For a late winter diversion, I’ve set about the task of reading Jane Austen’s six complete novels in six weeks. I’m a bit behind, just now starting #4 (Emma), five weeks into the project. But I’m dedicated to finishing, at least before the current Masterpiece Theater series, The Complete Jane Austen, concludes. I’ll make it as long as I’m not too distracted by the show’s website, where I fritter away my days perusing reactions to the films on the discussion board (I didn’t know Austen readers could be so vicious), watching video clips of a screenwriter’s interview, and picking my favorite Austen hero, based on their online dating profiles. Based on 55,228 votes so far, Mr. Darcy is the dreamiest of them all.
But perhaps there’s no escape for one obsessed by environmental literature. Though most think of Austen as a prescient social critic and no one cites her as a source of green bon mots, she’s surprising me in every volume by her keen eye for nature and its relationships to individuals and society. Especially in Mansfield Park, the book I just finished, there’s no evading Austen’s insights into nature’s value to the human world. Here’s a little of Jane’s wisdom that I’ve gleaned so far.
1. Beware of those who fail to appreciate the natural world. Emma’s fussy, hypochondriac father warns his daughter, “It is never safe to sit out-of-doors, my dear,” and Fanny Price, heroine of Mansfield Park, recognizes that her romantic nemesis cares little about the landscape they pass on a carriage ride. Says the omniscient narrator of the calculating Miss Crawford, “She had none of Fanny’s delicacy of taste, of mind, of feeling; she saw nature, inanimate nature, with little observation; her attention was all for men and women, her talents for the light and lively.”
2. Loving the planet is sexy. Though Henry Crawford is a scalawag, he loves Fanny and is almost redeemed in her eyes on a walk by the beach: “The loveliness of the day, and of the view, he felt like herself. They often stopt with the same sentiment and taste, leaning against the wall, and considering he was not Edmund, Fanny could not but allow that he was sufficiently open to the charms of nature, and very well able to express his admiration.”
3. Nature heals all wounds. Persuasion’s Anne Elliot finds solace for her benighted love life in strolls along Lyme Regis’ shore. Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, takes long, solitary walks to salve her broken heart and health (and don’t forget Willoughby’s wildflowers that relieve her sprained ankle). In Mansfield Park, Fanny’s visit to Liverpool reveals cities as unhealthful places of “closeness and noise, to have confinement, bad air, bad smells,” in contrast with the bucolic Mansfield estate. There one night, Fanny’s beloved Edward joins her at a window to stargaze, and they look together,
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 tranquillize 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.
4. Renew your nature connections often. Banishment to Liverpool reminds Fanny of nature’s value to her.
It was sad to Fanny to lose all the pleasures of spring. She had not known before what pleasures she had to lose in passing March and April in a town. She had not known before, how much the beginnings and progress of vegetation had delighted her. –What animation both of body and mind, she had derived from watching the advance of that season which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness, be unlovely, and unseeing its increasing beauties, from the earliest flowers, in the warmest divisions of his aunt’s garden, to the opening of leaves of her uncle’s plantations, and the glory of his woods.
5. Words can save the wild. Despite her deep response to landscapes, the reticent Fanny remains mute while Sotherton’s doltish owner spouts plans to hire a landscape gardener to “improve” his gracious estate. Fanny cringes only inwardly as others applaud his vision of replacing wilder landscape elements with more lawns and formal plantings. But when Mr. Rushworth states his intention to destroy a tree-lined avenue, Fanny remembers a poem and cannot keep silent. She says, “Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’” Though she couldn’t articulate her personal feelings or muster a cohert original argument, Fanny’s familiarity with Cowper’s “The Task” prepared her well to combat the destructive impulses of everyone surrounding her. What better lesson could I gain from a few weeks of novel-reading than renewed appreciation of the value of poetry and prose in protecting the natural world? Thanks, Jane!