The Garden of Miss Austen

Chawton Cottage is the house where Jane Austen spent her last years—and where she wrote many of her novels.  The house is really a “cottage” in name only.  It contains six bedrooms, as well as various other rooms.  It belonged to her much wealthier brother—one of many dwellings he owned—and he renovated it for the use of his mother and two sisters following the death of their father.  Although it was larger than its name implies, it was actually one of the smaller properties he owned.  Jane Austen gives many examples of gardens and grounds in her works, and it is almost certain that much of the inspiration for her description of more modest grounds, particularly in her later works, came from Chawton.  The house and the gardens surrounding it have been preserved much as Miss Austen knew them.  Thousands of visitors flock to the museum there each year to learn more about her and the way she lived.  Her garden is a big part of that experience (Wilson 1-9).

Chawton House Garden
Copyright Pierre Terre and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence (http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/945886)

There is a great deal of brick at Chawton Cottage.  The entire outside of the house is made of brick, and there are brick walls running through and surrounding part of the garden.  The garden itself is a mixture of smooth lawns and a wide variety of plants.  Wooden benches are scattered throughout for the convenience of guests (far more than would have been needed in Jane Austen’s time), some under trees and some out in the sun.  The grounds are quite large, nearly 60 acres in all, so there is room for more than one gardening style.  The modern gardeners seem to have been content to let it remain a predominantly cottage garden, with both aesthetic and more practical uses.  For instance, a small dye garden is on hand to show visitors one of the more practical of the original uses for the space.  These plants are arranged in the neat rows of agriculture, while being arranged far enough apart to be pleasing to the eye.  In some areas, the plants are arranged in a haphazard manner—the veritable riot of color.  In others, the plants are more groomed in the style of a formal English garden.  Everything is done on a fairly small scale, in keeping with both the reasonably modest size of the house and the historical realities of cottage gardens in Jane Austen’s time.  Looking at pictures of the gardens, it is apparent that the gardeners have focused more on engendering feelings of beauty, rather than the awe of sublimity.  Peace seems to be a far better descriptor here than awe (Wilson 1-9).

Much of the garden uses the house as a backdrop, with the brick facing just visible through the various flowers.  However, the part of the garden that is most eye-catching is separate from the structure (just the roof is barely visible over a large hedge).   The land itself is more interesting there than in other parts of the garden as there is a bit of a hill and a somewhat bowl shaped depression.  Plants line the outline of the hill’s modest peak.  The plants in the foreground and mid-ground are a mix of naturally occurring shapes and bushes that have been sculpted into a round shape.  The lawn there is lush and looks a bit like a green carpet.  It cuts through the whole of the scene, from foreground to mid-ground, almost pointing the way to the back.  The back of the scene is taken up with a couple of trees (oaks I believe) and a bit of the brick wall that is nearly completely covered in green vines.  If a bit of the brick wasn’t visible through the plant-life, it could easily be mistaken for a very tall, very straight hedge.  This bit of garden does not exactly look like it was meant to be framed.  There are clearly more viewing angles available than the one chosen by the photographer.  The gardeners do not seem to have had a terribly specific view in mind.  The only shakkei, or borrowed scenery, appears to be the cottage roof, and it has been marginalized rather than emphasized.  The focus here is very clearly on the plants.

The plants are on show at Chawton Cottage, and they have obviously been chosen carefully.  Those that are kept in their more natural forms, are predominantly lacy in appearance.  The overall effect is one of delicacy and femininity (appropriate for Jane Austen’s recreated garden), with the quiet, almost masculine, strength of the trees and the brick walls and house there to  keep things interesting.  Overall, the affect is pleasing to the eye and a great example of the English cottage garden.

Works Cited

“Travel Photos.”  Jane Austen in Calgary:  Jane Austen Society of North America Calgary

Region.  Web.  

Wilson, Kim.  In the Garden With Jane Austen.  Wisconsin:  Jones Books, 2008.  Print.

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