Jane Austen (1775-1817) set her novels in the English countryside where she lived most of her life. Through these books, we are given first-hand glances at the place of gardening in the everyday life of these decades, when England was becoming a nation of gardens. It is clear from these images how much she was attracted to the landscape, to the farms and the natural beauties of the land.
Jane Austen's England was still an agricultural nation. We see no signs of the Industrial Revolution in her novels. Her characters lived in the country, where farming was the way of life. The gentry at this time was still largely regarded as the "landed gentry," and while it is not always easy to discern in the novels, a close look reveals that Austen's country estates were based on farms, and that many of her principle characters made their living through agriculture, either through farming their own lands (usually employing a steward or bailiff to manage the business) or leasing them to tenants. In many cases, the value of an estate was the value of the rents it received.
Mr Bennett, in Pride and Prejudice, was not a man of great fortune, and it appears that he farmed his own lands. While he owned a carriage, he was not wealthy enough to keep carriage horses; the horses who pulled it were draft horses who were otherwise used on the farm for plowing and other work."I had much rather go in the coach."
"But, my dear, your father can not spare the horses, I am sure. They are wanted in the farm, Mr Bennett, are not they?"
"They are wanted in the farm much oftener than I can get them." P&P 30-31
When the London-bred Mary Crawford came to live near Mansfield Park, she encountered difficulties in transporting her harp to her new home."I am to have it to-morrow; but how do you think it is to be conveyed? Not by a wagon or cart: oh no! nothing of that kind could be hired in the village. I might as well have asked for porters and a handbarrow."
"You would find it difficult, I dare say, just now, in the middle of a very late hay harvest, to hire a horse and cart?"
"I was astonished to find what a piece of work was made of it! To want a horse and cart in the country seemed impossible, so I told my maid to speak for one directly; and as I cannot look out of my dressing-closet without seeing one farmyard, nor walk in the shrubbery without passing another, I thought it would be only ask and have, and was rather grieved that I could not give the advantage to all. Guess my surprise, when I found that I had been asking the most unreasonable, most impossible thing in the world; had offended all the farmers, all the labourers, all the hay in the parish! As for Dr Grant's bailiff, I believe I had better keep out of his way; and my brother-in-law himself, who is all kindness in general, looked rather black upon me when he found what I had been at."
"You could not be expected to have thought on the subject before; but when you do think of it, you must see the importance of getting in the grass. The hire of a cart at any time might not be so easy as you suppose: our farmers are not in the habit of letting them out; but, in harvest, it must be quite out of their power to spare a horse." MP 58
Dr Grant, it must be noted, was not a landowner at all, but the rector of the Mansfield church. But in those days, a parish church usually had a tract of land attached to it, called a glebe, intended for the support of the clergyman, who thus became a farmer as well.
Squire Musgrove, of Uppercross, had extensive farmlands. In Persuasion, Anne Elliott takes a long autumnal country walk across the Uppercross estate to a neighbor.after another half mile of gradual ascent through large enclosures, where the ploughs at work, and the fresh made path spoke the farmer counteracting the sweets of poetical despondence, and meaning to have spring again, they gained the summit of the most considerable hill, which parted Uppercross and Winthrop, and soon commanded a full view of the latter, at the foot of the hill on the other side.
Winthrop, without beauty and without dignity, was stretched before them: an indifferent house, standing low, and hemmed in by the barns and buildings of a farm-yard. P 85
Mr Knightley's Donwell Abbey was another extensive estate devoted to agriculture, and Knightley was a hands-on farmer, very much engaged on a daily basis with his bailiff William Larkins and Robert Martin, who leased the Abbey-Mill Farm, which Emma viewed from Donwell itself.
at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey-Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.
It was a sweet view —sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culutre, English comfort . . . It might be safely viewed with all its appendages of prosperity and beauty, its rich pastures, spreading flocks, orchard in blossom, and light column of smoke ascending. E 360
Mr Knightley himself sent his apples to market at a good profit, and probably the berries from his famous strawberry beds, as well.
Kitchen Gardens and Poultry Yards
For the residents of London, carts and wagons came rolling in every morning full of fresh produce, and herds of livestock were driven to the city's butchers. For the country-dwellers, things were quite different, and most rural households had to provide their own supply of these foodstuffs. Austen's families had their own poultry yards, their own cows, their own kitchen gardens; some had a great deal more.
In Sense and Sensibility, when Elinor Dashwood married newly-minted clergyman Edward Ferrars, theyhad in fact nothing to wish for, but the marriage of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and rather better pasturage for their cows. S&S 374-5
The cows provided milk, which was made into butter and cheese, necessities of the kitchen. While visiting the palatial estate of Sotherton, Mansfield Park's parsimonious Mrs Norris "spunged" a homemade cream-cheese from the housekeeper, along with the recipe for it.
When a porker was slaughtered at Emma's estate, she charitably sent a hindquarter to the impoverished Bates family, who worried that they did not own a salting-pan large enough to hold the ham. The preservation of food was an important household task in those days before refrigeration, and the cooks in Austen's households were always on the alert for meat that was about to spoil.
