Drenched in Austen at Hartland


Jagged rocks scissored through the sea mist and rain that had begun to fall steadily. I was rapidly becoming soaked. Soaked in exactly the way that Marianne is repeatedly soaked in the 2008 BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, generally with her arms and face raised to the heavens. It always seems to end in a swoon. This delightful mini-series, written by Andrew Davies, frames this place as the location of Barton cottage, with many frequent cutaways to surging waves and flying spume that less-than-subtly suggest the raging emotions under those translucent, sopping muslin garments. Alas for me, there was neither a Willoughby nor a Colonel Brandon in sight. Indeed, the only man I saw after I left Hartland Abbey grounds had an alarmingly broad smile and a chainsaw, so I was not expecting any romantic rescue there.

At the other end of the estate, past a fat peacock and the ticket office, were the Walled Gardens, reached via the ‘Ladies Walk’. The Bog Garden, encountered along it, was inspired by regular house guest Gertrude Jekyll. It makes dramatic use of huge ferns, and a jagged, dead tree allows a gap through which to see the valley and wooded hillsides. That afternoon, rain filled the air with the scent of vegetation: a whiff of garlic.

Arriving at the Walled Gardens, across the small road, I entered quite a different space, one of carefully cut foliage, the smell of mint and lavender. In the kitchen garden were rows of beautifully tended vegetables, divided by the wrought stems and spiky crowns of artichokes. Although this location is not used in the Austen adaptation, I thought at the time that this would be Elinor’s space, the space of ‘sense’ – an approach to the landscape as rational, ordered. Indeed, in the series, Elinor is given a copy of Flora Devonae by Edward Ferrers, and we often see both her and Edward in relation to country work – chopping wood (drenched again), buying fish (on Clovelly pier), feeding chickens and folding washing.

Topiary, on the other hand, is not associated with Elinor, but with the affectation and treachery of high society. Even Fanny Dashwood’s hair seems to have been espaliered across her forehead. We first see topiary in relation to the affected and jealous Lucy Steele; Brandon duels with Willoughby at the edge of an ornamental lake; Marianne runs from the topiary spikes of Cleveland kitchen garden (actually Ham House) to a grassy ridge where she gets herself drenched and ill again.

Of course, in the end, the kitchen garden and the crashing waves are not antithetical. Elinor is as prone as Marianne to staring moodily out to sea, and even hides in a cave at one point; she is just a lot less likely to need rescuing, and although she finally does get her man, he finds her more-or-less contentedly making bread. The final drenching is in a teary, floury embrace.

By the time I get back to the gates, I am too wet to get any wetter. I’m not wearing translucent muslin and my rescuer is not a man on a horse: it’s my friend in her van, but I am glad to see her.

Maybe the seeming over-use of the pathetic fallacy in the filming of this drama was actually fortuitous: it just did rain all the time. This is partly a story about landscape and its understanding, after all. Willoughby reads to Marianne about ‘a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused’, but it all becomes diffused, confused, refused. It is Elinor, who ‘see[s] into the life of things’, not by making nature’s emotions her own, but by a combination of working and looking (sitting, staring, painting), finally at home in both ‘steep woods and lofty cliffs’ and ‘this green pastoral landscape’. She knows the names of the flowers, where to buy fish, and she can sketch the rocks as well. The irony is that her inclusive understanding betrays more ‘sensibility’ than Marianne’s sense of the Romantic.