Gardening like Jane
With the May rains behind us, I have taken a break from writing/revising to dig into my garden (pun intended). There are very few things in the world I find as therapeutic as working with plants and earth. It got me thinking about what gardening would have been like for Jane Austen. Did she also emerge from the confines of winter with an enthusiasm for soil and greenery?
We may find it hard to picture a Regency lady getting her hands dirty, but Jane’s mother was not afraid to do just that. In Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends, we learn from a Miss Lefroy that, at the age of nearly seventy, Mrs. Austen kept busy “in gardening and needlework. The former was, with her, no idle pastime, no mere cutting of roses and tying up of flowers. She dug up her own potatoes, and I have no doubt she planted them, for the kitchen garden was as much her delight as the flower borders, and I have heard my mother say that when at work, she wore a green round frock like a day-labourer's."
Besides growing their own vegetables and herbs, the family would have sought to create a cottage garden for their enjoyment, and - to be honest - as an opportunity to show off their domestic status. Just as promenading in a carriage had as much to do with displaying wealth as it did exercise, the garden was an opportunity to landscape your way into public admiration.
We are not surprised, therefor, to hear Jane boast of their garden in Southampton. “We hear that we are envied our House by many people, & that the Garden is the best in the Town.”
[the "Jane Austen" rose]
Austen described herself as a “desperate” walker, willing to brave roads made dirty by the weather. But when conditions did not favor a longer outing, even for the stout of heart, the shrubbery was a pleasant consolation. A quick turn about the shrubbery was a favorite of Austen’s, and we find references to this, not only in her books, but also in her letters to her sister Cassandra.
In May 1811 Austen writes: "The whole of the shrubbery border will soon be very gay with pinks and sweet-Williams, in addition to the columbines already in bloom. The syringas, too, are coming out.” “You cannot imagine - it is not in human nature to imagine - what a nice walk we have round the orchard. The rows of beech look very well indeed, and so does the young quickset hedge in the garden. I hear to-day that an apricot has been detected on one of the trees."
According to Kim Wilson, "People in Jane Austen's time thought that wet feet could quickly kill you, and the shrubberies usually had nice, dry, gravel paths that were seen as healthy places to exercise. They also provided some privacy, a place where people could walk and talk without being overheard." Hence, many an intimate declaration of love or secret confrontation in Austen’s novels occurred in the shrubbery.
The Austen sisters were very hands-on when it came to planning the layout of the land surrounding their home. Decisions involved whether to plant trees or a small orchard, and which flowers showed best. In her choices, Austen was influenced by, among other things, beloved literature. Syringa [lilac] and laburnum were considered purely because Cowper (one of her favorite poets) wrote of them.
“The shrubs which border the gravel walk, he says are only sweetbriar and roses, and the latter of an indifferent sort; we mean to get a few of a better kind, therefore, and at my own particular desire he procures us some syringas. I could not do without a syringa, for the sake of Cowper's line. We talk also of a laburnum. The border under the terrace wall is clearing away to receive currants and gooseberry bushes, and a spot is found very proper for raspberries.”
That Austen felt an emotional connection to her garden is clear when a violent storm decimates their last elm tree.
"We have had a dreadful storm of wind in the fore part of this day, which has done a great deal of mischief among our trees. I was sitting alone in the dining-room when an odd kind of crash startled me; in a moment afterwards it was repeated. I then went to the window, which I reached just in time to see the last of our two highly-valued elms descend into the Sweep!!!! The other, which had fallen, I suppose, in the first crash, and which was the nearest to the pond, taking a more easterly direction, sank among our screen of chestnuts and firs, knocking down one spruce fir, beating off the head of another, and stripping the two corner chestnuts of several branches in its fall. This is not all. One large elm, out of the two on the left-hand side as you enter what I call the elm walk, was likewise blown down; the maple bearing the weathercock was broke in two, and what I regret more than all the rest is, that all the three elms which grew in Hall's meadow, and gave such ornament to it, are gone; two were blown down, and the other so much injured that it cannot stand. I am happy to add that no greater evil than the loss of trees has been the consequence of the storm in this place, or in our immediate neighbourhood. We grieve therefore in some comfort."
I shared Austen’s profound sense of loss when the 2020 derecho ripped massive branches from my maples, leaving their trunks wounded and their appearance unbalanced. I remember standing in my garden and mourning the hurt to my cherished trees. To know that Austen experienced such a connection to her trees as I do, deepens my appreciation of her.
And so, I dig and prune and weed and plant, and picture Jane admiring my lilacs, columbines and perfumed roses. For, according to Jean Bowden, these are the flowers that were common in her lifetime, along with cornflowers, Sweet Williams and Hollyhocks.
There is satisfaction in meeting the Jane that goes beyond her books, beyond balls and carriage rides, witty dialogue and careful prose. The Jane who sends her heart into the earth, feels its pain, and celebrates its blooms, is the Jane Austen I admire most of all.
[Chawton House, Jane Austen's last home]
 Constance Hill, 2008  Jane Austen’s letters, Fourth Edition, Collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 21 February 1807  Jane Austen’s letters, Fourth Edition, Collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 30 November 1800  Jane Austen’s letters, Fourth Edition, Collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 29 May 1811  Jane Austen’s letters, Fourth Edition, Collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 31 May 1811  In the Garden with Jane Austen, 2011  Jane Austen’s letters, Fourth Edition, Collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 8 February 1807  Jane Austen’s letters, Fourth Edition, Collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 9 November 1800 Excerpted from "Living in Chawton Cottage" by Jean Bowden, JASNA Persuasions #12, 1990, Pages 79-86