MISS AUSTEN'S COUNTRY.
If there be a region easy to get at, beautiful when one reaches it, and calculated to satisfy all one's susceptibility to associations, that region is Box Hill and its surroundings. It has hitherto been specially honoured rather as a convenient and picturesque spot for pic-nics, than as a place of pilgrimage, as it ought to be regarded in an age which is perpetually breaking out into memorials, and by people who think nothing of rushing to the ends of the earth in order to tread in the imperishable footprints of the unforgotten great. We cannot all follow Horace to Brundisium, even by rail, or come up with Alexander at the Oxus, but most of us could "explore to Box Hill," and find ourselves in company with those valued friends of whom Miss Austen painted miniatures on ivory which, though we do indeed, "wear them constant next our hearts," have no other resemblance to the works of art made famous by Mrs. Gamp, for their colours don't "run," and we don't want them to be "took back."
The boundaries of Miss Austen's country are just vague enough to make speculation respecting them pleasant. She liked the cosy, rich, refined, cultivated "Home" counties, and the snuggest, most prosperous parts of them. Mansfield Park was in Hertfordshire, and have we not seen many a parsonage which might be that very home in which Dr. Grant outraged the housewifely memories of Mrs. Norris by the introduction of a round dinner-table, and made little of the flavour of the fruit upon the apricot-tree which had "cost her – no, it was a present from Sir Thomas, but she had seen the bill, and it had cost seven shillings, and was charged as a Moor-park !" Rosings was in Kent, and when we drive past those trim, lovely hedgerows and see the plantations beyond, can we not make choice among the former of the garden-boundary of that abode in which Mrs. Collins dexterously assigned the front room to her husband, so that he might relieve her of his society while he watched for the pony-carriage in which "Lady Catharine and Miss de Bourgh did his humble dwelling the honour of passing it several times a day," and see, on the fringes of the latter, the very spot where Mr. Darcy put his angry love-letter into the hand of Elizabeth Bennet, to whom, by the way, one always grudges Darcy and Pemberley a little? But it is not "Pride and Prejudice," or "Mansfield Park," which travels closely with the visitor to the Box-Hill region, so much as "Emma," that quite incomparable novel, in which the unique talent of the wonderful woman whose works may fail to charm us in our youth, but are an ever-increasing joy to our middle-age, is at its perfection. From the height we overlook the whole of her especial country (the Dashwoods were only episodically located in Devonshire, and there can be no doubt that Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth ultimately settled within easy reach of town): but Box Hill itself and all the rich and beautiful valley beneath it, are the places which we identify with "Emma." Hartfield, and Highbury, Randalls, Donwell Abbey, the Abbey Mill Farm, and the Vicarage, where Mr. Elton dwelt, and which was the scene of Emma's manoeuvring about her broken boot-lace; the street in which Mrs. Bates and her daughter and Jane Fairfax lived: the Crown Inn, where "the Westons" gave their famous ball, and "dear Mrs. Elton" was pronounced by Miss Bates to be "the queen of the evening," there they are, in the valley. All the people are there too, undisturbed by the railway, which would have been such a godsend to Frank Churchill; or by the telegraph, which would have killed Mr. Woodhouse merely by its suggestion of haste and decision. Even the general shop, in which Harriet Smith could not make up her mind whether she would leave her purchases made up in one parcel or in two parcels, and afterwards had that agitating interview with Robert Martin, which led, as all the world knows, to the happiest results, offers its odd mixture of wares to the public still. If the places did not actually stare one in the face, -- there's a house in the valley to which Harriet's description of the Abbey Mill Farm might serve as an auctioneer's advertisement, and Randalls is occupied at this moment by a distinguished novelist, who has most likely no consciousness of the fact, -- one has only to look at the people. Old Mrs. Bates sits up in a window of a red-brick house, whence sounds of piano-playing issue, looking placidly at the changing of the horses of a huge waggon, laden with cauliflowers, picked with minute and tedious neatness, in front of the Crown Inn: she wears a tall cap, a silk shawl crossed over her breast, and mittens, and as we look at her, she takes off her spectacles, and holds them out towards some person in the room invisible from the street. Of course it is Frank Churchill, and the rivet of the spectacles is loose, and Jane is playing on the piano which "Colonel Dixon" sent her. That brisk figure which shows for a moment and then darts away is Miss Bates's and she has come to tell her mother that they are invited to sup at Hartfield, on one of those occasions when "poor Mr. Woodhouse's feelings are in sad warfare," when "a basin of gruel, thin but not too thin," is all he can conscientiously recommend, and though "he loves to have the cloth laid, because it was the fashion of his youth, his conviction of the unwholesomeness of suppers makes him sorry to see anything put upon it." The postman is actually coming out of Mrs. Goddards's gate, and oh! How nice it would be, if one might go in and ask to be shown the neat parlour hung round with fancy-work. Young Cole looks out of his office-window, and nods to Mr. Weston, who is on his way to tell tales of the unreasonableness of Mrs. Churchill to all Highbury, in strict confidence, but stops a moment to report upon his wife's health to Mr. Perry, talking through the window of the trim carriage which the doctor really has set up, since the memorable "blunder" which Frank Churchill made, and the delightful lovers' quarrel which arose out of it. This is William Larkin coming along the shady road: one knows him in a moment, for he glances contemptuously at some neglected timber—they don't neglect their timber at the Abbey—and one sees that he has been "having it out" with Mr. Knightly, perhaps about the store-apples.
