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Landscape & Literature


Scotland, May 2013, it was a sweet day. Sunshine, a few clouds but not a drop of rain. Can we still make it to the castle? And above all, can we make it back before nightfall? It was already after four o’clock in the afternoon when we decided to visit one last castle of our journey. Scotland’s numerous castles are seldom situated next to the main roads. Therefore, it is hard to estimate the time needed to travel back and forth. The traveller can never be sure what to expect. Some of the heritage centres are genuine tourist attractions with crowded busses, reenactments and noisy cafeterias. Whereas others are set in desolate but often spectacular locations. Even in ruins, the stone structures still look impossible to conquer as they are guarded by their natural defence of lakes and forests. Our castle was one of the second type. We parked in the small car park next to the narrow lane that brought us there and we we continued on foot. We chose the path that led through a small bush, over a railway and opened up into a broad field. In full view, at the end of the straight track, sharply defined in the high grass, stood the ruin of what once was a great stronghold. Surrounded by mountains, a grand lake and a dramatic sky, night began to fall over this medieval monument. We experienced an exceptional moment: the beautiful light of the setting sun in the distance, having the privilege of being completely alone with history, the majesty of the robust walls still standing after all these years. And there it was: a slight change, a moment ago I was enjoying the beauty of the picture and now I became overwhelmed by a sense of uneasiness. A sensation that was not entirely unpleasant and rather intensified the moment but disturbed the balance between me and the scene set before me.


In the past, landscapetheoretici analysed different variations in natural scenery and experiences in nature, attributing meaning to each of them. Landscapedesigners created gardens to evoke the formerly defined landscapes and painters translated these views to the canvas. The travel writer guided scenic tourists to (un)seen vistas that correspond with the aesthetic sense of the upper class. The ideal viewpoint that might represent the composed landscape of the painter. The eighteenth century offered a wide spectrum of landscapereflection on several levels: real life and representation, history and social life (the 17th century paintings of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain inspire Gilpin’s idea of the Picturesque and set off scenic tourism), and the development of aesthetic codes that find their way to the arts. Even ‘[t]he arts are interconnected’ says Stephen Siddall ‘a poet could become an expert in landscaping; it was also perfectly appropriate for Joseph Addison to compare reading books to travelling in nature’ [1] Literature, as well as the visual arts, employe the established codes that are known by its readers and adopt cultural references to stimulate imagination.


Romantic Travel Writing.


The Gothic Novel draws on the landscape descriptions of travel writers, the Gothic revival in architecture and Burke’s ‘Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful’ (1757). The novel that inspired my journey through the Highlands of Scotland, in search of the Gothic landscape, is written by Ann Radcliffe. Although Radcliffe lived in England and visited the continent only once, her romantic novel ‘The Romance of the Forest’ (1791) is set in France. Gothic novelists break away from the familiar and scout the foreign landscape to create a setting in an unknown, dark and forbidden environment. Today we would judge this lack of research, even in fiction, but back then the high society travelled through Europe by reading travel books and looking at paintings. ‘Radcliffe had never seen the mountains or lush Italian countryside she described, but was inspired by the landscape paintings of Claude Lorraine and Salvator Rosa.’ [2] As Ann Radcliffe visits the Alps and the countryside outside Paris without leaving her home, I left for Scotland with a second hand description of France as a guide. I envy the liberated hand of the painter or the poet to observe nature and then picture a creative version of the scene. The invention of photography mid-19th century shifted representation from impression to imprint. I try to obtain a renewed (photographic) interest in the classic landscape by pursuing prephotographic literature from the 18th century. Today the photograph is no longer merely a reproduction but a document of the artist's experience. My photographs exploit travel writing in old novels to rediscover the wellknown European natural scenery by suggesting a historic or even fictional landscape.


‘Gothic fiction derives from travel writing not only a range of general descriptive strategies (such as the strategy of constructing dramatic oppositions between wild and cultivated scenes of nature) but also a large number of precise descriptions of particular spots and of particular varieties of natural scenery.’ [3] Radcliffe relied on her reader’s acquaintance with scenic literature when she penned down extensive descriptions of the natural background. Only the wealthy had the time and the resources to read travel books and to actually experience the popular Grand Tour. This social group constitutes the audience of the Gothic Novel and can depict the landscapes that are presented in the story lines. Today we follow a similar strategy, we do not only depend on the written accounts of a professional or private observer, but we require visual evidence. We travel by means of photographs, documentaries and television. However, we are not oblivious to the fictional element, the anticipation of a journey gets encouraged by movies, music, series, etc. I have set my idea of the Gothic in a highland landscape to provoke an abstruse framework: the notion we have about this region is dim, dark and obscure because of the collective references to it in fiction. Whereas I base my project on the tradition of Gothic fiction, the genre itself originates from a revival of gothic architecture.


