Thursday, 18 May 2017

Mistress: A Pride and Prejudice Variation

It's a pleasure to welcome Sophie Turner, to discuss the matter of Jane Austen's widows; don't forget to comment for your chance to win a copy of Sophie's book!


Thank you so much for hosting me here, Catherine! I’m really excited to do my first guest post on your blog and share what it was like to write Elizabeth as a widow in my new book Mistress: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, with Parts Not Suitable for Those Who Have Not Reached Their Majority.

Mistress is a story that essentially ate my brain over the course of November, 2015, to the point where I almost unofficially did National Novel Writing Month (the story at that time fell short of true novel length, but in the time since, the gaps left during that flurry of initial writing have been filled in).

I had been considering writing a Pride and Prejudice variation with more adult content for some time, but I wanted it to be something different than what we often see in this genre and in romance generally – the experienced man and the virgin young lady. In order to do that without giving her some sort of ruinous present or past, that meant Elizabeth needed to be a widow.

But making her a widow created its own set of complexities that I needed to work through. Austen’s work includes an array of widows: Would Elizabeth be left near genteel destitution, like Mrs. Bates? Would she revel in her position, money, and power, a la Lady Catherine de Bourgh? She certainly didn’t seem the type to become a scheming Lady Susan, but perhaps circumstances would have required her to do so. Circumstances could even have required her to follow Mrs. Clay’s arc, and become a mistress.

None of these was quite the path I took Elizabeth down. Yes, Mistress does encompass both meanings of the word, but not in a Mrs. Clay or Lady Susan sort of manner.

The thing about widows during that time was that they could run a full gamut, from those who had married for financial security and entirely lost it after the death of their husbands, to those who possessed complete security and freedom. This was a time when any fortune and property a woman possessed went to her husband upon their marriage, and when women themselves were considered to be the property of their husbands. This makes marriage sound rather unappetizing, but married women at least had greater freedom to travel and to be in the company of men than unmarried women.

Truly the most free, in Georgian society, was the widow who had been left in good financial circumstances. She had control of her own money, she could be alone in the company of a gentleman, she could correspond with a gentleman without being engaged to him, and she could even embark upon an affair with minimal consequences, provided she was discreet. When Mr. Darcy takes a widowed Elizabeth out driving in his phaeton for several days in a row, there is no scandal, merely gossip to feed the rumor mill. This would have been very different for a Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

And it was this sort of widow I wanted Elizabeth to be – one with power, fortune, and control over her own choices. She is a rarity in that she is a young and beautiful widow with these things: death due to childbirth made widowers of her age far more common than widows. With the Longbourn estate now in her hands, she does not need to – indeed, she adamantly does not intend to – remarry. She’s had a very miserable time of it in her first marriage, having been required to submit to the will of someone who does not respect or appreciate her.

All of this means that even the deepest love may not be enough to compel her to marry, and I found this gave her courtship with Darcy a different power dynamic. She has a secure future, and control of her own life, which brings a great degree of risk to any prospect of remarrying. Yes, Darcy still has Pemberley to offer, but this is a different offer to a woman worth 40,000 pounds (the value of Longbourn), rather than 1,000 pounds. Once marriage vows were said in that era, they were generally for life: only the rich could afford divorce, and even then, it was quite scandalous and could only be brought forward by the husband.

That, in itself, makes widowhood very different during this era than it is today. In the Georgian era, while there were, of course, beloved spouses who died, the death of a spouse was the easiest (and for most the only) way to escape a bad marriage. Such is the case for Elizabeth, whose knees give out upon learning of her husband’s death; this is mistaken by the neighbourhood as a collapse in grief, not relief. Elizabeth may not hold Lady Susan’s callous attitude towards the death of a spouse, but she still feels the benefit of it.

Darcy certainly has his work cut out for him. In order to win Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, he has to win so many facets of her: her heart, mind, soul – and yes, body. The latter, as the adult-ness of this story indicates, proves to be the most challenging. And yet, because Elizabeth is a widow, this is far less scandalous than it would have been if she was unmarried. Instead of the experienced man and the virgin young lady, we have a well-read-but-minimally-experienced man and an experienced-but-it-was-a-bad-experience lady.

