Jane Austen: Emotion in the Shrubbery

Elizabeth Hawksley

Elizabeth Hawksley
(photo: Sally Greenhill)

Our guest blogger today is multi-published historical author Elizabeth Hawksley. She does more than write novels. Her plays have been performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, the Oxford Playhouse and the Edinburgh Festival.  She  is currently the UK Children’s Book Review editor for the Historical Novel Society Review and also teaches creative writing via courses, workshop and lectures.

It is not surprising that she is in demand on the platform. Many writers will remember a certain Sunday afternoon at the RNA Conference. Elizabeth recited the whole of Elinor Glyn with a perfectly straight face while her audience rolled around, aching with laughter and pleading to be given a chance to catch their breath. A real tour de force.

Today, Elizabeth is writing about emotion in the shrubbery and how it figures in the much-loved novels of Jane Austen.

Jane Austen : Emotion in the Shrubbery

shrubbery tamed

In the early 19th century, every house of consequence had a shrubbery: a grassy area with shrubs, a few trees, a bench to sit on, and a winding gravel path. In essence, it was the antithesis of the formal parterres, geometrical shapes and clipped box hedges at the front of the house which proclaimed the owner’s status and control over Nature.


However, behind the house, behind the ordered flower garden and walled kitchen garden, a carefully controlled wildness could be allowed. This, after all, was the Age of Sensibility, the Romantic Age.

Ninfa irises sml

Austen Shrubbery? Wilderness? Or Something Else?

Ninfa spreading tree smlIn Jane Austen’s novels this wild space has several more or less interchangeable names. In Mansfield Park, the shrubbery at Sotherton Court is also called the wilderness. It’s a name which is psychologically accurate, as we see during the Mansfield Park visit where a lot of primitive emotions (including resentment, lust, greed and jealousy) are unleashed.

Maria Bertram avoids her cloddish fiancé, Mr Rushworth, and spends the afternoon in the wilderness with the sexy Henry Crawford. Her sister Julia is jealous. She wants Henry for herself, and she resents having to put up with Mr Rushworth’s tedious mother wittering on.

Ninfa + wild flowers sml


Here, too, the attractive but self-centred Mary Crawford tries to persuade Edmund Bertram into giving up the idea of taking Holy Orders. Edmund is tempted into abstracting her from the rest of the party for a tête-à-tête, selfishly leaving Fanny alone for over an hour.

Meanwhile, Mrs Norris is scrounging pheasants’ eggs, a cream cheese and a “beautiful little heath” (heather). Nobody, apart from Fanny, behaves well.



Ninfa arch + tree smlAusten Shrubbery for Privacy and Secrets

The shrubbery is also a place where one could be alone, or, if with someone, not overheard. Take Pride and Prejudice. Even a modest country house like Longbourn had a fair number of servants. It must have been well-nigh impossible to be alone indoors. Lady Catherine de Bourgh knows this. She takes care to ask Elizabeth to show her the prettyish kind of a little wilderness’’. And the way she phrases it is clearly a put-down.

Ninfa with roses sml


Here, Lady Catherine — having informed Elizabeth that her character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness” — lets rip her outrage and resentment at the very idea of Elizabeth being engaged to Mr Darcy. It’s something she is determined to thwart. Again, the wilderness allows the expression of unrestrained emotion which Lady Catherine could not express indoors where other people might overhear.


And Elizabeth, too, takes advantage of the wilderness to express her own feelings. ‘’You can now have nothing further to say,” she resentfully answered. “You have insulted me in every possible method.”

Austen Shrubbery as a Safe Haven. And more . . .

Ninfa tower smlThe shrubberies of Hartfield in Emma fulfil a slightly different function — but they are still a repository for emotion. After the episode with the gypsies, Mr Woodhouse makes Emma promise never to go beyond the shrubbery again.”  Here, the shrubbery is a safe haven.

And after Emma’s conversation with Harriet where she learns that Mr Knightley may be in love with Harriet and want to marry her, Emma simply doesn’t know what to do. “She sat still, she walked about, she tried her own room, she tried the shrubbery…”  This time, even the shrubbery fails to contain her tumultuous feelings.
Ninfa water sml



But the shrubbery can also be a place where harmony is restored and where love is offered, expressed and returned.


After a stormy night, both real and psychological, it was summer again. Emma loses no time in hurrying to the shrubbery”. Here Mr Knightley finds her. Their emotions go from agitation, doubt, jealousy and discouragement to “the same precious certainty of being beloved.”

And who, on this earth, can ask for more?

Ninfa cypresses sml


Frost Fair cover Elizabeth HawksleyMany Thanks to Elizabeth Hawksley

In spite of having read and re-read Austen’s novels, I must admit that I had never asked myself what an Austen shrubbery actually was. But, uploading Elizabeth’s fascinating post — and drooling over her glorious pictures of the gardens of Ninfa, Italy, “the most romantic garden in the world” — definitely made me stop and ponder. I’ll never read the phrase Italian Garden in the same way again. Nor the Austen shrubbery scenes, either!

Designer Harriet Buckley



Elizabeth has recently ventured into the world of websites and on her new website, you can see her published books, including Frost Fair (short-listed for the Elizabeth Goudge Award) and Getting The Point, a panic-free guide to English Punctuation for adults that she co-authored with Jenny Haddon.

Her weekly blog covers all sorts of topics relating to history and her interesting travels (to places like Ninfa). Always worth a read.


6 thoughts on “Jane Austen: Emotion in the Shrubbery

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Particularly apt as I’ve just re-read Pride and Prejudice and there was much mention of the shrubbery as a place of privacy, as well as the little wilderness. Wonderful blog.

    1. Elizabeth Hawksley

      Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. Netherfield’s shrubbery, of course, also had a hermitage – Mrs Bennet mentions it – but we don’t see it. I’ve often thought that it would be a good place for Darcy and Lizzy to have a bit of quiet time together during their engagement.

  2. Barb

    I just found this interesting. It’s like a small piece of the world participating in all these events as a silent observer. The shrubbery becomes alive in a most unexpected way.

    1. Elizabeth Hawksley

      What a lovely thought, Barb. If only trees could speak – what stories they’d have to tell. I must admit, I’d love to know exactly what Mr Knightley said when he proposed to Emma in the shrubbery but, alas, Jane Austen is too discreet to tell us.

  3. rosgemmell

    Really enjoyed this very interesting post – thank you, all! I was aware of the shrubbery and wilderness in the novels but this made it much more meaningful, Elizabeth.

  4. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Thank you for your comment, Ros. I was particularly struck by the way that shrubberies seem to have different roles to play in each novel. The shrubbery at Sotherton in ‘Mansfield Park’ is definitely a place of temptation with almost everyone behaving badly!

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