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They had a very fine day for Box Hill … Nothing was wanting but to be happy when they got there. Seven miles were travelled in expectation of enjoyment, and every body had a burst of admiration on first arriving…Jane Austen, Emma


One of the most famous scenes in Emma is the picnic scene on Box Hill. Picnics were becoming increasingly popular at the turn of the nineteenth century, when romantic sensibility influenced the trend of eating out of doors as a way to commune with nature. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term picnic originally meant “A fashionable social entertainment in which each person present contributed a share of the provisions; now, A pleasure party including an excursion to some spot in the country where all partake of a repast out of doors: the participants may bring with them individually the viands and means of entertainment, or the whole may be provided by some one who ‘gives the picnic’. ”

Even though picnicking became increasingly popular, arranging one was often no easy matter. According to Andrew Hubbell, author of How Wordsworth Invented Picnicking and Saved British Culture*:

To picnic is to consume not only particular food, but also a specific environment chosen according to an aesthetic standard, and a particular form of sharing food according to certain standards of behaviour. It means creating a moveable feast and overcoming difficulties and inconveniences, not only for preparation and transportation,but also for consumption and cleanup. Yet picnicking is the pleasurable pursuit of a leisured people, so the difficulty of moving the feast has some reward. The reward is primarily ideological: it enables the participant to share a form of eating that creates relationships between small groups of people, natural landmarks, and cultural ideals. These relationships form a consciousness of national identity. Picnicking, especially for early nineteenth-century picnickers, was thus away of performing Britishness.


This Romantic aesthetic can be witnessed in the A&E version of Emma, to be show on PBS this Sunday. Box Hill, the setting of Emma’s famous picnic, and comprising of woods and grassland, offered a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. The experience of eating in such a beautiful setting would appeal to both the eye and palate. Box Hill is covered with box trees, yew trees. and beeches and oaks. To this day, the area is filled with flowers and the sound of bird song, and fully two-thirds of the British butterfly species have been recorded at this site.**
As is still the custom, each member or group invited to a regency picnic brought a dish, usually carried in wicker baskets, for the others to enjoy. In this way a variety of dishes would be shared and tasted. However, without someone to guide them, guests would often bring similar foods. As picnics became more organized and elaborate, one person would take charge of assigning the dishes, ensuring the non-duplication of foods, or a host would offer to take over the responsibility of providing all the food.

As the 1997 A&E film demonstrates, these elegant and sumptuous picnics were not easy to accomplish. Teams of horses were arranged to transport wagons with picnickers, servants, food, and outdoor furniture. If the picturesque spot was located in an out of the way place, the party had to walk the remainder of the way with the supplies. The servants would lay out the dishes, and tables and cloths al fresco. After the parties had dined, these supplies needed to be repacked.

In the film, the servants were shown constantly working to provide a leisurely and pleasurable outing for the picnickers. Their hard work was for naught, however, since no one in the party, most particularly Emma, seemed to be having a good time. As the afternoon progressed, the underlying tension among the diners erupted with Emma’s cruel comment towards Miss Bates.

The Box Hill scene in Emma is pivotal. After Emma insults Miss Bates, Mr. Knightley angrily confronts her about her behavior. Unable to remain blind to her own faults, Emma begins to change and grow. She realizes how much she craves Mr. Knightley’s good judgment, which leads her to a later revelation that she loves him.

Interestingly, at the strawberry-picking at Donwell Abbey the day before, Mr. Knightley says to Mrs. Elton: “The nature and the simplicity of gentlemen and ladies, with their servants, and furniture, I think is best observed by meals within doors.” Given how utterly the Box Hill excursion failed to entertain the picnickers, his words were prophetic.

To read more about the origins of picnics, and about Box Hill, click on the long list of links below.