Will Darcy succeed, and convince her to embark upon a second marriage? The answer to that is at the core of Mistress.

Readers interested in learning more about the widows and widowers depicted in all of Austen’s works should give a read to this excellent analysis.

And readers interested in winning your choice of either the ebook or paperback of Mistress should comment below! Two winners will be randomly selected from the comments.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Jane Austen Project

It's a delight to welcome Kathleen Flynn, author of The Jane Austen Project, for a delve into the lives of Regency servants!


When I got the idea to write about some time travelers who go in search of Jane Austen, one concern was how her world would strike someone not native to it. What was the texture of everyday existence, and how could I depict it? 
One crucial difference is how so many tasks of daily life – heating and lighting our homes, keeping our bodies and our clothes clean, getting food on the table – have become infinitely less laborious in our world. We have electricity and running water; they had servants, at least people wealthy enough to afford them did. And even those pretty far down the economic ladder, like the Bates household in Emma, would have had at least a maid of all work. That would seem strange to many of us today -- having people around all the time who know such intimate details of your personal habits. True, lots of relatively well-off families have a nanny, or someone who comes by to clean the house, but this must have been considerably more intense. They’d be emptying your chamber pot, overhearing your conversations at dinner.  
How would my time travelers handle this? Arrived in 1815, they are posing as wealthy newcomers to London, an orphaned brother and sister in their 30s who have sold their family’s coffee plantation in Jamaica. When I visited house museums of the period, I tried to envision their house, and wondered about their imaginary servants. How many would they need; how would the household tasks be divided? And since they don’t know anyone and cannot get recommendations through word of mouth, how will they find them? What were servants paid, and how often? Did they all generally live in the house with their masters, even in town? 

I spent pleasant hours in the reading room of the New York Public Library with volumes like Housekeeping in the 18th Century and The British Abigail, but felt I was still nibbling around the edges of facts I needed. Then a blog post by a writer of historical fiction sent me on the trail of an out-of-print book not in NYPL’s collection, which I was able to find used through Amazon. 

When The Complete Servant arrived in the mail, I couldn’t believe my luck. A 1989 reprint of a work first published in 1825, it was written by two retired servants who’d started as footboy and maid-of-all-work, rising through the service ranks all the way to the top: house-steward and housekeeper. In its own time it was a guide both to servants and their employers, some of whom would have been new to wealth, unsure how to manage a household as large as the one they found themselves in charge of. For someone in the early 21st century trying to imagine domestic life of 200 years earlier, it was solid gold. 

After a modern introduction by a professor of economic and social history, there’s the original introduction by the co-authors with some heartfelt advice to both employer: “The mistress of a family will always recollect that, in all cases, the welfare and good character of her household depends on her own active superintendence” and employee: “The virtue of silence is highly commendable, and will contribute greatly to your ease and prosperity.”  

Then we get a series of chapters on each kind of servant, starting with the housekeeper and ending with the under gardener, dealing with, among others, the kitchen maid, the lady’s maid, the young lady’s maid, the servant of all work, the butler, the under butler, the valet, the footman and the hall porter – 33 such chapters, outlining the duties of each and the typical salary range. Of course, only the grandest houses would require 33 kinds of servants, so the book also suggests how some jobs may combine, like “Groom and Valet, or Footman.” 

Interspersed with descriptions of the servants’ duties is practical advice relevant to the job in question. The part devoted to the “Chamber Nurse” (which was not a full-time servant, but someone called in at times of illness) has sections on how to get rid of warts, how to “extinguish fires which may have caught the clothes” (a serious danger in a world of open flames and long cotton skirts) and “A method of restoring life to the apparently drowned.” The cook’s chapter has a list of “principal herbs, or vegetables used in English salads” (a sophisticated lineup including sorrel, watercress and chervil) and recipes for various sauces. It has advice about managing the fire: “Judicious cooks will perform their culinary operations with much less coal than those who erroneously believe that the greater the fire, the greater the dispatch.”

At this, and at many other points, I was struck by what a large array of practical skills have been effectively lost to time, though we like to imagine ourselves as much more advanced than the people of 1815.  Who could even start a fire with a flint and steel today, let alone cook an entire meal with the unpredictable heat of an open hearth? Impossible not to be amazed by all these forgotten people, our ancestors in possession of their now-forgotten skills, who kept the drawing rooms warm, the horses fed and shod, the wool carded, the butter churned and the stagecoaches running.