Down here, however, one sees all these delightful people piece-meal; the secret for collecting them together at their best is to "explore" to Box Hill, in a barouche-landau. We know from "dear Mrs. Elton" that a barouche-landau holds four perfectly , and that no other vehicle was considered so fit for "exploring" purposes at Maple Grove, that delightful place, where Mr. Suckling had been a resident for eleven years, his father having had it before him; at least, dear Mrs. Elton was "almost sure that old Mr. Suckling had completed the purchase before his death." If one has the good-fortune to visit friends who know Miss Austen thoroughly, and are alive to the felicity of being in her country, of course they will not think of exploring to Box Hill in anything but a barouche-landau, and they will naturally regret that "Selina," and Mrs. Bragge, Mrs. Partridge, and Mrs. James Cooper,-- those friends of dear Mrs. Elton's, who all gave up music after their marriage, and of whose toils she was reminded by "being shut up half-an-hour with her housekeeper," are not to be of the muster awaiting them at the scene of the famous picnic. It will be so charming to know that one's topography cannot be far wrong, because Emma and her party had only seven miles to drive to Box Hill, and Hartfield was sixteen miles from London.
"Box Hill is not Swisserland," says Miss Woodhouse to Frank Churchill (at Donwell, where dear Mrs. Elton has been doing the country-party business up to her notions by "wearing a large bonnet, and bringing one of her little baskets—that one with the pink riband—hanging on her arm," and has assured "Knightly" that he is "a humourist, quite a humourist"),-- "it is not Swisserland, but it will be something for a young man so much in want of change." It ought to be quite enough for anybody, with the touch of the autumn loveliness upon it, the delicious stillness, and the sweet, fresh air. It has every kind of beauty that the "woodland wild" can combine, from the tender grace of the slight ash and beech trees, through which the sun's rays strike into the underwood, revealing marvelous treasures of multitudinous growth and infinite variety of colour, the watchful processional formality of poplars, whose front ranks stand across country in the valley below, the massive grandeur of great acorn-laden oaks and wide-spreading, sturdy elms; firs with flame-tinted stems and storm-defying heads; gloomy, bitter, poison-fruited yew, and solemn cypress; to the masses of the sharp and shining-leaved tree, growing thick and black-stemmed in the dense darkness, which give the place its name of "Box Hill." It has dells and downs, steep, heather-bordered road, and sharp-declining hillside, openings into undulating glades, o'erarching avenues, tunnels of shade of solemn blackness, wide stretches of green-velvet turf, dense thickets in which the crushed confusion of trees defies division, grand, solitary forest-lords standing in isolated majesty, each one a picture and a marvel. It has a gorgeous tangle of autumn flower and red poison-fruit, and acres of blackberry-bushes, with a purple bloom upon their berries. There are weird paths in it, with vistas into the wood, where the stems, shut from the sun, are bleached, and sickly, and distorted, like Doré's dreadful trees, with pain and writhing in their twisted limbs; and there are broad, jocund ways, with the generous sunlit growths bordering them, adown which the wood-nymphs might dance to-day without surprising anybody, so surely do they seem to have been laid out on purpose; and here the giant stems are dight in moss like emerald velvet, and touched with gem-like flashes of ruby and topaze colour. There is a blue sky, with a transparent veil of hurrying clouds before it, a strong stirring and sound in the trees and the underwood; the ear might easily cheat itself into a belief that the plain below is a lake; but on the brow of the hill the whole superb scene is unrolled before one; forty miles of rich country laugh under the sunshine, and the little village of Brockham stands in its prim prettiness in the foreground of the valley, like a Dutch village just taken out of a toy-box, set up, and ready to be packed up again when the private view shall be over.
What a scene for the comedy of the exploring party, at which Emma flirted with Frank Churchill because she was angry with herself and with Mr. Knightly, and Frank Churchill flirted with Emma because he was angry with himself and with Jane Fairfax. Mr. Knightly was virtuously indignant, Miss Bates was voluble, snubbed, and forgiving; and dear Mrs. Elton was as usual the most finely humorous type of vulgar assumption and invincible self-complacency ever given to a world, which is we hope and believe, increasingly grateful for the boon. Is there anybody who does not know her? To such we would say, read "Emma" thoroughly, in the first instance, and when you have mastered the book, "explore Box Hill" in its company, -- and a barouche-landau.
Anonymous. "Miss Austen's Country." The Spectator 48 (1875), 1225-1226 [Gilson M138].