Box Hill, Emma

Physical Setting of Box Hill

The History of Picnics


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Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, which SourceBooks is now republishing for international distribution, takes place in an age of change, just as Queen Victoria is coming to the throne in 1837. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, they of Pride and Prejudice fame, are now middle-aged. He is balding, she is an anxious mother, but they are still a charming, witty and fortunate couple, who know their happiness – until they make the mistake of inviting the two daughters of Mrs. Darcy’s profligate sister Lydia to visit at Pemberley…and trouble begins. The Darcys’ sons are far too interested in the young ladies; the younger, Cloe, is a faultlessly modest creature, but the elder, Bettina, is another pair of gloves entirely, and her flamboyant career includes a shocking turn on the London stage…Diana Birchall, Author

As I finished reading this satisfying and entertaining novel by Diana Birchall, I knew that all was right with Jane Austen’s world again. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy are still deeply in love; their children will find some measure of happiness; and the rest of Jane Austen’s characters are living out their lives much as we suspect they would.

Elizabeth was too wise to take either her husband’s love or his wealth for granted, and she never forgot to exult in all her manifold sources of happiness. It is impossible for human nature to be altogether without worry or pain, however, and Elizabeth’s anxieties were all reserved for her children.

At the start of the novel, Elizabeth Darcy, a matron in her forties and mother to Fitzwilliam, Henry, and Jane, receives a letter from her sister, Lydia Wickham. In reaction to the hardships Lydia describes, the Darcies invite the two oldest Wickham girls, Bettina and Cloe, for a protracted visit to Pemberley. This action sets the plot in motion. Before the generous-hearted Darcies realize what has happened, their eldest son Fitzwilliam, whose preference for horses far outweighs his common sense, has run off to London with the brazen Bettina. Shades of Wickham’s and Lydia’s ill considered elopement! Everyone is appalled when they do not marry, except for Lydia who doesn’t see why a 10-minute ceremony “should signify.”

Meanwhile, Henry, the second and more sensible son, has fallen for sweet and proper Cloe. He proposes to her, but deeply mortified by her sister’s actions, the penniless Cloe seeks a position as a governess.

As these events unfold, we meet Pride and Prejudice’s familiar cast of characters. Mr. Collins is as intolerable as ever. Due to the unfortunate circumstance of Mr. Bennet’s long and healthy life – and his desire not to shuffle off his mortal coil too soon – both the Collinses have become fractious from waiting. Charlotte has grown increasingly irritated with Mr. Collins in their tiny cottage crammed with furniture and their half dozen children.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh is still overbearing, and the early death of her only daughter Anne has not diminished her dislike of Elizabeth. Lydia seems not to have grown wiser at all, despite having raised a family in poverty and her disappointment with Mr. Wickham, a dissipated wastrel. Mary is a widow who has taken care of the aging Mr. Bennet since Mrs. Bennet’s death. Kitty as Mrs. Clarke, a minister’s wife, has turned into a sour childless woman. Having taken second place to Lydia in her younger years, she now feels inferior to Elizabeth and Jane, who married well. The book’s subplots echo many of Jane’s other novels, and one feels a comfortable familiarity with these characters as the novel progresses.

Ms. Birchall does not disappoint her readers. The plot is fast paced, and the story believable. “My primary interest in writing Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, which I did years before the booming proliferation of romantic sequels,” she says, “was in employing something as similar to Jane Austen’s original language as might be possible for an American writing two hundred years later. In other words: not possible at all! However, I have steeped myself in her prose, reading the novels not tens, not hundreds, but thousands of times over a thirty year period, and among many other things, Jane Austen proved to be the best writing teacher any author could have.”

My only (minor) quibble with the book is that it is not long enough. I would love to have read more scenes with Mr. Darcy and his wife in them. Diana is also known for her humor, and her wit was in too short supply. Had the book been longer, I believe we might have been treated to more sparkling and scintillating dialog. I have one final quibble: Diana describes our fabulous fifty-something Mr. Darcy as balding. I beg to differ, Ms. Birchall. Please take a look at this photo of a lovely man at 48, in which not a single follicle seems to be challenged. Could Mr. Darcy not have had a similar set of hair?

More about Diana Birchall:

Her Jane Austen-related novels, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America, were both published by Egerton Press, a small English company, in 2004, and her pastiche/satire In Defense of Mrs. Elton was published by the Jane Austen Society in the US, UK and Australia in 2000. Her “day job” is as the literary story analyst at Warner Bros Studios in California, reading novels to see if they would make movies. She is also a ballet dancer and has taken classes most of her life.

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