Clarens at Cwmystwyth: tracing Rousseau’s ideas to Ceredigion

Thomas Johnes of Hafod Uchtryd in upland Ceredigion was a man of broad cultural horizons, who received his formal education in Edinburgh. He made his grand tour in 1768-71, during which he visited Switzerland, Spain and Italy, and spent some months in Paris. He inherited the Hafod Estate in 1780 and served as Whig Member of Parliament for Cardiganshire and was also its Lord Lieutenant. He and his wife Jane and daughter Mariamne, while devoted to Hafod, were also in contact with London-based culture. On his return from the Continent Johnes remained a Francophile, as we see from his translation of Froissart’s Chronicles into English, a huge undertaking, and which kept its place as the standard translation into the twentieth century. Though he was also very interested in Welsh antiquarianism, and famously allowed Iolo Morganwg and William Owen Pughe to spend time with the manuscripts in his library in the 1790s, he was not himself a scholar. He was more of a collector and bibliophile, and is most famous for the landscape that he created. It is in this very practical and permanent, if indirect, way, that we see some of Rousseau’s ideas come right into the heart of Wales.

He and his family oversaw the planting of over three millon trees, and the creation of flower gardens at Hafod. An important influence on their ideas on landscape was The English Garden, a long poem in four books, by William Mason,[1] a friend of Glipin, the author of the Observations of the River Wye. Johnes was so keen that Hafod should be included in any subsequent editions of this work (indeed it was included in 1789), that he took some sketches by Thomas Jones to show Gilpin, and claimed that Mason’s English Garden had been his guide in transforming the Hafod estate. This meeting is described by Gilpin in a letter to Mason in April 1787:

The walks, & lawns were laid out by Mr. Mason’ whose English garden he took in his hand; & wanted no other direction. So if you want to see an exact translation of Yr. book into good Welsh, you myst go to Mr. Johnes’s seat in Cardiganshipre.[2]

Rousseau was Mason’s ‘favourite philosopher’,[3] and is directly invoked in notes by the author’s friend William Burgh, that were included in the second edition of The English Garden (1783). Burgh refers us to ‘Rousseau’s charming descriptions of the Garden of Julie, Nouvelle Eloise, 4 partie, lett. 11th’.[4]

This epistolary novel by Rousseau had an extraordinary influence that reached well beyond francophone cultures. Published in 1761, it ran to some 72 editions in French before the century was out, and an English translation by William Kendrick appeared in the same year. Masses of novels featuring Julies, Julias, Julianas or Juliettes were published in Britain, from Mackenzie’s Julia de Roubigné (1777) to Helen Maria Williams’s Julia (1790), and still more British novels reworked its plot. What concerns us here is not so much the plot as the descriptions of nautre and ladscaping that form its essential backdrop. The creation of Julie’s garden on the Clarens estate is described in detail in the novel. She was herself responsible for the landscaping work (with some assistance from gardeners), and the result is utterly natural: ‘la nature a tout fait, mais sous ma direction’ [nature did everything, but under my supervision], says Julie. She goes on to explain her choice of native species, and that she had thrown climbers from tree to tree as garlands (‘guirlandes’). So as to give the impression that water flowed freely through her garden, she had re-routed water from the formal fountains in her father’s garden, thus undermining the formal tradition in gardening that reached its apogee in Versailles. The trees in her garden are filled with birds, because she plants crops especially selected to attract them so that they fill her garden with song, and she even provides nest-building materials. Despite this minute planning, the effect is convincing; in the words of Saint-Preux, Julie’s former lover: ‘la main du jardinier ne se montre point’ [The gardner’s hand is not to be seen].

The affinity between Johnes’s Hafod and Rousseau’s Clarens lies deeper than the land itself. Another letter in the novel describes the workings of the idealized estate run by Julie and her husband Wolmar in detail, and Rousseau tells us all about the practical arrangements, both agricultural and economic. Innovation is stressed both in terms of agriculture and in the care of workers. For instance Clarens offers workers a weekly prize as a reward for hard work, and they receive bonuses for good work as well as annual increments. Furthermore the masters are expected to lead through example. Thomas Johnes, rather like Julie’s fictional husband, was also an agricultural innovator who tried to be a benevolent landlord. For instance he employed a doctor for his tenants, and his wife Jane ran a school, for which she procured Bibles and Hannah More as reading material.[5] Mariamne, for her part, had such a passion for botany that she corresponded with Edward Smith of the Linnean Society. She also made a deep impression on William Shepherd, the Liverpool Jacobin and friend of the family, who says that: ‘the best authors in the English, French, and Italian languages she had read with diligence, and remembered with accuracy’.[6] In conclusion, then, it seems likely that someone from the family knew something of Rousseau’s novel, and Hafod Uchdryd can be considered a possible Clarens at Cwmystwyth.

[1] The Hafod historian Caroline Kerkham has suggested that Johnes’s landscape was modelled jointly on the estates of Mason’s hero Alcander, and that of Rousseau’s M and Mme de Wolmar [i.e. Julie and her husband] at Clarens, remarking that ‘Thomas Johnes’s empathy with Rousseau’s perception of nature is remarkable’, ‘Hafod: paradise lost’, Journal of Garden History, 11:4 (1991), 207-216 (213).

[2] Bodl MS Eng. Misc. d. 571, f.8v. I am extremely grateful to Bethan Jenkins for providing this transcript. See also Roger Hallett, ‘the Hafod Sketchbook of Thomas Jones’, Friends of Hafod Newsletter, 5 (Spring 1991), pp. 4-11 (p. 7, n. 23), and Mavis Batey, ‘The English garden in Welsh’, Garden History, 22:2 (Winter, 1994), pp. 157-61.

[3] Mavis Batey, ‘William Mason, English Gardener’, Garden History, 1:2 (Feb., 1973), pp. 11-25 (p. 12).

[4] Burgh’s note (p. 252) to book 4, line 358, William Mason, The English Garden: A Poem in Four Books, new edition, corrected, to which are added a commentary and notes, by W. Burgh (Dublin: 1786).

[5] ‘yr oedd llyfrwerthwr yn Llundain rywdro’n sôn am yrru dau focsaid o Feiblau, a mil o lyfrynnau bach o waith Hannah More, at Mrs Johnes’, Dafydd Jenkins, Thomas Johnes (1948), p. 37.

[6] A portrait of Mariamne is contained in Thomas Johnes’s obituary, written by Shepherd, cited in C. Kerkham, ‘The Rev. Dr William Shepherd and the death of Mariamne Johnes’, Friends of Hafod Newsletter, 14 (Winter 1996-7), 26-33.

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