And this is not the end to the glories of The Complete Servant. Tables at the beginning offer guidance as to how many and what kind of servants one might be expected to have, according to a family’s income and size. My time travelers had to be wealthy enough to interest the gregarious London banker Henry Austen as potential customers as well as friends, yet not so rich that he would consider them too grand to introduce to his sister Jane, when she came to visit him in the fall of 1815. In the £1000 to £1500 annual income range, maybe, thus requiring something like:  “Four Females and three Men; viz -- A Cook, Two Housemaids, a Nursey-Maid or Other Female Servant; a Coachman, Footman, and a Man to assist in the Stable and Garden.”

Jane Austen’s novels are notable for being faithful to small details of everyday life and yet not getting bogged down in them. Her contemporary readers would have immediately grasped the significance of, say, Henry Crawford owning a barouche in Mansfield Park vs. Henry Tilney having a curricle in Northanger Abbey. (I would think of it as something like a Land Rover vs. a Mini-Cooper convertible.) They would have understood why Mrs. Norris of Mansfield Park was so pleased with the housekeeper at Sotherton because she did not serve wine at the second table and turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns. (The second table was where the lower-ranking servants ate. To me, the most fascinating implication of this was that Sotherton’s more important servants apparently did expect wine with their meals. White gowns indicate that the housemaids were imitating the fashions of those above them in social rank, a tendency The Complete Servant also sternly warns against.) But even though most modern readers would miss such nuances, their enjoyment of Jane Austen’s wit and psychological insight is not decreased.
Anyone writing a story set in the distant past faces knows the challenge of capturing the flavor of its strangeness without over-describing. In my excitement after discovering The Complete Servant, I put in a great detail of fascinating (to me at least) details about household management that some early readers gently pointed out were excessive, and slowing down the action. I went back and took most of them out. Yet I had a sense I’d not before, of feeling more firmly anchored in the world of 1815, of having a sense of the world beyond the page. I can only hope readers will too.

The Jane Austen Project, due out on May 2, 2017, is available as an e-book, a paperback, and an audiobook. Here are some buy links:
On Twitter at @AustenProject, on the web at and on Facebook at Email newsletter signup at

About the author
Kathleen A. Flynn grew up in tiny Falls Village, Conn., the daughter of an electrician and a kindergarten teacher. Currently a copy editor at The New York Times and resident of Brooklyn, Flynn has taught English in Hong Kong, washed dishes on Nantucket, and is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. The Jane Austen Project is her first novel.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Essentials of Georgian Landscape Gardening

It's a delight to welcome an old friend back to the salon today; please do enjoy this look at the essentials of Georgian Landscape Gardening by Claire Cock-Starkey.

I'll be posting a full review of Claire's marvellous new book, The Golden Age of the Garden, later this month but, with half the book still to go, I'm delighted to report that it's another wonderful, essential read!


The Essentials of Georgian Landscape Gardening

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a golden era of garden design in England – the Renaissance formal gardens with their elaborate geometric hedges, clipped lawns and ordered planting made way for the more naturalistic style of the landscape garden. Designers such as William Kent, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton, inspired by nature, transformed the English landscape.
During the Georgian period the English garden became a subject for intellectual debate, with writers and thinkers discussing the national landscape. Thomas Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening (1770) was one of the most influential tomes on English gardening, helping to frame the ideas of the landscape garden:
‘Gardening, is the perfection to which it has been lately brought in England, is entitled to a place of considerable rank among the liberal arts. It is as superior to landskip [landscape] painting, as a reality to a representation: it is an exertion of fancy, a subject for taste; and being released now from the restraints of regularity, and enlarged beyond purposes of domestic convenience, the most beautiful, the most simple, the most noble scenes of nature are all within its province: for it is no longer confined to spots from which it borrows its name, but regulates also the disposition and embellishments of a park, a farm, or a riding; and the business of a gardener is to select and to apply whatever is great, elegant, or characteristic in any of them; to discover and to shew all the advantages of the place upon which he is employed; to supply its defects, to correct its faults, and to improve its beauties. For all these operations, the objects of nature are still his only materials.’
Uvedale Price 

