“You cannot imagine – it is not in Human Nature to imagine what a nice walk we have round the Orchard. – The row of Beech look very well indeed, & so does the young Quickset hedge in the garden. – I hear today that an Apricot has been detected on one of the Trees.” - Jane Austen, Letter to her sister Cassandra, 31 May, 1811.
2013 is the 200th anniversary year of the publication of Jane Austen’s much loved Pride and Prejudice and around the world readers have been celebrating the ‘birthday’ of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. Jane Austen’s novels have never been so popular, film versions and various adaptations of her books continue to appear, and Jane Austen’s face was chosen this year to adorn a British bank-note.
Jane Austen is loved around the world for her literary output, but anyone with a love of gardens will find that her novels and letters have many references to the joy of growing things, and that throughout her life she had a keen interest in the flower and vegetable gardens attached to her various homes.
Jane Austen was born in the little village of Steventon in Hampshire in 1775. Her father was rector of the church there, but he farmed the church’s glebe lands and Mrs Austen grew vegetables for her family of eight children. Jane grew up a country woman, delighting in walks through pretty Hampshire lanes, noting the changes of the seasons on the flowers that grew around her vicarage home. Today the site where her first home once stood is just a field, but in Jane’s day there was a pretty Elm Walk, primroses, wild hyacinths, anemones, lilacs and hawthorn. Mrs Austen grew potatoes (not yet a staple part of the British diet), and there were strawberries, currants, gooseberries and many other fruits and vegetables.
Jane Austen’s next home was in Bath where the Austens lived in a succession of houses, according to what they could afford. In Bath Jane Austen missed the countryside, but she could take long walks away from the city’s smoke and dust, or she could stroll in Sydney Gardens (which can still be visited today). Townhouses in Bath usually had a small garden at the back of the property – today there is an excellent recreation of a typical Georgian town garden at the back of no.4 The Circus. The Bath Archeological Trust excavated the remains of paths and flower beds, then planted flowers and shrubs appropriate to the period, as well as neat box hedges and trellises.
From Bath, Jane, her mother and sister (her father had died) went to Southampton. Jane Austen was not terribly happy in Southampton – she had failed to get any of her writing published, there was not much money for the three women, and she was now ‘on the shelf’ as far as marriage was concerned. However, she did have the compensation of a very pretty garden during the two years she lived there. Jane and her mother supervised the planting and were proud of what they achieved. She wrote to her sister: “The shrubs which border the gravel walk he (the hired gardener) says are only sweetbriar & roses, & the latter of an indifferent sort; – we mean to get a few of the better kind, therefore, & at my own particular desire he procures us some Syringas … We talk also of a Laburnum. The border under the Terrace Wall, is clearing away to receive Currants & Gooseberry Bushes, & a spot is found very proper for Raspberries … We hear that we are envied our House by many people, & that the Garden is the best in the Town” (Letter, 8 & 21 Feb, 1807).
In 1809 Jane Austen moved to what would be her last home – Chawton, in Hampshire. Her brother Edward provided his mother and sisters with a cottage which today is the Jane Austen Museum. The ladies were delighted to be returning to the countryside to live, and Jane Austen was encouraged to get out manuscripts written years before and, after some re-writing, to send them to a publisher. In 1811 her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility appeared under the name ‘By a Lady’. Pride and Prejudice followed in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, Emma in 1815, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were both published posthumously in 1818.
In spite of being kept busy with writing, Jane Austen was never too busy to enjoy her garden. She had a shrubbery to walk in when she wanted to think over her plots, she could gather fruit from the trees trained against garden walls, there were places set aside to keep poultry and bees, and many lovely flowers to admire as they bloomed: “Our young Piony (sic) at the foot of the Fir tree has just blown and looks very handsome; & the whole of the Shrubbery Border will soon be very gay with Pinks and Sweet Williams, in addition to the Columbines already in bloom.” Tourists visiting Chawton Cottage today can admire those same flowers growing there in her memory.
Gardens are also important in her novels. Many proposals take place out of doors where lovers can find some privacy amongst the gravel walks and flower beds; garden improvements are planned by some of the characters; and her heroines all enjoy going into a garden to think. As Fanny Price of Mansfield Park remarks, “To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.” Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey falls in love with hyacinths, Marianne Dashwood has a passion for fallen leaves in an autumnal garden, while Anne Elliot is always inspired to think of poetry when enjoying the beauties of nature. Jane Austen displays an up-to-date knowledge of garden design (she refers to the work of Humphry Repton, the expensive and fashionable landscape designer, in Mansfield Park) and to fashions in garden maintenance (it was considered very trendy to employ a Scottish gardener, as Sir Walter Elliot does in Persuasion), she discusses garden structures such a ornamental temples, grottoes (sometimes complete with hermits) and ‘wildernesses’, and she reveals again and again how the design of a great property reflects on its owner. Elizabeth Bennet gains a whole new appreciation of Mr Darcy when she sees Pemberley: “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.” Gardens, in her novels, reflect good taste, or a lack of it, in those who have created them.
It is appropriate that this 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice has been celebrated horticulturally as well as in so many other ways. Two beautiful roses have been named after Jane Austen – ‘Rosa, Pride of Jane’ is a blushing pale pink rose created in her honour by the Jane Austen Society of the Netherlands, and there is ‘Pride and Prejudice’, a Harkness floribunda rose in pale peach. There is also a white English rose called ‘Winchester Cathedral’ named after the place where she is buried, and which flourishes at her former home in Chawton today.
Next time you are in England, why not visit Jane Austen’s garden and home, or the Georgian garden at Bath? And what better way is there to celebrate this important anniversary year than by reading or re-reading the immortal Pride and Prejudice!
You can read more about Jane Austen and the writing of Pride and Prejudice in my book, Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, (published by Frances Lincoln, UK, 2013, A$30). It’s available from all good bookshops, or to order a signed copy, email me.