Literary ha-has

When people modify landscapes, their interventions often reflect ideas about what to reveal and what to conceal. Beautiful vistas prompt the construction of scenic overlooks; drainage ditches cue the strategic planting of trees. It’s no secret that landscape architects structure environments in ways that achieve certain behavioral, social, and ecological effects. But people who write about landscapes do this, too. A description of a place is also an argument about how to experience that place. What has the author decided to say—or not say?

Recently, I’ve been reading about ha-ha walls—landscape design features that have fascinated authors from Jane Austen to Terry Pratchett. A ha-ha is a sunken or recessed barrier that prevents access to part of a space while preserving the illusion of an uninterrupted landscape. Only cows (or peasants) see the wall; the manor house just sees rolling fields.

"Ha-Ha," by Felix Kelly
“Ha-Ha,” by Felix Kelly

Ha-has are a popular metaphor for class conflict and internal division. Julie Park, writing on Mansfield Park, has argued that Austen sets a crucial scene at a ha-ha in order to reflect the “illusion of unity between external and internal” that characterizes Fanny Price’s personal struggles.¹

I’m less interested in the ha-ha as a symbol, and more interested in how it models a narrative strategy for organizing landscapes. In his book Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama observes that the ha-ha tells an invented story about harmony between field workers and manor residents. Descriptions of landscapes can tell similar stories that obscure fraught social relationships. This spring, I’ll be working on a project involving the 1790s memoir of Jean-Paul Pillet, a white plantation owner from Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). After reading his narrative, it struck me that Pillet depicts his plantation in a way that creates a kind of imaginative ha-ha wall between the beautiful landscape he enjoys and the ugly realities of slavery that make it possible.

When Pillet describes his lands, he focuses on their agricultural productivity rather than their human inhabitants. “The eye, without effort, could overlook the fields,” he writes. “Grown for every taste, were the choicest vegetables; / There, like a sea, was the waving sugar-cane. / Farther on, banana trees formed an arbor.”² But who has created this landscape? And could Pillet overlook his fields “without effort” if he paid attention to enslaved people laboring in them?

These are a just a few of the questions that I’ll be thinking about during my project. I’m still in the early stages of research, but both Pillet’s narrative and ha-has make a case for looking closely at aesthetics that gain their beauty and grandeur at the cost of intentionally hidden barriers.


  1. Julie Park, “What the Eye Cannot See: Interior Landscapes in Mansfield Park,” Eighteenth Century: Theory & Interpretation 54.2 (2013), p. 175.
  2. Jean-Paul Pillet, “Mon Odyssée,” in Jeremy D. Popkin, Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 70.

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