English - Drama in the wilderness

12th April 2013 at 01:00
Some of Pride and Prejudice's pivotal scenes take place in the open air

At first glance, Jane Austen might seem to be an "indoor" author. After all, most of the key scenes in her six completed novels occur in parlours, drawing rooms and ballrooms. It was for this reason that Charlotte Bronte found Pride and Prejudice a claustrophobic read in 1848. "No open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck," she objected.

But that complaint is not entirely fair and deserves to be challenged this year, the 200th anniversary of the novel's publication. For while Austen's outdoor scenes are rare, the three principal ones in Pride and Prejudice are hugely significant. The first occurs when Elizabeth Bennet makes a three-mile cross-country dash, on foot, from the family home in Longbourn to the bedside of her sister, Jane. Jane has been struck down with fever, after being caught in the rain on her way to visit Netherfield, the local "big house".

It is one of those wonderful moments in Austen when a crisis gives us the measure of many of the characters. Elizabeth's fierce determination to be with her sister in her time of need sees her stride across "field after field ... jumping over stiles and springing over puddles". It also gives us our first glimpse of her rebelliousness and independent character. When she arrives at Netherfield she is in a "wild" and muddy condition that cannot be ignored by the snooty sisters Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst. It is also, significantly, the sight of Elizabeth's bright eyes and face flushed from exercise that draws from Mr Darcy his first favourable comments about her.

Many chapters later we are outdoors again, as Elizabeth, in the company of her aunt and uncle, finds herself entering the grounds of Pemberley, Mr Darcy's Derbyshire pile, with its surrounding large park and "beautiful" woods. Having rejected Mr Darcy, Elizabeth is both nervous and intrigued to see the home from which this seemingly stiff, unyielding and arrogant man has sprung. The fact that people of the "polite" classes could apply to tour stately homes in the absence of their owners is one of the strange conventions indicated by the novel. Today, of course, we can visit National Trust properties, including Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, where many Pemberley scenes were filmed for the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Inside the house, Elizabeth gazes on a smiling portrait of Mr Darcy in the upstairs gallery. But she has been given glimpses of the inner man since her carriage entered Pemberley's grounds. Its elegant and "un-artificial" landscaping, unaffected features and complex yet spacious scale suggest to her that the owner has similar qualities. Later, Elizabeth expresses a longing to explore the "windings" of a narrow path through "a rough coppice-wood" that she and her relatives pass, having traversed a "simple bridge". It is the nearest Austen comes to the romantic and the erotic, using the landscape to suggest the pleasures, variety and discoveries that marriage to Mr Darcy might bring.

The now-famous lake scene from the BBC adaptation, where a drenched Mr Darcy emerges from the water fully clothed and accidentally stumbles across Elizabeth, is not in the novel. Writer Andrew Davies has said he intended merely to create "an amusing moment in which Darcy tries to maintain his dignity while improperly dressed and sopping wet". It did a lot more than that, propelling the actor Colin Firth (inset, left) to the position of sex symbol and titillating many viewers who would never have previously considered plunging into the pages of a 19th-century novel.

But it is the last outdoor scene that provides one of the most satisfying showdowns in all literature. Here, Elizabeth takes on the monstrous Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr Darcy's aunt, in the "wilderness" that grows alongside her family home. This unkempt spot is no reflection on the Bennets' management of their garden, since such secluded areas - forerunners of Victorian garden mazes - were highly fashionable in Regency England. However, Lady Catherine's condescension comes through in her description of it as a "prettyish kind of little wilderness".

Such subtlety of landscape may be far removed from the wildness of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, where the wind and bleak moors so dominate and direct the narrative. But it affords just the privacy Elizabeth needs to fiercely defend herself against Lady Catherine's accusations of "presumption" in seeking to marry Mr Darcy and of using "arts and allurements" to win his heart. It is no mountain top or windswept moor, yet it is here that Elizabeth slays a dragon and paves the way to marriage and the secular paradise that is Pemberley.

For more about Regency gardens, go to bit.ly13zUgSi Jerome Monahan is a freelance teacher and journalist who provides primary and secondary Inset and student enrichment workshops nationally and internationally. For further details, email jerome.monahan@dsl.pipex.com.

WHAT ELSE?

chaz121's PowerPoint-based scheme of work on Pride and Prejudice explores themes, plots, characters and everything in between. bit.lyAustenSOW

Try the popular TES collection of English revision resources, with lesson plans, interactive games, posters and exam techniques. bit.lyTESEng.

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