Mountain Literature Classics: Walking with Jane Austen

© Plaw's Rural Architecture 1794

"To the Lakes? What delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend!"

 'Pride and Prejudice' (Jane Austen)

In an old-style Western, the good guy always wears a white hat. In a Disney movie, the prince with blond hair is the one whose heart is true. In Jane Austen's world, the quick indicator of moral virtue is a pair of muddy shoes and a draggled hemline.

Jane Austen walks: Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice   © Illustrations by Joan Hassall
Jane Austen walks: Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice
© Illustrations by Joan Hassall

For it is a truth universally acknowledged, that no young woman, of eighteen or twenty summers, may attain the rôle of heroine in Miss Austen's novels, without a keen appreciation of country walks. The other young ladies may spend their time in needlework, or passing on spiteful gossip, or playing on the pianoforté. But Elinor and Marianne, or Catherine Morland, or Lizzie Bennet: the way to spot the one that matters, is by her habit of hiking.

Austen comes down strongly in favour of the moderately long country walk

Even Fanny Price, the wimpiest of Austen's heroines: "You will think me rhapsodizing; but when I am out of doors… I am very apt to get into this sort of wondering strain. One cannot fix one's eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy." Bor – ring. The less sensitive Miss Crawford is more interested in sex than scenery, and quickly changes the subject. Sickly and unfit, Fanny is less of a walker than the rest of Jane's heroines. But even Fanny hurries through the formal garden to get to the naturalistic 'wilderness'.

Sense & Sensibility

Jane's first novel, 'Sense and Sensibility', features heroine sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Living on the eastern edge of Dartmoor, "the high downs invited them from almost every window of the cottage to seek the exquisite enjoyment of air on their summits" – the location here would be the Raddon Hills, rising to 235m. Chapter Nine sees a literal (as well as literary) turning point in the narrative: a turned ancle (Regency spelling) for 'Sensibility', Marianne Dashwood, caused by fellrunning in unsuitable shoes.

And at the very end of the book, Marianne recovers her health, yes, but also moral integrity: her resolve to no longer flap around in the maelstrom of her own emotional displays like some social media influencer of the 21st century. How is this recovery marked? By a resolve to rise at six, and "take long walks together every day".

Taste, accompanied by Rural Simplicity, pointing to one of the most beautiful scenes this island can boast, viz, the Lake of Windermere. From Plaw's Rural Architecture 1794  © Plaw's Rural Architecture 1794
Taste, accompanied by Rural Simplicity, pointing to one of the most beautiful scenes this island can boast, viz, the Lake of Windermere. From Plaw's Rural Architecture 1794

Northanger Abbey

Catherine Morland, the star of Northanger Abbey, also likes to pull on her boots. "A new source of felicity arose to her… she had never taken a country walk since her first arrival in Bath. 'I shall like it,' she cried, 'beyond anything in the world.'"

'Northanger' is, for me, the most fun of all the six, with its clever self-referential stuff and its witty put-downs. But it's also notable for its ironic, affectionate, account of the early nineteenth-century art of landscape appreciation, with its "foregrounds, distances, and second distances—side-screens and perspectives—lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape."

Pride & Prejudice

The quote at the top is from Austen's best-loved novel: notable for Colin Firth's wet shirt sequence in the BBC series of 1995 (the shirt itself now on display at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath). Notable, too, for its tour of the Peak District. Eliza Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) climbs the Roaches (505m) for a spot of low-graded scrambling on Ramshaw Rocks.

And what is the moment when she realises Mr Darcy may actually have something going for him? It's the trees and rivers of his Derbyshire estate, and the ten mile long hiking trails laid out according to the most tasteful picturesque principles.

Ronald shares Austen's keen sense (and sensibility) for the picturesque  © Ronald Turnbull
Ronald shares Austen's keen sense (and sensibility) for the picturesque
© Ronald Turnbull

By the early 19th century, when Austen was writing and publishing her six immortal stories, the formal art of landscape appreciation had been around for twenty years already; invented by a chap called William Gilpin, with his Picturesque Tours of the Wye Valley and the Lake Country.

Obviously, as vigorous outdoor types, we're reading Austen for her commentary on outdoor sports. And for us, the chief fascination will be seeing Gilpin's ideas incorporating into popular culture, as looking at hills and rivers goes mainstream, and a long walk in the countryside begins to be a thing. Mr Knightley in 'Northanger Abbey' has all the jargon at his fingertips. Marianne, in 'Sense and Sensibility', is a big fan.

Okay, so you committed long-distance types may still be a bit unconvinced. Elizabeth Bennet attracted the sneers of Mr Bingley's sisters and the reluctant admiration of Mr Darcy by walking three miles across the fields to visit her sick sister. Meanwhile Dorothy Wordsworth was doing thirty miles a day through the snowstorms of Wensleydale, and making the first recorded ascent of Scafell Pike.

Nobody in Jane Austen's novels seems to be aware of the Wordsworths, any more than Anne Elliot, at Lyme Regis in 'Persuasion', spots Mary Anning unearthing the plesiosaur on the beach below. Even Walter Scott is considered rather wild and reprehensible (although Marianne Dashwood is a fan). But when Fanny Price disapproves of 'improvers' who cut down trees; when Elinor Dashwood admires a hanging wood on a hillside – we see William and Dorothy arriving in respectable drawing rooms. And supposing Elizabeth and her aunt had indeed made it to the Lakes: can we doubt that Wordsworth's guidebook, published just three years before, would have been with them in the side pocket of the carriage.

Austen doesn't have much time for the emotional excesses and the self-indulgent cultivation of the feelings. But there are two aspects of English Romanticism of which she comes down strongly in favour. The serious appreciation of natural scenery. And the moderately long country walk.

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25 Aug

Really enjoyed this article thank you! 🙂

The quote "What are men to rocks and mountains?" has been a favourite of mine since I first read P&P as a teenager.

12 Sep

Here in Bath it's the Jane Austen Festival this week. A yomp over the Mendips isn't in the programme, oddly enough.

27 Sep

Jane Austen? Really? You are using a very elastic definition of "Mountain Literature"!

May I humbly suggest sharing your thoughts on Ralph Barker's "The Last Blue Mountain"?

(PS I enjoy dipping into "Granite and Grit" - marvellous!)

27 Sep

I've never read any Austen but the Rachel Parris comedy on R4 at 6.30 this evening was excellent and almost made me think I might give her a go.

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