My compass for anything and everything historical is always set on the English Regency period, an era made hugely popular and famous in contemporary times thanks to the ‘mistresspieces’ of the late, great Jane Austen. Hence, I like to call it, the ‘Regaustenian’ era of English history. Besides the fascinations of the writer herself and the obvious allure of her novels, the Regency created an ideal backdrop for someone of Jane’s singular mindset—and her satirical-political commentary. It was an era that uncannily mirrored our own and, in many ways, set the trends for the things that have become an integral part of modern society and popular culture. One of those ‘things’ was the very intriguing ‘improvement’ trend, which permeated through Regency society from the top down, beginning in the eighteenth century. The very enlightened Prince Regent was a great ‘improver’ of everything, from parks to palaces, and even Jane’s family got caught up in the craze when the grounds of the rectory at Steventon, too, underwent ‘improvement’. Landowners all over the Empire, from the aristocracy to the gentry, were employing the principles of improvement. From landscapes, gardens and agriculture to art, music, manufacture and science, just about everyone was wanting to improve something. Essentially it was the beginning of the consumerist society that we have all evolved in to, today. And, as surely in our own social hierarchies, the trend began to divide Regency society into distinct groups—the meritocrats and the mercenaries. Not unlike the worldly Crawfords in Mansfield Park, there were those that used their wealth and influence to effect changes that were as brash and they were reckless. Only think of the ‘capital improver…. brought up in a school of luxury and epicurism’, Henry Crawford, whose infamous reputation as a change-merchant spurs the droll Mr. Rushworth into a rash improvement plan of his own. Coopting Crawford into a trip to evaluate the questionably fashionable overhaul of his own ‘noblest old place in the world’, Sotherton, even ‘creep-mouse’ little Fanny Price begins to bewail the effects of its certain outcome—one being the loss of an ancient avenue of oak trees—and to decry it with the libertarian-poet Cowper’s line: 'Oh ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.'
And this was where the improvement divide began to show itself, very clearly, in a ‘moralized landscape’. There were those who instilled ‘merit’ in change and those who did nothing of the sort. Essentially ‘contrivance’ versus utilization. Particularly in landscape design these two camps spiritedly challenged one another and Humphry Repton, mentioned, oddly enough (and perhaps a revelation of Rushworth’s lack of information), several times in the Sotherton conversation in Mansfield Park, became a champion of the utilitarian landscape. He advocated against ‘contrived irregularity’; the sort of quick-fix, disrespectful and dysfunctional, pseudo-natural makeover that the likes of Mr. Rushworth and Henry Crawford wildly support.
This ‘fashionable picturesque’, as touted by Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price, was contested by Repton who preferred converting estate grounds into natural landscapes from which a host of benefits were derived—from ‘social convenience’ to productive and efficient husbandry. Naturally the latter translated into allowing the much poorer tenants of the progressive landlord, of such a property, to put food on their tables more abundantly and sustain independent livelihoods. Contrast this with the mercenary ‘contrivers’ who often enclosed commons [common pastures] to simply improve the aspect of their view, while turning their tenants into laborers by usurping the public grazing land for the latter’s livestock. In such a light, the lay of the moralized landscape becomes much more distinctive under the influence of improvement.
In Merits and Mercenaries, the first ‘Bath Novel’ of my seven-book The Bath Novels of Lady A~ Collection, I wanted to highlight this trend, in particular, and its allegorical effects through a consumerist society of meritocrats and mercenaries, whose ideals and ideas turn into a veritable ‘war’. My hero, William Halford, for instance, is the epitome of the progressive improvers/meritocrats, and his acts of ‘enclosure’ on his estate are put to good effect in a ‘civic sense of responsibility’, allowing such ‘reclamation’ to ‘benefit all of the community that live off and farm on his land’. Additionally, he also applies this to the renovation of his ancestral home, which has been remodeled with every attention to ‘history, nature and art’. When his house-party guests arrive for the summer it is immediately apparent who blends well into such a milieu and who doesn’t—and why. Indeed, as the reader comes to understand William’s rectitude and libertarian mindset, so too, one is called to think of the characters that Jane Austen crafted working for—and against—such tenets, and how these shaped the characters of her most memorable casts. Darcy immediately comes to mind in this reflection, his Pemberley estate being ‘balanced’ upon the very criteria that inspired William’s just ‘realm’ in M&M, and so revealing the probity and moral nature of the man. In the same vein, Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine is exposed as a shameless consumer and Rosings is deliberately set in stark contrast to Pemberley, which has nothing ‘neither gaudy nor uselessly fine’.
In looking at the arrangement of each of Austen’s characters’ respective properties, tacitly or overtly reflecting improvement, one can determine what sort of people live in them, so much so, that the houses become ‘characters’ in their own right; hence, I conjecture, the choice of Mansfield Park as the title of her third (and most complex) novel.
When Fanny is enduring the rigors of ‘grog’ and ‘clatter’ in her slovenly parents’ home in Portsmouth, she is called to think of the ‘elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony … and … peace and tranquility of Mansfield’; again, an implicit reference to the home being in perfect balance with nature and art, so as to inspire order and harmony in ways that reveal the moral compass of those living in it. In Mansfield’s case, Fanny is the character most compatible with such a ‘balance’ in its elegant environment of propriety; the one most susceptible to, and benefiting from, ‘improvement’, while, in Portsmouth, her Mansfield upbringing is physically and psychologically ‘scuttled’ by the disorder and mayhem of her family’s abysmal abode and shiftless values.
Compare this with Austen's explicit expose, in Northanger Abbey, of the effects of improvement in General Tilney’s rapacious and despotic succession-houses’ enclosure: ‘The walls seemed countless in number, endless in length; a village of hot-houses seemed to arise among them, and a whole parish to be at work within the inclosure’. Here the General is doing exactly the opposite of what William Halford progressively effects in Merits and Mercenaries, by forcing the parish to labor in his aptly named ‘forcing-houses’; thus appropriating his tenants’ former livelihoods by his autocratic encroachment. Austen is very obviously drawing an overt parallel with this unjust ‘inclosure’ with the intrinsic nature of the General’s very questionable character and ethics.
Certainly the improvement trend is one of those socio-political, Austenian litmus tests which gets to the heart of class warfare in Austen’s novels and, in so doing, clarifies the significant theme of rational meritocracy versus entrenched elitism in Regency society. It weaves in the fabric of the latter, for good or for bad, the very nature of its morality or immorality and which Austen, then, scrutinizes so superlatively in her delicious microcosms of ‘3 or 4 families in a country village’. Thus the ‘prospect’ of the landscape or the houses established on it, in the light of implicit or explicit improvement, becomes something much more than a mere observation of aesthetic value. It foreshadows the prospects of the families and parties connected to the property, how their relative progressive or consumerist policies will determine their inevitable outcomes, and to which Regaustenian camp they will be ultimately assigned/relegated by so inimitable an author: Austen's most memorable meritocrats or her very machinating mercenaries.
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