Essayist Uvedale Price (1747–1829) and artist, cleric and writer William Gilpin (1724–1804) were both preoccupied with the idea of the picturesque, a recently coined term which at that time applied to a view which might invite the landscape painter to capture it. Uvedale Price considered many aspects of nature in his An Essay on the Picturesque (1796):
 ‘Among trees, it is not the smooth young beech, or the fresh and tender ash, but the rugged old oak, or knotty wych elm, that are picturesque; nor is it necessary they should be of great bulk; it is sufficient if they are rough, mossy, with a character of age, and with sudden variations in their forms. The limbs of huge trees, shattered by lightning or tempestuous winds, are in the highest degree picturesque; but whatever is caused by those dreaded powers of destruction, must always have a tincture of the sublime.’ 
With this background of intellectual discussion on the nature of beauty many contemporary gardeners took these ideas and began to apply them to gardening, ushering in a style more sympathetic to nature, and yet carefully planned to lend variety and interest. One of the innovations which characterises Georgian era gardens was the use of the ha, ha!:
‘The capital stroke, the leading step to all that has followed, was (I believe first thought was Bridgman’s) the destruction of walls for boundaries, and the invention of fossès – an attempt then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them Ha! Ha’s! to express their surprize at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk . . . I call a sunk fence the leading step, for these reasons. No sooner was this simple enchantment made, than levelling, mowing and rolling, followed. The contiguous ground of the park without the sunk fence was to be harmonized with the lawn within; and the garden in its turn was to be set free from its prim regularity, that it might assort with the wilder country without.’
 – The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening by Horace Walpole (1780)
By opening up the views to the fields beyond it allowed the garden to become part of a wider landscape. This idea informed the design of the garden itself with serpentine paths allowing the visitor to wander through the garden, greeted with a new vista at every turn.
The Georgian landscape garden although inspired by nature it was very much planned by man. A fashion for building ruined follies, secluded hermitages and decaying bridges persisted, providing moments of drama in the garden or places of contemplation. Bodies of water were also popular, from a modest fountain to the dramatic cascades and jet d’eaus seen at gardens such as Chatsworth.
Trees were planted in groves, belts and clumps (something Uvedale Price took great dislike for, remarking somewhat churlishly ‘But the great distinguishing feature of modern improvement, is the clump; whose name if the first letter was taken away, would most accurately describe its form and effect.’). The effect of planting trees in this way was to delineate the garden and draw the eye, great thought went into the planting of these groves and clumps, ensuring variety of form and colour.
Landscape gardening reflects the Georgian’s changing relationship with the national landscape – no longer did people want unnatural and artful formal gardens, instead they wanted large open parks, ridings and ornamented farms which allowed visitors to meander at their leisure. Landscape gardens provided an idealised version of English pastoral scenes, a style which has proved enduring as attested by the famed gardens at Chatsworth, Blenheim, Painshill and Stowe which still reflect their Georgian designs.

The Golden Age of the Garden by Claire Cock-Starkey published by Elliott & Thompson is released on 4 May 2017. 

Picture credits: Portrait (c. 1799), oil on canvas, of Sir Uvedale Price, 1st Baronet (1747–1829), by Sir Thomas Lawrence, (1769–1830)

Engraving of Painshill by William Woolett, 1760s

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Criminal Conversation and a Tale of Banking

It's a pleasure to welcome back Alison Botterill, with a tale of 18th century adultery...
THE TIMES 25TH July 1789

Court of King’s Bench
Criminal Conversation

Thursday was tried before Lord Kenyon, and a special Jury, a cause wherein Mr. Hutchinson was the plaintiff and a Mr. Burford, defendant. The action was brought to recover satisfaction in damages for criminal conversation with the plaintiff’s wife.

Mr Erskine, counsel for the plaintiff, displayed his much admired abilities in opening the cause, which, he said, contained a case of gross seduction by a man whose age left him without the plea of juvenile passion; which, though no justification, was, under some circumstances, admitted in extenuation of the crime of adultery. His client, he said, had been married for several years; and before the defendant broke in upon his domestic peace, lived very happily with his wife; a lady distinguished for her personal beauty and polite accomplishments.

