April is the time of year when I love to work in my garden, and this year, I’ve found myself longing to have a garden more like one of Jane Austen’s. In searching through her novels, I noticed with surprise that flowers are not often mentioned. In fact, there are no bouquets from Col. Brandon or Willoughby in the Sense and Sensibility book. That happens only in the movies.
Instead of flower gardens, Jane Austen writes more about the shrubbery, which would have consisted of gravel paths among bushes and trees. The shrubbery formed a sort of border for the flower and vegetable gardens. They were a private place where Bingley proposed to Jane and where Knightley proposed to Emma. At the time, people felt it was important to keep their feet dry, so gravel paths among the shrubbery were supposedly the healthiest places for walking. In Sense and Sensibility, for example, Marianne becomes violently ill after venturing out beyond the shrubbery at Cleveland.
In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherina wants to speak to Elizabeth privately, but she can’t bring herself to speak favorably of the family’s shrubbery during her late night visit to Elizabeth:
“Miss Bennet, there seemed to be 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.”
Gardens often reflected a family’s social status. Hence, a poor family would grow mostly food while a richer family would grow shrubbery and flowers as well as food.
One could judge a family’s wealth by their gardens. Thus, when Elizabeth visits Pemberley, she is awed by the peaches, nectarines, and grapes on Mr. Darcy’s table. Emma is similarly impressed by Mr. Knightley’s fine strawberries and apples. It seems that bouquets of flowers were not so impressive as a bowl of fruit.
Most of the plants in Jane Austen’s garden were not difficult to grow and are still available to buy online and at nurseries. There was also less striving for perfection in a Regency garden. Weeds were often considered wildflowers and grew alongside the rest of the plants.
Here is a list I’ve compiled of plants Jane Austen spoke of in her letters and novels. I’m hoping to grow a few of them this year:
Seeds that can be planted in early spring:
Sweet William (also known as Pinks or Dianthus)
Lilac (also known as syringa)
Mock orange bush (also known as Philadelphus)
Old-fashioned roses (including the Sweet Briar rose)