The Grounds of Pemberley: Garden Design in Austen’s Time

Tasteful but unpretentious, the grounds of Pemberley are essential to Elizabeth’s re-evaluation of Darcy’s character in Pride and Prejudice. Linda A. Chisholm of the New York Botanical Garden provided us with context about the moral and political significance of gardens in the 18th century at a recent JASNA-NY meeting, which took place on March 22 at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.

Dr. Chisholm explained that Pemberley would not have been the geometric, baroque French gardens we consider “fancy” gardens. Geometric, controlled French gardens of the 16th and 17th centuries reflected the absolute power of the monarch. At the same time, England went through an unstable period with the Civil War, Commonwealth, and Restoration. Government control shifted to Parliament and property was required before a man could vote or be elected to the House of Commons. The country house became the ultimate symbol of English power.

Many of the characteristics of the English countryside we know today are the creations of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the most prolific and frequently copies landscape designer of the period. These designs reflect the values of the era. For example, one of Brown’s most enduring styles was a great lawn of grass. This vast expanse is a visual reminder of the physical land from which the owner’s power stems, and also makes the house look more imposing. Additionally, it reminds visitors that you could employ plenty of servants to cut the grass!

the lawn at Chawton House
The lawn at Chawton House Library.

Other styles popularized by Brown include decorative islands in lakes or streams, the ha-ha, mock Grecian temples, and serpentine curves. These curves were considered the epitome of beauty and were both attractive and useful: a winding road takes longer to drive and therefore makes the estate feel larger.

By the end of the 18th century, Brown had gone out of style – his landscapes were too neat and manicured. A little wildness was in fashion, with ruins or fallen trees strewn across estates. The picturesque was especially popular in the United States, and heavily influenced the design of Central Park.

– Jen Malat

Photos courtesy of Marybeth Ihle.