It appeared by the evidence, that the plaintiff’s wife was about 23 years of age, and the defendant forty; that the plaintiff’s family consisted of himself, his wife and child; that no improper behaviour was ever discovered from the plaintiff towards his wife, but that they lived together as happily as men and their wives commonly do; that the defendant having come to live next door to the plaintiff, soon found means to ingratiate himself into the favour of the lady, which he effected by making her several presents, and by conducting himself towards her with the most studied politeness; the love of admiration proved favourable to his purpose, and on the 28th of May, a criminal intercourse was discovered by a female servant of the plaintiff; the defendant afterwards took her away in a hackney coach, hired a lodging, in which they slept together two nights.

Mr. Bearcroft, on behalf of the defendant, commenced an able speech, by saying he had no witness to examine, but should deliver his client over to the mercy of the Jury.  He reminded them that there was no evidence of a seduction. He observed it was a little extraordinary, that though the scene of action lies in Middlesex, the cause should be tried in the city. Why the plaintiff should conceive that the grave and sober citizen were better judges in cases of adultery, than the people at the west end of the town, he was at a loss to discover. He made many pointed observations in mitigation of damages.

Lord Kenyon made a most excellent and solemn address to the Jury. His Lordship said, that although these causes were apt to produce a momentary smile upon the countenances of the audience, yet every many capable of reflection, must feel them to be of the highest importance to the welfare of the community. Adultery was one of the greatest injuries man could do to man; it raised the most distressing doubts relative to his children, and introduced into the cup of life the bitterest of all ingredients. No human tribunal could restore peace to the wounded mind. The Jury were to consider the present case, and apportion their damages accordingly.

The Jury found a verdict for the plaintiff – Damages two hundred pounds.


Continuing our genealogical research into our Burford family, my sister and I discovered another sorry tale, this time about Thomas Burford, a clerk at the Bank of England.   In 1789 he appeared as the defendant at the Court of the King’s Bench, in the Guildhall, London, before Lord Justice Kenyon for ‘a criminal connection’ with the wife of the plaintiff, John Hutchinson, a brewer’s clerk, from Mile End, who worked for Charrington & Co.   

Thomas was born in 1749 and we believe he was the son of the Reverend Samuel Burford, minister at the Strict Baptist Chapel in Little Prescott Street, Goodman’s Fields, Whitechapel.   Rev. Burford, who had been minister at Lyme Regis before being invited to London, died suddenly in 1768 leaving a wife and eleven young children, who were then supported by members of the congregation including one of the church’s deacons, Stephen Williams, of the Poultry in the City of London, a wealthy linen draper with businesses both in the City and in Stratford, Essex.   

In 1775 Thomas married a widow, Elizabeth Binley, who died only 5 years later.   There do not appear to have been any children of that marriage.   Two years after her death, Bank of England records [now available free online] show that Thomas joined the Bank as a clerk at an annual salary of £50.   The records also show that Stephen Williams, along with another wealthy London merchant, Andrew Jordaine, stood surety for Thomas, each for the sum of £500.  

Thomas’s misdemeanours first came to light while we were researching the Burford and Williams families’ connection with the Little Prescott Street chapel, and we read in one of the chapel’s original minute books, held at the Baptist Archive in Dunstable, that on 1st July 1789 it had become necessary to reprimand one of their number, Thomas Burford ‘of the Bank’, who had, ‘by his own confession, a criminal intercourse with a married woman’.   Further research led us to the press report which appeared in The Times on 25th July 1789.   

Then came a chance discovery of finding that Thomas’s story had been included in a recent book ‘Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours’ by Emily Cockayne, who very kindly supplied me with a copy of the law report which went into far more detail than had appeared in The Times.   John Hutchinson’s wife, Mary, was born in 1767, the daughter of a nurseryman and seedman, John Hay, of Leytonstone. She married John Hutchinson at St Mary Le Bow in 1783 when still a ‘minor’ and was described in the law report as ‘a lady distinguished for her beauty and polite accomplishments’, and possessed of considerable property.   They had 3 children, but only one living, although the report mentions ‘his two other children’, so it’s possible he was married before despite being described as a bachelor when he married Mary. 