The Gothic Revival.


‘The 18th century developed the gothic substantially as an undercurrent of pre-romantic feeling that valued much that was irrational: a taste for fantasy, sensationalism, superstition and horror. Interest in the Middle Ages became a cult, especially as ruins of great medieval buildings could be seen, often in remote, wooded landscapes.’ [4] Ann Radcliffe offers her main characters a refuge in the ruins of an abbey, a shelter where Adeline and her adopted family hide from their aggressors. At the same time the decayed building is a second source of distress. A ruin always suggests a connection to the past and is in the Gothic Novel almost always associated with previous horrors. Dreadful events that made the earlier residents abandon the property, leaving the site desolate. The abbey in The Romance of the Forest is located deep into the forest, far away from the civil world. This isolation has to ensure the dominion of the unknown dark power that still lurks in the shadows of the abbey. Medieval monasteries, cathedrals and castles are known for their mysteries, secret passages, hidden dungeons and gloomy chambers, where you are beyond rescue once you get lost in their labyrinths. The Gothic Novel constantly anticipates future scenes of horror and terror, but never really fulfils its promises. The storyline is packed with fear for what could happen even though the actual actions prove to be less horrific. A forsaken castle in the Highlands of Scotland, enclosed by tremendous mountains and dense woods, forms my ideal background for a classic gothic narration. Photography lacks the element of time and can not, as a book, built up to a climax. It is vital to a picture (or a set of pictures) to incorporate an instant eyecatcher that immediately communicates significance / tells the story to the viewer. The use of a ruin as an icon is not only part of the Gothic tradition but is also essential to Gilpin’s aesthetic sense of the Picturesque. ‘... a pile in a state of ruin receives the richest decorations from various colours which it acquires from time. It receives the stains of weather, the incrustations of moss; and the varied tints of flowering weeds.’ [5] The ruin forms the eyecatcher in the picturesque landscape. A view on nature that is also, a the photograph, submissive to a framework and in need of instant affect.


The Sublime.


Besides architecture is the landscape of equal importance to the reader’s perception. Landscape descriptions have multiple functions in the Gothic novel. In The Romance of the Forest we come across extensive hymns praising the natural scenery. These written accounts portray a strong resemblance to Gilpin’s picturesque beauty and off course, like mentioned before, to travel writing, which derives from the same aesthetic theory. Adeline's pleasurable encounters with the  romantic landscape pose precise interruptions between the escalations of horror and terror. ‘Descriptions of natural scenery, however, not only play a part in these accounts of the heroine’s reanimations; they also assume another important role within the Gothic narrative structure: to keep the reader in a state of suspense.’ [6] The landscapes of the interludes are of a complete dissimilar tone than the vast and wild nature presented in the scenes of distress. Here, the novelist responds to a second aesthetic principle: Edmund Burke’s Philisophical Enquiry into the Origin of our ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Burke influenced William Gilpin as well as the Gothic revival and offers yet another thrill in the landscape experience. ‘Whereas beauty implies pleasure, smoothness and a human scale, the sublime contains terror, ruggedness and magnitude.’ The Picturesque finds itself in between these concepts. ‘Sublime landscape may be found in a vast wilderness, generaly with mountains; one reacts with astonishment rather than simple pleasure.’ And more intense: ‘Sublimity, unlike the picturesque, depends on disorientation: the reader or spectator is taken close to disaster but also knows he is safe.’ [7] Sublime scenes accompany Adeline and pressure her into episodes of utmost fear. The landscapes in The Romance of the Forest personify the complex character of the heroine.


From Ann to Jane.


I already stressed that the reader’s familiarity with intellectual concerns and cultural references is of great importance to the comprehension of 18th century fiction. Ann Radcliffe’s readers were considered to be nearly all women of a high social status. In the early 19th century these same female readers also read Jane Austen’s romantic fiction. Austen refers to Radcliff’s novels to shape her characters and to attribute them with a certain amount of taste. At the time social skills and taste in literature, music, drawing, social skills and landscape were essential to a woman of high standard, but the popular Gothic novel was not necessarily the ideal proof of that cultural taste. In Northanger Abbey (published posthumously in 1818, but written at the same time as Pride & Prejudice) the protagonist, Catherine Morland, dwells on The Romance of the Forest and The mysteries of Udolpho (also written by Radcliffe in 1794) and when she expresses her opinion on the landscape during a walk up to Beechen Cliff in Bath, she says: ‘I never think of it...without thinking of the south of France’. [8] She founds her observations not on a taste in nature but on the landscape descriptions in Radcliffe’s novels. As we know, the reflections on the foreign natural scenery in the Gothic novel are already second handed. Austen does not provide Catherine Morland with the correct references to Gilpin or travel writing but intentionally satirizes popular fiction. Hereby, she assigns her main character to a lower level of taste and makes a statement about the social demand / need to travel in person.


