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Monday, July 5

Jane Austen and the English Country Garden

Martha Lloyd (r) was Jane Austen’s best friend. She lived with Jane in Bath, Southampton and at Chawton. She was Jane’s closest companion, probably as close to Jane as her own sister Cassandra.

Later in life, long after Jane had died, Martha became Frank Austen’s second wife after his first wife Mary had died through childbirth. She became an Austen herself. The rest of the family did not approve of this. It meant Cassandra was left to live in the cottage at Chawton on her own.

Chawton cottages and gardens

Martha kept a written record of the recipes she loved to cook. We can guess that Jane herself ate and perhaps helped prepare some of the recipes Martha recorded. Many of the ingredients would have come from their own cottage gardens especially in Southampton and Chawton.

Here is a facsimile of Martha’s handwritten recipe for a caraway cake.

Many of the ingredients for this recipe for herb pudding, below, might have come from their cottage garden.

Herb Pudding

Take a quart of grots, and steep them in warm water half an hour. Take a pound of hogs lard, and cut it into little bits. Take of spinach, beets, parsley and leeks, a handful of each; three large onions chopped small, and three sage leaves cut fine. Put in a little salt, mix all well together, and tie it close. It will require to be taken up in boiling, to loosen the string a little.

Serves 4-6

4oz/110g/1 cup self-raising flour, sifted
4oz/110g/1 cup fine oatmeal
2oz/50g/1 cup soft white breadcrumbs
5oz/150g/1 ¼ cups shredded suet or pork dripping
a good fistful of finely chopped spinach and other green leaves, including parsley and green of young leek (use enough leaves to tint the pudding)
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage or ½ teaspoon dried sage
½ teaspoon salt

Until potatoes replaced herb pudding in the every day daily diet, a plain or savoury pudding was often served with meat, especially in poorer country households. Flour and oatmeal make an easier pudding to manage than hulled, pounded oats for this basic dish.

In a letter to her sister Cassandra written on Monday 9th February 1807 from Castle Square, Jane explains:
"Our garden is putting in order, by a man who bears a remarkably good character, has a very fine complexion & asks something less than the first. The shrubs which border the gravel walk he says are only sweetbriar& roses,& the latter of an indifferent sort; - we mean to get a few of a better kind therefore,& at my own particular desire he procures us some syringes. I could not do without a syringa, for the sake of Cowper’s Line. – We talk also of a Laburnam. – The border under the Terrace Wall, is clearing away to receive currants & Gooseberry Bushes, & a spot is found very proper for Raspberries. –"

In another letter to Cassandra a few years later after they had settled into the cottage at Chawton, Jane writes to her sister about the workings of their garden.

Tony (l) and his friend Clive under the fir tree mentioned by Jane Austen in her letter.

Wednesday 29th May 1811
“The chicken are all alive,& fit for the Table – but we save them for something grand. – Some of the flower seeds are coming up very well – but your Migionette makes a wretched appearance.- Miss Benn has been equally unlucky as to hers; She had seed from 4 different people,& none of it comes up. Our young peony at the foot of the fir tree has just blown & looks handsome; & the whole of the Shrubbery Border will soon be very gay with Pinks & Sweet Williams, in addition to the Columbines already in bloom. The syringes too are coming out. – We are likely to have a crop of Orleans plums – but not many green gages – on the standard scarcely any – three or four dozen perhaps against the wall.”

Chawton Syringa

It appears that Cassandra was not a very successful gardener. Her Mignionettes were making a "wretched" appearance. Later on the 31st May of the same year Jane appears to take a wicked delight in announcing to Cassandra,
“I will not say that your mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive. We will have pease soon…”

Chawton Dog Rose

and so Jane moved swiftly on. Can we imagine how Cassandra felt?

In Martha’s recipes and in Jane’s letters to Cassandra the herbs, flowers and fruits discussed are all elements of what might be termed the traditional English Cottage Garden. We are lucky to have many examples today in villages across Britain.
Jane's Garden

It could be argued that the traditional English Cottage Garden is thriving. To think about it’s future; it has a massive roll in promoting the green credentials we would all like to have these days promoting the survival of our planet. It could be that The English Country garden’s greatest time is still to come.

Cottages and gardens at Chawton

The traditional cottage garden is an informal affair. The first impression you get when looking at one is of the use of traditional materials such as local bricks and natural local stone. The impression is also one of dense planting and much foliage and when in bloom masses of colour. You also get the impression that the cottage or house within the garden and the garden itself are transforming into each other, becoming part of each other.

Shere Cottages and Shrubs

These gardens are meant to be homely and functional. They developed over centuries out of the working class farm workers cottages. These farm workers cottage gardens provided a whole variety of food, medicines, dyes and materials for essential crafts. Every bit of these gardens had a purpose. They were not designed to look and smell beautiful. That was a fortunate side effect.