The report went on to say that any misconduct on her part was solely due to the ‘profligacy of the defendant’, who lived next door, ingratiating himself with her as often as he could during the day when her husband was at work.  He even followed the couple when they moved house.   It does not explain however, how, as a bank clerk, he was able to be away from work as much as he appeared to have been.  The servant’s testimony goes into great detail of what she saw and heard, including Burford ‘making free with her [mistress’s] petticoats’!   She confirmed that her master and mistress had lived together harmoniously until Thomas’s seduction of her mistress and their ‘elopement’, taking with them with several items of furniture belonging to her master.

The affair could not have lasted long.   After living with Thomas, who was almost twice her age, for a short while, Mary Hutchinson must have seen the error of her ways and threw herself upon the mercy of her father.   This clearly had some effect, as in John Hay’s will of 1792, written shortly before his death, and replacing an earlier one, Mary is named as sole executrix and the beneficiary of all of his property apart from £20 for her eldest brother.   While records show that her mother had died in 1790, it is not known if her other four siblings were still alive at this point.   Neither is it  known what became of Mary’s husband John, or of their child together. 

From Bank of England records, we discovered that Thomas left the Bank in 1800.   Clearly the court case would have had an enormous effect on him, both financially and in terms of notoriety.   £200 was an enormous sum to find when he was then earning only £70 per annum, and not only did he have to confess his ‘crime’ to fellow members of the chapel, many of whom were related to him, he had to suffer the indignity of reading about it in the national press, reports of which were syndicated the length and breadth of the country.   

However, things must have quietened down as in 1803, Thomas married Lydia Syle in Bloomsbury.  Perhaps with her encouragement or possibly even at her insistence, in 1804 he wrote to the Governor, Deputy Governor and Court of Directors of the Bank of England, begging for them to reinstate him at the Bank, explaining that he was now 55 and destitute, his reason for leaving the Bank in 1800 after 18 years’ service was that he was ‘afflicted with ill-health’ and had been deceived by his ward [we have been unable to discover who this was] who had promised him an annuity.    Amazingly, on receipt of this letter, the Committee of the Treasury agreed to re-elect him to the Bank ‘in consideration of [his] respectable character [!] and of his present unfortunate circumstances’, at the same salary which had risen to £110 per annum.   From correspondence with an academic who has written much on the history of the Bank, this was most unusual  -  perhaps Thomas had friends in high places, as Andrew Jordaine agreed to stand surety for him once again, as did John Williams, a linen draper of the Poultry (a relative of Stephen Williams, who had died in 1797).   

Thomas died in 1811, while still employed at the Bank and living in Princes Street, Red Lion Square.   In his will, he bequeathed to Lydia several annuities held at the Bank which would have provided her with a handsome pension.   There were no children of this marriage so at her death in 1832, she bequeathed the portraits of herself and Thomas to a nephew.   Sadly these are long-since lost.  It is to be regretted that we are not able to see what may have attracted Mary to Thomas – not only did he manage to charm an apparently happily married young woman,  he also persuaded the directors of the Bank of England to give him back his job!   While it is not known whether Mary’s husband ever forgave her, Thomas seems to have come through his ordeal in the end relatively unscathed.   It was ever thus! 

A postscript : I was recently working with someone with the surname Kenyon – it turned out he is a direct descendant of the judge.   It’s interesting to see how paths can cross many generations later!

About the Author

Alison and her sister began their research out of curiosity and have made some totally unexpected discoveries about the Burford line of their family. They just wish their grandmother and her mother were still alive to see what illustrious ancestors they had!

Written content of this post copyright © Alison Botterill, 2017.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Mania and Melancholy

I'm very excited to be speaking at Dr Johnson's House in London; details below!

Mania and Melancholy - mental health in the eighteenth century, Dr Johnson's House, London, 19th April 

Join author Catherine Curzon to explore attitudes to mental health in the eighteenth century through her discussion of the philosophies that started to develop, Dr Johnson’s own struggles, including his self-diagnosed ‘hypochondria’, and the infamous ‘madness of King George III.’


Friday, 14 April 2017

Austen, Bennet and Pansies

It's an utter pleasure to welcome Linda Beutler to the salon with a tale of pansies and two ladies; one named Austen, one named Bennet...


