Let us take Northanger Abbey for a moment. One of the major contrasts in the book is between John Thorpe and Henry Tilney; Thorpe and Tilney are potential rivals for Catherine Morland's affections, and Thorpe repeatedly attempts to sabotage any interaction between Catherine and Henry. Here is Thorpe trying to get Catherine to go with him and several others on a trip, when he knows full well that she is waiting to go on a walk with the Tilneys (it opens with Thorpe speaking to James Morland, Catherine's brother):
"You croaking fellow!" cried Thorpe. "We shall be able to do ten times more. Kingsweston! Aye, and Blaize Castle too, and anything else we can hear of; but here is your sister says she will not go."
"Blaize Castle!" cried Catherine. "What is that?"
"The finest place in England — worth going fifty miles at any time to see."
"What, is it really a castle, an old castle?"
"The oldest in the kingdom."
"But is it like what one reads of?"
"Exactly — the very same."
"But now really — are there towers and long galleries?"
"Then I should like to see it; but I cannot — I cannot go."
"Not go! My beloved creature, what do you mean?"
Catherine's taste for the Gothic is no secret, so this is precisely the sort of thing that would tempt her. It's also a flat-out lie; Blaise Castle was only a few decades old and was not a real castle but a fake, built purely for scenery. (Ironically, Thorpe's recommendation in the novel made it a relatively popular tourist attraction.) And Thorpe indeed goes on to lie about having seen the Tilneys in town, obviously not going on any walks at all due to the weather.
A little later we have a contrast with Henry when Catherine does go on a country walk with the Tilneys. After some discussion of novels, the talk turns to the view:
The Tilneys were soon engaged in another on which she had nothing to say. They were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste. Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing — nothing of taste: and she listened to them with an attention which brought her little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her. The little which she could understand, however, appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day. She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well–informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.
The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author; and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance. But Catherine did not know her own advantages — did not know that a good–looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward. In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side–screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape. Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.
There are a great many ironies in this passage, but we have here a clear bit of contrast with Thorpe. While Thorpe tempts with sham and fakery, Tilney has a genuine and sincere interest in something other than himself, as shown by his interest in the picturesque. Both the Tilneys are clearly very familiar with the theory of picturesque, using its vocabulary extensive, and despite Catherine's excessive zeal in eliminating Bath from the picture, she learns something from the discussion. It's notable that the actual interpretation of this passage is extremely controverted, and a great deal of one's interpretation of the book will be affected by the interpretation. Just how ironic is this passage meant to be? Is Henry contributing to Catherine's miseducation, or does this passage contribute to the ongoing contrast between Thorpe's artificiality and Tilney's sincerity?
My own view is that this passage is not, as it is sometimes taken to be, a take-down of the theory of the picturesque, despite the intentional funniness of Henry's eagerness to teach it and Catherine's excessive zeal in learning it. Part of the reason for this is that if you had any doubt that Catherine and Henry are meant for each other in the novel, this passage would be perfect proof; the passage makes lucidly clear that the two are flirting without either of them quite realizing it, and all the ironic tone in the passage seems to me to be carefully crafted in order to highlight this fact and no other. The fact that Eleanor Tilney is involved in the discussion as well strongly suggests that the picturesque is not being used ironically here, but as a way to contrast the picturesque sincerity of Tilney with the sham-Gothic fakery we have already seen in Thorpe (and to which few of the characters in the book, including Tilney himself, are entirely immune). It is true that there is a sort of artificiality to Henry -- the picturesque inevitably has an artificial component, because it's about the beauty of nature insofar as it is suitable to art. But, unlike Thorpe's, it is an artificial apparatus for better appreciating what is natural and real. It is of course not true that the theory of the picturesque requires saying that good views are not found at the top of a hill or that blue skies are not proof of fine days or that the entire city of Bath is a blemish on the landscape -- and Gilpin denies that he ever intended any such thing, although the fact that he has to defend himself explicitly against such charges shows that they were made -- but the joke arises merely from Catherine's bafflement at the terminology. Rather, I think the point is that Catherine and Henry are, despite their faults, a good match. Suitability of romance is often portrayed in terms of teaching and learning in Austen; a good marriage is with someone from whom you can learn (and the teaching and learning is always, although not equally obviously, in both directions).
However, it's clear that there is a problem here. Catherine's enthusiasm for the picturesque is more about Henry than about any actual learning; one of Catherine's abiding failures through the book is a susceptibility to letting others think for her. She will later in the book comment quietly to herself that without Henry "she should not know what was picturesque when she saw it." This is, in fact, antithetical to the very notion of the picturesque, which is not primarily about using painter's terminology to talk about nature but about seeing how variation, what Gilpin calls roughness, contributes to the beauty that's there. And, in fact, Catherine appreciates precisely that in the very next paragraph, when she admires a paradigmatically picturesque scene, right down to leafless trees. The comment is actually a sign of the weakness that will almost bring everything down: she really does like the pseudo-Gothic flim-flam. Picturesque viewing has its artificialities, but they are all directed to seeing the real world, the true beauty of nature. It can't be adequate on its own; as Gilpin says, the beauty of nature is on too grand a scale to be confined to the picturesque. But it's a connection with reality, one that contrasts sharply with the mere suggestion and allusion of Gothic fakery.