Shere Wall and Garden

We are all beginning to realise our planet is an integrated living organism. If one part is damaged then it has an effect on all the other elements that go to make up our wonderful world and ultimately it affects us. A country garden was an integrated world too. There has always been an emphasise on vegetables and fruit trees for food, but the many species of wild flowers you find in these gardens are often used to attract bees and beehives are a feature too. Honey is a great sweetener and it’s good for you. Livestock such as chickens, ducks and geese might be kept within a country garden. Jane discusses the chickens in their garden with Cassandra.
Beatrix Potter, Jemima and Foxgloves

Traditional country gardens might have a rose bowered gateway. Flowers of different colours, heights and bloomage too, would be included such as hollyhocks, pansies, and delphiniums.. Old rambling roses would be included and simple flowers like daisies. There would have been many varieties of herbs that could not only be used in cooking but were also used to make medicines and varieties of wine, tea and beers.

Standard Roses at Chawton

The hedges surrounding a garden were just as important. They were intended originally to keep other livestock out and for privacy but they were often constructed of shrubs and trees that provided stuff for the larder. Hawthorn leaves made a tasty snack or tea while the hawthorn flowers were used for making wine. The elderberry provided berries for food and wine. The leaves of the elderberry can be fried in batter or made into lotions and ointments. The wood from these hedges could be used to make toys, pegs, skewers and fishing rods.

Gertrude Jekyll

An English gardener, called Gertrude Jekyll, in the late 1800s promoted the natural development of the country garden in her designs and books. She was influenced by the ideas of William Morris the leader of the arts and crafts movement and one of the leading lights of the Pre Raphaelite movement in art. One of her books on gardening, Colour in the Flower Garden (1908) is still in print today.
A Gertrude Jekyll garden

Many of the gardens she designed in Kent, Sussex and Surrey are still tended and kept to her original designs. If I tell you that one of her methods was to stand with her back to a border and chuck a handful of mixed seeds over her shoulder, well who hasn’t, you’ve got to like that style of gardening. She felt she was giving nature a little nudge.

Helen Allingham (1848 – 1926, above) was an artist who loved to draw and paint country gardens. Her pictures seem somewhat idealised but they are generally true to an authentic country garden.

Allingham, The Basket

Also Beatrix Potter, who was at heart an illustrator, often drew country gardens as backgrounds to her characters. Jemima Puddleduck was essentially a duck being fattened up to eat and was bred in a cottage garden for that purpose.

As an aside, I was once on a flight from San Francisco to New York. I sat next to a very nice gentleman who introduced himself to me. He asked me very earnestly if it was true the English grew their own vegetables in their gardens. I told him that it was for some a hobby for others they liked to get close to nature and that it was a very satisfying thing to grow your own produce. He replied that he was a farmer who grew vegetables and fruit in California and if ever that quaint hobby ever took off in the States he would be finished. He thought it quite a joke that we would want to do that. I wonder who is going to get the last laugh!!!!!!


Some useful links:
Posted by Tony Grant, London Calling


Eliza Martin said...

I disapprove of the Austen family's disapproval of Martha and Frank getting married. Come on, hadn't they read Jane's books at all? The entire point was that sometimes love wasn't easy or convenient.

Meredith R. said...

What a fabulous series of photos, Tony. I especially love the one of the doorway with the climbing roses. And, btw, is Clive single?

Cranberry Morning said...

I love the photos. English gardens and cottages are like a fairytale to me, and why I love visiting England!

As far as the recipes, I think it's more proof of why the English aren't known for their cuisine. ;-) But hey, you can't be good at everything, now can you! I mean, the castles, abbeys, gardens, cottages, sheep, ales, etc. are so wondrous that I could settle (and often have done) for a small bag lunch while touring the countryside!

Nonna said...

Lovely post Tony !

I find it rather silly that the Austen's disapproved of Martha and Frank marrying. Maybe it wasn't exactly passionate love that brought them together but more practical concerns. Did she have any money of her own ?...if not, I guess that was the main sticking point !

I am from a long line of gardeners. My great grandma was a farmer's wife in Nova Scotia, Canada and mother of 12 children. They gardened and farmed to survive !!! My Nana ( her daughter ) had a fab garden when I was growing up in the heart of the Los Angeles suburbs. ( and a Victory Garden during WWII )She had orange and lemon trees, carrots, tomatoes, berries, corn, salad makings etc. and my working with her in her garden brings back wonderful childhood memories. My parents had a delicious garden also, full of fresh produce and melons...the biggest, sweetest watermelons I ever ate !

I think every child should know how to grow things that sustain and preserve life and tend a garden.Watching things grow as you work a garden connects you to our beautiful earth and God who created it all !

Raquel said...


I imagine all England as a huge and lovely garden.

Well, at least dear Hampshire!

TONY said...

Thank you everyone for your kind comments.

Meredith, Clive is an old school friend of mine who now lives in Hamilton, Ontario. He is married and has two children.SORRY!!!!

It does seem mean that the Austen family disapproved of Martha's marriage to Frank. It was a marriage of convenience by the way. She became a sort of glorified house keeper and looked afetr his children which is sad in itself. Where's LOVE when you want it?????

Vic said...

Tony, I keep coming back to this post loving the images of the cottages and gardens. Today we have 105 degrees forecast and the potted annuals in my garden have fried to death. (No amount of water can save them in this cruel heat.)

Thank you for the refreshing visuals.

Gerri said...

What a refreshing read at the end of a long, challenging day. Thanks!