Dear Readers,

It is true confessions time. I have owed our fair hostess this particular guest post for an embarrassingly—one might say mortifyingly and impolitely—long time. When I saw, intrepid creature that she is, our Madame Gilflurt had signed on to the My Mr. Darcy & Your Mr. Bingley blog tour, I immediately asked if she wanted a guest post about the novel, or the long-promised pansies article. Her response was, “Pansies, pansies, pansies.” This should make a nice (if strange) intermission for all of you following the tour.

The heart of this research came about as I was preparing my first novel, The Red Chrysanthemum. Making certain—absolutely certain—that flowers mentioned in my stories are plants in cultivation in England in the Regency era is a thing with me—a mania, a fixation, an obsession. I have, since starting on this JAFF lark, put myself out there as anyone’s horticultural researcher. It means that much. 

Most plants have a Wikipedia page, and when I looked up sweet peas and found they had not been developed, as we know them, until well after Jane Austen’s lifetime, it occurred to me there might be other common flowers not strictly available in the Regency era. So I looked up pansies, and to be honest, I’ve not been quite the same since. So here’s what I’ve learned and fantasized.

Violets to Pansies to Pride and Prejudice? By Linda Beutler

…& gained a promise for the latter of two roots of hearts-ease, one all yellow & the other all purple, for you. From Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, 1800

The mother of modern pansies was a little known and largely unsung Regency gentlewoman. My mission here is to bring her, her eclectic parents, and the hybridization of pansies to light without burying us all in stultifying botanical wonkiness. My intention is to keep my plant-nerdy self on a short lead. We shall end this tale with a conspiracy theory from my heart, one that may never be proved. It’s my theory and I’m sticking with it.

Let us begin with a dispassionate few historical facts about pansies. When Ophelia says in Hamlet, “And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts”, she is speaking of the Elizabethan transition of the French “pensée”, meaning thoughts, into the sloppy [written with a wink-lb] English pronunciation “pansies”. Pensée is the French root of pensive. The plant we know as a pansie did not yet exist, only the word for it. Shakespeare was speaking of Viola tricolor, one of several English native violets. 

Viola tricolor

Likewise, Jane Austen was also speaking of Viola tricolor when she was able to bring solid color versions of the flower back to Cassandra Austen from Jane’s visit to Oakley Hall. Jane used the most common of common names, hearts-ease, but it was also well known as love-in-idleness (see Oberon’s directions to Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Shakespeare gave all common names of Viola tricolor equal regard). In America, where it is not native, it is called Johnny-jump-up for the vigorous way in which it puts itself around—projectile seed distribution is highly effective. 

Viola tricolor is exceptionally genetically unstable. The flowers have five petals (two up, two sort of sideways, and one straight down), and may be any variation of purple (upper petals usually), white-to-lavender (sideways and downward petals) with a dab of yellow at the center.  However, in any given wild population, or even in modern seed packets of the species, there might be solid color forms: all lavender, all yellow, white with very little other color. This variation was a source of obsessive fascination to the mother of the modern pansy.

Intermediate violas very like the color and form selections by the mother of modern pansies.
A word about her: she was the third daughter and youngest child of the 4th Earl of Tankerville and his wife, the former Emma Colebooke. The 4th Earl was cricket mad. He had a gardener, Edward “Lumpy” Stevens, likely kept on the payroll more for the accuracy of his arm than his precision hedge trimming. The earl sat on committees establishing the laws of cricket, was a patron of the Surrey cricket club in younger wilder days, and proposed “the leg before wicket rule”. Could I fathom the intricacies of cricket, and if I gave a flying rat, I would explain more. 

When the earl retired from playing cricket in 1781 he went into politics and began collecting maps and seashells. There are species of mollusks named for him. His wife was also given to a fixation for the natural world. She collected (with her pin money, no doubt) orchids and other exotic plants. The “nun’s orchid”, Phaius tankervilleae was named in her honor. Emma also collected botanical illustrations. Her collection (600+ drawings on vellum) was sold to the Royal Botanic Garden Kew; they still have it. 