When Charlotte Lucas married Mr Collins, his patron Lady Catherine de Bourghinquired into Charlotte's domestic concerns familiarly and minutely, and gave her a great deal of advice as to the management of them all; told her how everything ought to be regulated in so small a family as her's, and instructed her in the care of her cows and her poultry. P&P 163
Wealthy Colonel Brandon was considerably better off at his estate of Delaford,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! . . . Then, there is a dove-cote, some delightful stewponds, and a very pretty canal; S&S 197
Anne Elliott admired the parsonage at Uppercrossenclosed in its own neat garden, with a vine and a pear-tree trained round its casements. P 36
This fruit would certainly be gathered and preserved by the clergyman's housekeeper. It was an important part of the household food supply. When Dr Grant moved into the parsonage at Mansfield, previously occupied by Mrs Norris, he quarreled with her about the garden and the fruit trees."It was only the spring twelvemonth before Mr Norris's death, that we put in the apricot against the stable wall, which is now grown such a noble tree, and getting to such perfection, sir," addressing herself then to Dr Grant.
"The tree thrives well beyond a doubt, madam," replied Dr Grant. "The soil is good; and I never pass it without regretting, that the fruit should be so little worth the trouble of gathering."
"Sir, it is a moor park, we bought it as a moor park, and it cost us - that is, it was a present from Sir Thomas, but I saw the bill, and I know it cost seven shillings, and was charged as a moor park."
"You were imposed on, ma'am," replied Dr Grant; "These potatoes have as much the flavour of a moor park apricot, as the fruit from that tree." MP 54
When Mr Knightley charitably sent his last bushel of apples to the Bates', his housekeeper Mrs Hodgeswas quite displeased at their all being sent away. She could not bear that her master should not be able to have another apple-tart this spring. E 239
On a more opulent scale, when Elizabeth Bennett visited Mr Darcy's estate at Pemberly, servants brought ina variety of all the finest fruits of the season. . . . The beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches, soon collected them round the table. P&P 268
It is possible that some of these fruits were grown in hot-houses on the estate. Greenhouses were becoming very popular among wealthy landowners in Austen's day, for growing both fruits and flowers out of season, and exotic tropical plants that were very popular among the fashionable.
The English garden in Austen's day was anything but solely utilitarian. Every country house seemed to have its shrubbery, with gravel walks where even the most lazy or sickly would take their daily exercise. Lady Catherine condescended to refer to the Bennetts' shrubbery as"a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favour me with your company." P&P 352
At Mansfield Park, the indolent Lady Bertram"sat three quarters of an hour in the flower garden, while Fanny cut the roses, and very pleasant it was I assure you, but very hot. . . .
"Fanny has been cutting the roses, has she?"
"Yes, and I am afraid they will be the last this year. Poor thing! She found it hot enough, but they were so full blown, that one could not wait." MP 72
The fatuous Mr Collins did his own gardening work at his parsonage.Mr Collins invited them to take a stroll in the garden, which was large and well laid out, and to the cultivation of which he attended himself. To work in his 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. P&P 156
When John Dashwood inherited Norland Park, he immediately began on Improvements. The eighteenth century had seen a wave of new landscape designs sweep over the countryside, altering it profoundly. The trend for Improvements raised a certain amount of controversy. Dashwood's plans for improving Norland were not well received by his sisters, who prefered the estate as it had been in their grandfather's day."Where is the green-house to be?"
"Upon the knoll behind the house. The old walnut trees are all come down to make room for it. It will be a very fine object from many parts of the park, and the flower-garden will slope down just before it, and be exceedingly pretty. We have cleared away all the old thorns that grew in patches over the brow." S&S 226
Fanny Price was likewise unhappy when the dull but wealthy Mr Rushworth discussed his plans for improving his extensive old-fashioned estate of Sotherton by employing the landscape designer Humphry Repton, at five guineas per day."There have been two or three fine old trees cut down that grew too near the house, and it opens the prospect amazingly, which makes me think that Repton, or any body of that sort, would certainly have the avenue at Sotherton down; the avenue that leads from the west front to the top of the hill you know."
Fanny . . . now looked at him and said in a low voice, "Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does not it make you think of Cowper? 'Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.'" MP 56-57
Mary Crawford also had an opinion on the subject of Improvements:"Three years ago, the admiral, my honoured uncle, bought a cottage at Twickenham for us all to spend our summers in; and my aunt and I went down to it quite in raptures; but it being excessively pretty, it was soon found necessary to be improved; and for three months we were all dirt and confusion, without a gravel walk to step on, or a bench fit for use. I would have every thing as complete as possible in the country, shrubberies and flower gardens, and rustic seats innumerable; but it must all be done without my care." MP 57
Charles Musgrove was sure his cousin Charles Hayter would make significant improvements when he inherited."The estate at Winthrop is not less than two hundred and fifty acres, besides the farm near Taunton, which is some of the best land in the country. . . . whenever Winthrop comes into his hands, he will make a different sort of place of it."
Elizabeth Bennett had nothing but praise for the subtle improvements of Mr Darcy's great estate of Pemberly.It was 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. Elizabeth was delighted. 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. P&P 245
As Elizabeth told her aunt, half-joking, she first made up her mind to marry Mr Darcy when she saw his magnificent estate. In the world of Jane Austen, the way to a heroine's heart is through a beautiful garden and well-landscaped grounds.
References: Jane Austen, The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, R.W. Chapman, ed. (Oxford, 1966)
Sense and Sensibility = S&S
Pride and Prejudice = P&P
Mansfield Park = MP
Emma = E
Persuasion = P