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Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park', Estates and Landscape Gardening

Ironically, we could conclude that Mansfield Park is not about love at all. It is about the improvement of estates, in all senses of the word.

The Revd. Mr. Leigh - a distant relative of Jane Austen - had commissioned Humphrey Repton to make grandiose alterations to landscape, even moving cottages. While staying in 1806 with this clergyman, the Austen ladies were whisked off to Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire: the Honourable Mary Leigh had just died, leaving him a great inheritance. (Almost two centuries later, in 1980, Stoneleigh Abbey was to be vested in a charitable trust. It received a grant from the Heritage National Lottery Fund, to assist with restoration, in 1997.)

This was for Jane a brief experience of high living. Stoneleigh became a partial model for Mansfield Park. The 'improvements' at Leigh's Adlestrop Rectory were also similar to those suggested by Henry Crawford to Edmund Bertram for Thornton Lacey in this novel. These improvements were taking place when Jane visited Adlestrop in 1794 and Repton was being consulted. That was no doubt where she learned that he charged five guineas a day. One of Repton's famous Red Books (with 'before and after' water-colours) was produced for Stoneleigh. 'Improving' was fashionable and had its own vocabulary. Repton sometimes suggested removing clumps of trees to improve the view. Jane's first encounter with Stoneleigh is relived in the guided tour of Sotherton in Mansfield Park; and the 'Compton' of Rushworth's friend Smith equates to Adlestrop.

Though Jane Austen never used the expression in her writing, 'landscape gardening' had been invented at about the time of this novel. On his business card, Repton described himself as a landscape gardener. The novel is indeed much concerned with the 'improvement' of estates. Two complete chapters are concerned with the possibilities at Sotherton, the techniques and moral issues involved; and there is the question of the improvement – or worsening - of the Bertram Estate as it passes from one generation to the next.