Persuasions #12, 1990 Pages 50-53
Jane Austen and Her Outdoors
Department of English, New York University, New York, NY
While walking through the streets of Chawton on one of those rare English afternoons in January when the sun-makes an appearance, I began to think about what it was that this peaceful countryside afforded Jane Austen. Her fiction, I thought, continuing my walk and finding myself only a few yards from the demure plaque that reads “Jane Austen’s House,” must have been influenced by these streets, her garden and the surrounding fields that she so passionately took in while riding about in her donkey cart. For we all know the marvelous tale of the writing desk and the squeaking door, but, I suspected, looking into her window, that what she saw outside this window had an enormous influence on that manuscript hidden beneath the blotter. As I entered the cottage and sat at the renowned writing desk and peered out the window, I couldn’t help wondering just what it was that fused Austen and her writing with nature and the outdoors. I began to think about the novels and the novels’ heroines and the proposals between the heroes and the heroines and of Elizabeth Bennet skipping and leaping along the way to Netherfield – and I realized that in Pride And Prejudice especially, Austen had done much more than confront the confines of the patriarchal mansion. Pride And Prejudice, with its drawing rooms and parlors draped with decorum, is a novel that is enveloped or enclosed with propriety, yet it is something much more as well. For in this sparkling masterpiece, Austen creates a heroine who has a desire for and a bond with the outdoors and all that nature represents: freedom, space, autonomy. Ultimately, Elizabeth’s fairy tale is about being identified and determined by space and identifying and determining a space of her own. Austen sets up a polemic between nature and “social” space and thus establishes a pattern that the reader cannot help but notice in the novel: when an event in Elizabeth’s life appears as if it is going to imprison or confine her spirit or her wit, her “self” – Austen sets this event indoors. Yet when something occurs to offer Elizabeth happiness, independence, love – something we know is good for her, Austen sets it out of doors. While questioning the relationship of social conventions in contrast to the outdoors and all it represents, in what follows I shall look at Darcy’s marriage proposals in terms of this idea.
This pattern in Pride And Prejudice suggests a delicate balance between what occurs indoors and outdoors in relation to the novel’s heroine. Unlike her sister Jane, Elizabeth Bennet is continually moving about; she needs to stimulate her body as well as her mind. While Jane is sick at Netherfield, quite to the horror of her family and acquaintance, Elizabeth ventures to Netherfield on foot:
… Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise …. [Darcy] was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone. (32-3)
Austen immediately alerts her reader to the special relationship that Elizabeth shares with the outdoors. The traditional, young English lady does not go “springing” about the countryside alone; Elizabeth does and it elates her. She is comfortable in this setting; she derives pleasure from her time alone with nature. She’s also a woman with a mission – Austen illustrates her determination and independence here. Like Darcy, we too recognize the erotic side of Elizabeth with her “glowing face” and “impatient activity.”
For the outdoors, in Austen’s fiction, represents an escape from the claustrophobic rage and suffocation of domesticity. The heroine needs to be liberated from the house, which is a domestic prison of sorts with walls of propriety and bars of decorum. She must find an outlet away from the confinement of the indoors – she turns to the outdoors.
Proposals of marriage, it seems, coincide perfectly with this shifting of the in/out doors motif. When Mr. Collins requests Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, for example, he offers her a loveless marriage to a man she neither respects nor desires. He proposes in the breakfast room, indoors, thus not offering her an outlet, but a confinement of sorts. Elizabeth, of course, must refuse.
Similarly, when Darcy first condescends to ask Elizabeth to marry him, he does so within the confines of the Collins’s home:
… the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority – of its being a degradation … was very unlikely to recommend his suit …. [She said] ‘From the very beginning, from the first moment I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others … and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.’ ‘You have said quite enough, madam ….’ And with these words he hastily left the room, and Elizabeth heard him the next moment open the front door and quit the house. (189-93)
At this point in the novel, Elizabeth and Darcy are far too influenced by their “first impressions” of one another to be ready for marriage. What Darcy is offering her is not the “happily ever after” lifestyle of the traditional novelistic heroine. If Elizabeth had agreed to his proposal, she would have found Pemberley and life with Darcy a prison; they would not have come together as equals, as true partners. Elizabeth would have lived with the sense that her husband thought he had married beneath himself, that she was his possession. Thus she would lack the means of attaining the serenity that she so much desires. Austen, therefore, set this proposal in the Collins’s drawing room (a double irony of sorts since that very parsonage might have been Elizabeth’s ultimate prison), within the confines of a house, so as to reiterate to the reader that this is not the bit of truth that Elizabeth is ultimately searching for.
Austen furthers this pattern in the next chapter when Darcy gives Elizabeth the letter that serves as the turning point in the novel. The letter, a plot-resolving device, is delivered to the addressee out of doors, within the gardens of Rosings where Elizabeth is walking and thinking – alone. Ultimately, this letter will enable Elizabeth not only to understand Darcy, but to more deeply know herself as well. Austen, therefore, appropriately has this exchange take place out doors.
In between the time of Darcy’s first proposal and their future meeting, it is significant that Elizabeth spends that time traveling with the Gardiners. She is not only out of doors, but she is traveling the countryside, exploring nature and, at the same time, getting to know herself.
While on this journey, with a bit of novelistic fate, Darcy and Elizabeth meet once again. Significantly, they do not meet within the walls of Pemberley but, rather, outside, amongst the trees, ponds and fields. Here, they begin to see one another as equals. The reader begins to feel that Pemberley will not be the domestic prison that Longbourn or any of the other patriarchal mansions are, for Pemberley abounds with beautiful, spacious grounds of which Elizabeth will become mistress, where she can challenge and indulge her desire to transcend the boundaries that were traditionally ascribed to her, where she can ramble about – alone or with Darcy – at her leisure.
The final scene of reconciliation, the true avowal of love, and Darcy’s real proposal, all not surprisingly, occur out of doors:
They walked … and as Elizabeth saw no occasion for making it a general concern, when Kitty left them, she went boldly on with him alone …. Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, ‘You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were … tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged …. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before …. They walked on, without knowing in what direction …. ‘dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled …. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.’ … After walking several miles in a leisurely manner, and too busy to know any thing about it, they found at last … that it was time to be at home …. he continued the conversation till they reached the house. In the hall they parted. (365-71)
With all of their former prejudices resolved, Elizabeth and Darcy are able to come together as equals and nature serves as the lonely witness to their avowal. The scene leads the reader to believe that Elizabeth and Darcy will spend the remainder of their years together walking about the English countryside, immersed in one another’s conversation. Ironically, it was Lady Catherine’s tirade which led Darcy to believe that Elizabeth’s feelings changed towards him; Elizabeth triumphs over Lady Catherine as they walk the grounds of Longbourn.
By examining the marriage proposals in Pride And Prejudice, I hope to have illustrated that Austen has coupled the desirable, pleasant occurrences of the heroine’s life with the outdoors and nature, just as she has placed the less than desirable events within the confines of walls. The reader begins to sense a pattern, so that we instinctively know Elizabeth must decline Mr. Collins’s proposal and Darcy’s first proposal because they offer her nothing but confinement. Austen seems to have developed, constituted and underscored the trope of in-versus-outdoors with remarkable conviction. Pride And Prejudice conforms to this hypothesis with astonishing consistency. And I am astounded, as I sit at the very desk where Austen imagined, envisioned, created and produced, and look out the window into the peaceful roads of Chawton, that I never discovered this theme before.