"...before she had been five minutes within its walls...she quitted it again, stealing away through the winding shrubberies, now just beginning to be in beauty, to gain a distant eminence."
-- Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
It's hard to believe that April is here. Wasn't it just Christmas? Well, spring has truly arrived and it's always an exciting time for gardeners. Inspired by the new month, I made myself a cup of tea and pulled out some of my favorite garden books. I perused In the Garden with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson, a lovely book I bought last time I was in England. This book is about two of my favorite things: gardens and Jane Austen. Both are purveyors of so much pleasure. I should have known that someone would write a book about the two of them. I am happy to say that this book is an utter delight -- beautiful and informative. Here are some of the interesting facts I learned about the connections between Jane Austen and gardens:
Not surprisingly, Jane Austen was a garden lover. But she was also a hands-on gardener. No matter where she was living, she took an avid interest in flower gardening and kitchen gardening alike.
The Austens grew their own food whenever they could and had flower gardens in most of their homes. In Jane's letters to her sister Cassandra she writes about her ideas for the planting of fruit, flowers, and trees. At Chawton cottage they planted peas, potatoes, gooseberries, currants and strawberries. Their favorite flowers were pinks, sweet Williams, hollyhocks, and columbines. Suitably old-fashioned!
During her life, Jane visited many of the grand gardens of England, including her brother's two estates at Chawton and Godmersham and the manor houses of friends and family. Scholars have speculated that she probably saw the gardens at the great estate of Chatsworth; it was probably the inspiration for Pemberley, Darcy's magnificent estate in Pride and Prejudice.
Gardens play a big role in her novels. Every house that is mentioned includes a garden and many of Jane Austen's characters find themselves there. Gardens are places for walking, talking and scheming. They are places of peace and spiritual refreshment. And they are settings for romance, marriage proposals and weddings.
The Austen women had moved from house to house after Jane's father died in 1805, but Chawton Cottage finally provided them with a place to call home. Although the Austen family lived modestly, Jane's brother Edward became a rich man when he was adopted by the Knights, a wealthy, distantly related family who were childless and needed a male heir. He took their name, becoming Edward Austen Knight. He was generous to his mother and sisters, offering them a choice of two houses he had inherited through the Knight inheritance. They chose Chawton Cottage. Doesn't this all sound familiar? It reminds me of Emma and Sense and Sensibility. Jane was writing what she knew.
The Jane Austen House Museum is a beautifully restored interpretation of what Chawton Cottage was like when Jane Austen lived there. It is open to the public. The gardens contain examples of a working kitchen garden, espaliered fruit trees, a shrubbery, a herb garden, a rose garden, and numerous flower borders. All as it would have looked during Jane's lifetime. Inside the cottage there are family pictures, china, and furniture, including the little round table on which she wrote her novels.
After reading about Chawton Cottage, I became curious about its restoration and wondered when it happened and who was responsible. I got some answers from another garden book I love: The Writer's Garden by Jackie Bennett. Naturally there is a chapter on Jane Austen. Here is what I learned about the restoration. It is a fascinating story--
In 1940 two sisters, Dorothy and Beatrix Darnell, established the Jane Austen Society in order to rescue Chawton Cottage. However they did not receive all the money necessary for the restoration. A savior appeared in the form of Mr. T. Edward Carpenter. He bought Chawton Cottage and set up the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, opening the cottage as a museum in 1949. But in 1987 it was in a serious state of neglect. That was when an American entrepreneur and philanthropist, Sandy Lerner, stepped in and came to the rescue. An Austen fan and collector of early women's writing, she bought the lease on the house and set about restoring the house and gardens. She is responsible for its current condition. She also donated her own collection of rare books which, together with the Knight family books, created a library of 11,000 rare volumes. This became the Chawton House Library. The saga of saving the house and the people responsible could be the topic of another book! I would love to know more...
Isn't it inspiring to learn about the angels who sweep in and save important historic homes and gardens, allowing the rest of us to enjoy them. Their generosity and devotion enable us to learn about the domestic lives of some of our most beloved authors.
If you enjoy garden books, you will love In the Garden with Jane Austen and The Writer's Garden. Both of them are lovely places to escape on a spring day. They will remind you of how important gardens were in so many writers' lives.
Wishing you a lovely first week of April!