar to a philosopher under a tree. As Robert Burton wrote in his Anatomy of Melancholy in 1612:
What is more pleasant than to walk alone in some solitary meditate upon some delightsome and pleasant subject.
At Ham House in Richmond, near London, the garden has been recreated as it would have been in the seventeenth century, so you can wander around through leafy corridors and really get a feel for this type of walk.

Wandering the Wilderness at Ham House, Richmond (National Trust)

By the 1750s however such formal spaces were becoming unfashionable and any linear features were slowly disappearing, in order to reflect the more liberal and free-thinking attributes of a patriotic Britain. Curved walks became serpentine and walls of trees and hedges gradually turned into shrubberies bursting with borders of small flowers running back into taller flowering shrubs and then trees. Now such shady walks included honeysuckle, primroses, sweet briars, pinks, roses, peonies, lilacs, laburnams and syringas. Capability Brown, who we associate so closely with sweeping acres of rolling turf, created many such flowering shrubberies, often referred to as Pleasure Gardens. These walks were close to the house, to allow the owners and their visitors pleasant, sheltered walks in both summer and winter. Austen herself highlights this in Mansfield Park when Lady Bertram states: '"Mr Rushworth, ... if I were you, I would have a very pretty shrubbery. One likes to get out into a shrubbery in fine weather."' In her home at Chawton, Austen had a shrubbery border of which she was very fond.

So we can see how, by the late eighteenth century, when Austen was writing, wildernesses were wholly unfashionable and outdated, and had been replaced by the more modern shrubbery. Why therefore did Austen give the Bennets a wilderness? Was she perhaps drawing the readers' attention to the fact that the Bennets did not have the money to update their garden, and highlighting their lack of wealth and fashion? Or could she have been pointing to Lady Catherine's outdated language when describing shaded gravel walks near the house?

Finally, it is also interesting to note how Austen could combine a criticism of the old-fashioned nature of the gardens at Mansfield Park with a conservative approval for the preservation of useful features, showing a mature respect for old and new, when she writes about how:
A considerable flight of steps landed them in the wilderness, which was a planted wood of about two acres, and though chiefly of larch and laurel, and beech cut down, and though laid out with too much regularity, was darkness and shade, and natural beauty, compared with the bowling-green and the terrace. They all felt the refreshment of it, and for some time could only walk and admire.
By the end of the eighteenth century, your decision to have a wilderness or shrubbery was actually an important social indicator, and was commented on by guests and visitors alike. But whatever you had, the necessity of having a shaded place for pleasant sheltered walks close to the house was fully appreciated by the Georgians. Luckily for us, many such spaces still exist and can be equally enjoyed by visitors today.

The Pleasure Ground or Shrubbery at Petworth House