The countryside captured the novel

  • Themes: Countryside Week

From Austen to Alain-Fournier to Proust, the countryside is as much a venue for literary speculation as it is rural world.

Edward Dayes, Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, 1788, watercolor and ink over pencil on paper.
Edward Dayes, Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, 1788, watercolor and ink over pencil on paper. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As Catherine Morland approaches Northanger Abbey in Jane Austen’s 1803 novel of the same name, she desperately wants to see ‘its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows.’ The actual appearance of the Gloucestershire Abbey – disappointingly modern; tragically well-kept – is little short of devastating for Catherine: how is she meant to be the intrepid, consumptive Gothic heroine in a house fitted with all mod-cons and with a catastrophic lack of ghosts?

The literary critic Tony Tanner captures Catherine’s mood perfectly: she has been ‘riding in the carriage of her quotations;’ the landscape she desires is a literary one. A product of a diet of Gothic fiction, including The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), The Castle of Otranto (1764), and The Monk (1796), Northanger Abbey is, for Catherine, a structure of winding sentences, with alleys of metaphors and dark corners of semi-colons.

Jane Austen is by no means the first – or the last – writer to describe the countryside as a distinctly literary landscape.

In 1616, Ben Jonson wrote ‘To Penshurst,’ now lauded as the prototype of the ‘country house poem.’ He notionally praises Penshurst Place, near Tonbridge, in England’s Kent, the ancestral home of Elizabethan poet Philip Sidney. But Jonson is more concerned with squeezing as much literary allusion as possible into each line. The poem begins with a reference to one of Horace’s odes:

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold.

Jonson moves on to describe a classical pastoral idyll complete with Pan, Bacchus, sylphs, satyrs, and the Muses. Its natural profusion is such that it is the georgic ideal of retreat; so far, so Arcadia.

Jonson’s literary landscape may not be the first such poem. Emilia Lanier – arguably the first woman to identify as a professional poet and possibly Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ – published her ‘Description of Cookham’ in 1611. Lanier’s description cannot resist alluding to the classical myths of Philomela, Phoebus, and Echo – and the poem as a whole retells the expulsion from Eden. These country houses cannot escape the hefty weight of their literary allusions; there is no such thing as simple description here.

The most famous country house poem is probably Andrew Marvell’s 1651 ‘Upon Appleton House‘. A marvel of over 700 hundred lines, it describes the house’s history as a nunnery and its surrounding landscape. But my favourite is from a century later. Mary Leapor was an eighteenth-century poet and kitchen maid, and her ‘Crumble Hall’ (1751) is a country-house poem from a servant’s perspective. She is distinctly unidealising, and writes with dismay of the changes that have taken place in the land surrounding the house. The oak trees have been decimated:

While the slow Carr bears off their aged Limbs
To clear the Way for Slopes, and modern Whims
Where banish’d Nature leaves a barren Gloom

Leapor’s commentary is more than simply a description of a changing landscape; her derision of the ‘modern whims’ reveals a knowledge of – and opinion on – contemporary aesthetic vagaries. Leapor was writing at the height of the landscape architecture era of Capability Brown and William Kent, a period of change which saw a fashion for gardens and grounds with open vistas and parkland rather than formal paths and parterres – a trend she had no time for.

From these poems, it is clear the countryside is never just the countryside; it is a site of literary allusion, debate, and creation. It is no accident that, in Hannah More’s eighteenth-century diary, she describes Capability Brown’s alterations as being fundamentally grammatical: ‘I make a comma … where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon.’

In more recent centuries, the country house and its surroundings has not escaped literary treatment. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) toys with Arcadian traditions, and Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) is the tale of an ill-fated quest for a countryside retreat that is steeped in the literary tradition of the fairy-tale. Virginia Woolf’s Scottish idyll in To The Lighthouse (1927) is punctuated by lines from Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’ Horace may have gone, but we have only moved half a league onward.

Somewhat less canonically, Martin Amis’s Dead Babies (1975) turns the tradition of country house elegance on its head. While the story is set in a beautiful landscape and house, there is far more focus on the inhabitant’s debauchery and eventual downfall. Amis’s novel – and the flop of the film adaptation released in 2000 – takes Waugh’s elegant dissolution to new bohemian heights. In Amis’s hands, the well-trodden country house poem becomes the setting for a party house story; he is writing in a setting as literary as it is rural. Whilst the story may end tragically – and is saturated in the dark, dangerous, and unseemly – we are only a few hundred pages on from the country balls of Jane Austen, and the untamed brutality of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847).

It is almost impossible to talk about a literary countryside without mentioning Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle(1949)her heroine Cassandra – sharing the name of the Greek prophetess – quotes Proust and War and Peace, discusses Jane Austen and the Brontës, and is likened to Jane Eyre and Becky Sharp. Other texts reverberate throughout the book, from Edgar Allen Poe to Shakespeare. This density of literary allusion is, in part, due to Smith’s technique in describing Cassandra: she is a precocious diarist, who has little choice but to romanticise and mythologise her really quite difficult life in the crumbling castle. But it is also a verdict on the link between the British countryside and the British novel: they are inseparable.

But this connection need not only be British: Proust’s Swann’s Way (1913) is as much a description of memory-through-madeleine as it is memory-through-countryside and the village of Illiers-Combray. The countryside is not so much a rural setting as a landscape of history, stories, and possibilities. It is not just Catherine Morland who travels in the carriage of her quotations, but all of us.


Francesca Peacock