Issue 18: ‘A Prettyish Kind of a Little Wilderness’

JANE AUSTEN LOVED FLOWERS, GARDENS AND THE WORLD OF NATURE. HER LETTERS FREQUENTLY MENTION THE NAMES OF HER FAVOURITE BLOOMS AND THE PASSING OF THE SEASONS.

In a letter to her sister Cassandra (8–9 February 1807) we discover Jane busily planning the new garden in their new Southampton home. ‘I could not do without a syringa, for the sake of Cowper’s line’. (Brabourne, 1884).  (Jane was referring to William Cowper’s long poem, The Task: “Laburnum rich, in streaming gold; Syringa Iv’ry pure”).

Jane took a keen interest in the fruit and vegetables that her family grew. In the same letter, Jane tells Cassandra that they will plant currants, gooseberries and raspberries (Brabourne, 1884). Four years later, when the Austens had moved to Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, Jane commented on the progress of their fruit trees: ‘We are likely to have a great crop of Orleans plumbs [sic], but not many greengages’. Mulberry trees, apricots, and strawberries were also grown. The currants were used to make wine, and Jane lamented the fact that the bushes’ harvest was so poor that they would have to buy some currants that season (29 and 31 May 1811; 6 June 1811; Brabourne, 1884).

A kitchen garden was essential in Austen’s day to supply the family with salads and vegetables. In his Memoir of his aunt Jane, James Austen-Leigh remembers that potatoes were ‘novelties to a tenant’s wife who was entertained at Steventon Parsonage’ (Jane’s birthplace), and that Mrs Austen (Jane’s mother) advised the lady to plant them in her own garden (Austen-Leigh, 1871).

Wealthy landowners had the money and space to keep hot-houses and greenhouses to grow more exotic items. When Elizabeth Bennet and the Gardiners visited Georgina Darcy at Pemberley, they were regaled with a ‘variety of all the finest fruits in season’ including ‘beautiful pyramids of grapes, [and] nectarines’ (Pride and Prejudice).

A small garden might not be able to cater sufficiently for a family’s needs. In Sense and Sensibility, kindly Sir John Middleton was keen to look after the newly arrived Dashwoods at Barton Cottage. He sent them a ‘large basket full of garden stuff and fruit’, and offered the ladies ‘every accommodation from his own house and garden in which theirs might at present be deficient’.

When a household was reliant on its garden for day-to-day produce consumption, it could be a serious matter if fruit and vegetables were affected by adverse weather or disease – hence ‘the gardener's lamentations upon blights’ in Sense and Sensibility. (Although Charlotte Palmer chuckled at ‘the loss of her favourite plants, unwarily exposed, and nipped by the lingering frost’ in her greenhouse).

 The garden at Chawton Cottage.  Credit: Sue Wilkes

The garden at Chawton Cottage. Credit: Sue Wilkes

Gardening was not just a necessity; it was also a pleasure. Jane and Cassandra’s mother, Mrs Austen, was an indefatigable gardener right into old age, ‘often attired in a round green smock like a labourer’s’. James Austen-Leigh remembered that ‘some gentlemen’, too, ‘took pleasure in being their own gardeners, performing all the scientific, and some of the manual, work themselves’ (Austen-Leigh, 1871).

For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr Collins was not afraid to get his hands dirty. When Elizabeth Bennet went to stay with the recently married Collinses, her host: ‘invited them to take a turn in the garden, which was large and well laid out, and to the cultivation of which he attended himself. To work in this garden was one of his most respectable pleasures; and Elizabeth admired the command of countenance with which Charlotte talked of “the healthfulness of the exercise, and owned she encouraged it as much as possible”.’

A garden was also a place of refuge from the rest of the family – a place to have a private conversation without the risk of servants or an inquisitive parent listening in. In Pride and Prejudice, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh wants to find out if Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are engaged, she comments, ‘Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness at the side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it’. Mrs Bennet thought that Lady Catherine would ‘be pleased with the hermitage’.

This was the age of the ‘picturesque’, and in her novels, Jane Austen often uses people’s parks as a guide to their taste and character. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet was ‘delighted’ by the sight of Pemberley House, ‘a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned...She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste’.

And in Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is sad to hear that Mr Rushworth has already had ‘two or three fine old trees cut down’ at Sotherton and is thinking of hacking down an avenue of timber, too.

What would Jane Austen’s dream garden have looked like? Perhaps something like the one at Delaford Parsonage (Sense & Sensibility), so vividly described by Mrs Jennings: ‘A nice old fashioned place, full of comforts and conveniences; quite shut in with great garden walls that are covered with the best fruit-trees in the country; and such a mulberry tree in one corner!’ along with ‘a dove-cote, some delightful stew-ponds, and a very pretty canal; and everything, in short, that one could wish for’.

© Sue Wilkes - author of several history and genealogy books. She blogs at A Visitor's Guide to Jane Austen's England and Sue Wilkes

References:

Austen, Jane, Emma: A Novel, Richard Bentley, 1833.

Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park, Richard Bentley, 1833.

Austen, Jane, Pride & Prejudice: A Novel, Richard Bentley, 1853.

Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility: A Novel, Richard Bentley, 1833.

Austen-Leigh, J. E., A Memoir of Jane Austen..., to which is added Lady Susan, and Fragments of Two Other Unfinished Tales by Miss Austen, 2nd edition, Richard Bentley & Son, 1871.

Brabourne, Lord Edward, Letters of Jane Austen, 2 Vols., Richard Bentley & Son, 1884.

 
 

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Image (terrace at Rousham Park) credit: Sue Wilkes