Henry James described Jane Austen as a great “painter of life,” but the metaphor cannot be pushed too far. In Austen you rarely get any real description of a scene, either an interior or a landscape, and when you do it reads more like a guidebook than a word picture. Mostly you're left to imagine the contours and colours that form the background for her human subjects.
James, on the other hand, is an almost unparalleled describer of rooms. Their dimensions and decor, the fine detail of their furnishings whether large or soft. Where the windows are placed, and what can be seen through them. The pattern and colour of the wallpaper, and perhaps one or two of its predecessors. How many ornaments adorn the occasional tables, and how they were gradually collected. Sofas and mantelshelves, vases, miniatures, mirrors, candles, silks, lacework. He is always at pains to thoroughly set the scene before any characters appear, and the rooms always reflect the histories, manners and moods of their inhabitants.
That's why I was struck, recently rereading Washington Square, by this passage describing so vividly an outdoor scene.
“One day at the end of the summer, the two travellers found themselves in a lonely valley of the Alps. [Catherine] sat upon a stone and looked about her at the hard-featured rocks and the glowing sky. It was late in the afternoon, in the last of August; night was coming on, and, as they had reached a great elevation, the air was cold and sharp. In the west there was a great suffusion of cold, red light, which made the sides of the little valley look only the more rugged and dusky. During one of their pauses, her father left her and wandered away to some high place, at a distance, to get a view. He was out of sight; she sat there alone, in the stillness, which was just touched by the vague murmur, somewhere, of a mountain brook. She thought of Morris Townsend, and the place was so desolate and lonely that he seemed very far away. Her father remained absent a long time; she began to wonder what had become of him. But at last he reappeared, coming towards her in the clear twilight, and she got up, to go on. He made no motion to proceed, however, but came close to her, as if he had something to say. He stopped in front of her and stood looking at her, with eyes that had kept the light of the flushing snow-summits on which they had just been fixed."
James is not often a painter of romantic landscape, but even here, the psychological interior dominates. Catherine thinks only of the distance between her and her lover, but the hard-featured, rugged valley is emblematic of her arid relationship with her father and the Doctor's grim determination not to yield his high ground no matter how weary Catherine becomes. He is remote and lofty, and when he gazes on her there is ice, as well as the flush of anger, in his eyes. This scene, though so extramural, is in fact as claustrophobic as anything that happens in their house in Washington Square.