A Taste for Nature.


Jane Austen was well aware of social manners and proper intellectual conversation, some of her characters are valued as 'agreeable', while others, like Catherine Morland, are quite ill-considered. I find it especially interesting how Austen exploits contemporary aesthetic landscape ideas for the purpose of characterization and how she introduces a scale of taste, but above all, the way she criticizes these very (same) theories, including this sense of taste. 'In the early novels, the picturesque is treated not as an idea, but as a vocabulary which can be well or badly used.' [9] In Sense & Sensibility Edward tempers Marianne's enthousiasm for the romantic countryside, which she describes perfectly in terms of the Picturesque as taught by Gilpin, when saying he 'has no knowledge in the picturesque' [10]. However, his speech demonstrates that he is well informed about the concept but does not need to brag about his knowledge on the landscape by expressing the expected. The language of appropriate landscape conversation holds Marianne hostage and makes her blind  to the fact that it is just a vocabulary used among the like-minded. Marianne's determination not to speak any other language than the one she considers to be  absolute on the subject of landscape, can be regarded as a metaphor for all choices she makes regarding social behaviour. In Pride & Prejudice, the heroine notices the superior features of the landscape surrounding her male antagonist's residence simultaneously with Darcy's qualities as a gentleman. 'From every window there were beauties to be seen' [11] concludes Elisabeth Bennet after positively reviewing various parts of his estate. What Darcy lacks in manners, according to Elisabeth, he makes up for in his taste for landscaping. The visit to Pemberley is the turning point in the romantic storyline and places Darcy in another, more beneficial, light. In Emma the most significant statement about the landscape, expressed by the heroine during a scenic walk, represents a comparable change of judgement. She opens with the words: ‘It led to nothing but a view...’ [12], after these slightly pessimistic opening lines, she describes the attractiveness of that view in all its beauty and simplicity. Here, ‘[t]he narrative sequence ingeniously mirrors the stages of Emma’s education: she begins by assuming that Robert Martin is socially invisible, goes through a series of social fictions which do not take full account of the evidence before her, and finally gets the picture straight, with everyone in his or her appropriate social place.’ [13]  Can today’s cultural or social esteem still be measured on grounds of one's taste in nature? Yes, it can, if we accept that the picturesque landscape was the norm at the time Austen wrote her novels and if we assume that the contemporary landscape differs from the previous. Taste always requires the ability to distinguish the original from the ordinary.


For my latest series I travelled to Southern England and walked through the natural world of Jane Austen. Austen's inspiration for her landscape derives from places she knew and visited. Although she locates some of the scenery or mansions elsewhere in England. (Pemberly, for example, is set in Derbyshire, but was probably based on a site in Kent) In Persuasion the novelist resembles the descriptions of the travel writers in style and subject with a celebration of Lyme and its surroundings. Jane Austen evolves towards Wordsworthian tendencies in her later novels. William Wordsworth, who had a general romantic taste in landscape and associates the discovery of the perfect landscape with an emotional experience.

To continue, read Let William Wordsworth Walk You Through.




[1]          Stephen Siddall, ‘Landscape and Literature’ Cambridge University Press 2009, p27


[2]          Ruth Facer, ‘Ann Radcliffe’,, 2012, p 3


[3]          Chloe Chard, Introduction to The Romance of the Forest, 1986, p xix


[4]          Stephen Siddall, ‘Landscape and Literature’ Cambridge University Press 2009, p35


[5]          William Gilpin quoted in Stephen Siddall, ‘Landscape and Literature’ Cambridge University Press 2009, p30


[6]          Chloe Chard, Introduction to The Romance of the Forest, 1986, p xviii


[7]          Stephen Siddall, ‘Landscape and Literature’ Cambridge University Press 2009, p33


[8]          Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, chapter 14 quoted in Rosemarie Bodenheimer, Looking at the Landscape in Jane Austen, Studies in English literature       1500 - 1900, Vol4, 1981, p607


[9]          Rosemarie Bodenheimer, Looking at the Landscape in Jane Austen, Studies in English literature 1500 - 1900, Vol4, 1981, p606


[10]         Jane Austen, Sense & Sensibility, book 1 chapter 18, 1811


[11]         Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice, book 2 chapter 1, 1813


[12]         Jane Austen, Emma, book 3 chapter 6, 1815


[13]         Rosemarie Bodenheimer, Looking at the Landscape in Jane Austen, Studies in English literature 1500 - 1900, Vol4, 1981, p612

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