In any case, how one reads the passages on the picturesque will contribute a great deal to how one reads the relationship between Catherine and Henry, as well as the characters of both.
The novel which is perhaps most obviously involved in engagement with the picturesque, however, is Sense and Sensibility, because Marianne Dashwood in the novel is an enthusiastic devotee of picturesque theory. This is actually quite important for understanding her, I think. Marianne is often treated as if she were all sensibility, some pure unrestrained emotionalism. But this is certainly not so, and her passion for the picturesque is one of the things that shows it. Marianne's approach to the world is not mere emotionalism; it is a highly cultivated, very deeply thought out view of things. When Elinor pokes fun of Marianne's first conversation with Willoughby, on literature (he has read all the right books), she jokes that they'll run out of things to talk about at this rate: all they'll need is another conversation about the picturesque and a second about marriage, and they'll have covered everything. Marianne protests that she's not that limited, but part her problem is that she is, at least in a way. Her understanding of the world is more aesthetic theory than fact or experience, and, while she's a good-hearted girl, it is very much more aesthetic than moral. And this makes sense in terms of the association of Marianne with sensibility: sensibility is primarily an aesthetic notion, about how one experiences the world, suggesting that one has cultivated sentiments capable of being affected by finer distinctions and differences.
And Marianne's sentiments are undeniably cultivated and philosophical. We are explicitly told that she has read Gilpin, and at one point laments how often he is misunderstood. She also avoids Catherine's mistake of thinking that the picturesque is primarily a matter of applying a vocabulary. The problem she has lies in another direction, and is hinted at in the key passage dealing explicitly with the picturesque:
Edward returned to them with fresh admiration of the surrounding country; in his walk to the village, he had seen many parts of the valley to advantage; and the village itself, in a much higher situation than the cottage, afforded a general view of the whole, which had exceedingly pleased him. This was a subject which ensured Marianne's attention, and she was beginning to describe her own admiration of these scenes, and to question him more minutely on the objects that had particularly struck him, when Edward interrupted her by saying, "You must not enquire too far, Marianne—remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country—the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug—with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility—and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque."
"I am afraid it is but too true," said Marianne; "but why should you boast of it?"
"I suspect," said Elinor, "that to avoid one kind of affectation, Edward here falls into another. Because he believes many people pretend to more admiration of the beauties of nature than they really feel, and is disgusted with such pretensions, he affects greater indifference and less discrimination in viewing them himself than he possesses. He is fastidious and will have an affectation of his own."
"It is very true," said Marianne, "that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning."
"I am convinced," said Edward, "that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower—and a troop of tidy, happy villages please me better than the finest banditti in the world."
Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with compassion at her sister. Elinor only laughed.
Marianne's problem is less that she is all emotion than that she is all theory, and that she cannot see outside the bounds of that theory. She is baffled at someone who will proudly say that he can't see and think in terms of the picturesque. Catherine Morland, of course, could see natural beauty, but just had no grasp on the theory of the picturesque; but the theory of the picturesque is Marianne's only real grasp on natural beauty, as we see in the fact that she is amazed that Edward Ferrars likes parks better than wildernesses and doesn't like ruins. It would be one thing to prefer the romantically picturesque; it is another thing to experience amazement and pity on finding that someone else does not. And we see this theory-driven nature of Marianne in her falling in love with Willoughby, which is really more of a falling in love with her own ideas. We see it also on Marianne's carriage ride with Mrs. Jennings in Chapter 26, when Marianne is more interested in her own thoughts and in passing picturesque scenery than in the people who are actually in the carriage with her. Elinor puts her finger on it elsewhere:
Elinor had not needed this to be assured of the injustice to which her sister was often led in her opinion of others, by the irritable refinement of her own mind, and the too great importance placed by her on the delicacies of a strong sensibility, and the graces of a polished manner. Like half the rest of the world, if more than half there be that are clever and good, Marianne, with excellent abilities and an excellent disposition, was neither reasonable nor candid. She expected from other people the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself.
Judging things by their effects on one's own feelings is precisely what sensibility is; Marianne is too inclined to think that things must fit her own ideas; and the combination of these two means she consistently misjudges people. Marianne's theory of the picturesque means that she is not stupidly sentimental or passionate -- she is very intelligently so, and I think this is some of the charm that people pick up on when reading the book -- but it's a theory that's poorly suited for large portions of life, and she is simply not prepared for dealing with many of the realities of a world full of people, and is incapable of reacting appropriately to them.
This post is getting a bit long, so I will save Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice for another post. The picturesque plays a notable role in the former and, as we shall see, an extraordinarily crucial role in the very structure of the latter.