Sometimes you find Jane Austen connections in the strangest places!
Last month I was re-reading a book I received seven years ago, called Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. No, I am not a wanna-be botanist, nor was I running short of reading material. 🙂 You see, my grandfather worked for a banana company in Central America, and my father and his sisters grew up around banana plantations in Honduras, so I was looking for background information on their lives. Instead I found other information that fascinated me.
Imagine my delight when I read the following sentences: “[banana plants] . . were purchased by the sixth Duke of Devonshire, who had his own affinity for exotic fauna, growing specimens in his private greenhouses at Chatsworth, a sprawling landholding in Derbyshire that is now part of Britain’s Peak District National Park. The property has been occupied by the family since the sixteenth century, and today is home to the twelfth duke. He shares a name with Chatsworth’s fifth master: Cavendish.”
What? My lowly breakfast fruit comes from Chatsworth, the home Jane Austen used as a model for Pemberley? Bananas might have been grown by Mr. Darcy? The idea was enough to drive a Jane Austen loving fruit addict -well, bananas! I peeled a piece of my favorite fruit, kept reading, and did some online research as well.
The Duke of Devonshire was far from the first person in England to see or eat a banana. The earliest banana “sighting” in England comes from archaeologists who found a banana skin in a old cesspit in London, dating back to around 1500. How did it get there? Perhaps via a Portugese trader, coming back from one of his oriental trade routes. Who ate it? We will never know.
The next time bananas entered the record in England was in 1633, when a certain Thomas Johnson, the “father of British field botany” (apparently this is a thing-who knew?), put them on display for sale in his store window in London. Supposedly they came from Bermuda, but how they could have arrived from Bermuda before completely rotting away in the hull of a ship is a mystery. (Did the ship set sail from tropical Bermuda and go right into a British winter???) They were periodically offered for sale after that in England, but they were hard to find and always sold at high prices.
Then came William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who acquired a banana plant or two from the country of Mauritius in 1836. He had them cultivated in his conservatory at Chatsworth, as the book I was reading described, and eventually sent specimens to locations in the Caribbean. There they became known as Cavendish bananas.
For many years Cavendish bananas were ignored and overlooked. They were just one of many varieties of banana being grown in Latin America and around the world. Even after bananas began to be produced on huge plantations and exported in massive quantities, they were not Cavendish bananas, the fruit we know and love today. Instead, the Gros Michel variety of bananas predominated the market until the mid 1940’s. But entire plantations of Gros Michel bananas were being quickly wiped out by a nasty fungus, and the future of this wonderful fruit was in doubt. The world needed a better banana! Someone noticed that Cavendish bananas withstood the fungus better, and soon banana companies began switching over to the lesser known variety, Breakfasts all over the world were saved. Today, bananas sold in your grocery store are the Cavendish variety, thanks to the resourceful Duke of Devonshire.
If you visit Chatsworth today you can see the banana plants on display in the conservatory. These are clones of the original plants cultivated by William Cavendish, and the family still enjoys harvesting and eating the fruit from them every so often. And if you are really, really interested in the history and (possible) future of the banana, or if you want to learn more about a fruit that Darcy might have cultivated in his private greenhouse, you can check out the links below.
And now, BREAKING NEWS: I will be deeply discounting most of my books at various times throughout the holiday season! The first book going on countdown will be Mr. Darcy’s Persistent Pursuit, the first book I wrote and the first in the Longbourn Unexpected series. The sale starts on December 9th and lasts for a week, so make a note now! And keep an eye on my Amazon page to catch the other titles when they go on sale!