Hence, we have fertile ground for our mother of the modern pansy to follow her mania for the variations within Viola tricolor. Her father assigned another of the family gardeners (William Richardson) to assist her, and in 1812 her selections were displayed to the public, including the young Royal Horticulture Society, receiving wide acclaim. She had taken the plain species to greater prominence by stabilizing the solid colors, enlarging the flowers, and selecting for more prominent “whiskers”, the deep purple lines radiating from the flower’s center. 
Modern pansies (Viola wittrockiana, or Viola tricolor of hort.)
A nurseryman, Mr. Lee, was so taken with her hybrids that he spread them to yet another aristocrat fiddling about with Viola tricolor, James, Lord Gambier and his gardener William Thompson. (You can see the trend: the gentry paid for stock material and plant explorers, directing the selection of seedlings that met their aesthetics, letting the gardeners get their hands dirty doing the actual work.) Lord Gambier introduced Russian species into the genetic stew, and by 1833 there were 400 named pansies—now called pansies—which we would recognize as more-or-less the same plants we know as pansies today (Viola x wittrockiana or Viola tricolor of hort.). 

I’ve been cagey until now, but there are a few more things I want to explain about the mother of modern pansies before I reveal her name. Her family lived at Mt. Felix at Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. If you take the train from Waterloo Station to Alton, Hampshire (the closest stop to Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen’s house), you pass through Walton-on-Thames (the Mt. Felix manor and grounds are now what we call in the States a “housing development”). It would have been the same on the main carriage road in Jane Austen’s day. Our young lady was born in 1785, ten years younger than Jane Austen. When her Viola tricolor hybrids were on public display in 1812, she would have been 27—on the shelf, but part of a family to which such things were of little concern compared with being educated and engaged in the world. 

Her name was Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet.

Lady Emma Tankverille nee Colebrooke,
and her two eldest daughters
If that doesn’t raise the hair on the back of your neck, you have no heart and even less imagination. After all, what do we really know about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice except that it was originally written in about 1798, was epistolary in style, and was called “First Impressions”? There are no drafts, but we know the story was heavily rewritten. Was the heroine’s family name Bennet in “First Impressions”? Is it not possible, that loving gardens, Jane Austen might have heard of Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet, or even have met her? There are gaps in Jane’s letters (Cassandra Austen, you have much for which to answer). And what must Lady MEB have been like? Maybe Jane Austen met the family? The 4th Earl of Tankerville was Charles Bennet. Lady MEB’s elder siblings were Caroline, Charles, Henry, and Anna. Oh, it’s all too much! What if…what if…what if…? My mind spins with what-ifs.

Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet inherited her father’s fickleness as regards hobbies. Shortly after the successful display of her nascent pansies, she studied with two prominent artists of the day, John Varley and the engraver John Linnell, forsaking her pansies. She was also that rarest of Regency maidens, she married late. On 26 July 1831, at 46, she wed Sir Charles Miles Lambert Monck, 6th Baronet of Belsay Castle Northumberland. His first wife produced his children and conveniently died. Being beyond childbearing years, we assume the second Lady Monck made a marriage of true minds. Her husband was a self-avowed hellenist, devoted to all things Greek, and his new wife abandoned botanical illustration for architectural renderings. It seems it took her a goodish while to find her Mr. Darcy, but she was not deterred. It was by all accounts a happy marriage, lasting 30 years, until her death in 1861.

Ah, oh yes…that feels so much better, to have done and be able to meet Madame Gilflurt again in society without avoiding her or fearing the cut divine for my shocking tardiness. My karma is again all it should be. And now, back to the blog tour! —LB

About the Book

Jane Bennet had a heart to break after all, and I am a party to it.
                          —Fitzwilliam Darcy

One simple, uncharacteristic subterfuge leaves Fitzwilliam Darcy needing to apologize to nearly everyone he knows! When Charles Bingley reaps the sad repercussions of Mr. Darcy’s sin of omission, Elizabeth Bennet’s clear-eyed view of the facts gives her the upper hand in a long-distance battle of wills with Mr. Bingley’s former friend. By the time Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth meet (repeatedly) in the groves of Rosings Park, neither knows the whole truth except that somehow, someway, their future is inextricably linked to the courtship of Charles Bingley and Jane Bennet. 

In this Pride and Prejudice “what-if”, the additional dash of backbone and “far-sighted” action to the character of Mr. Bingley begs the question: how is Mr. Darcy to impress Elizabeth Bennet if Bingley does his own matchmaking? And how is Elizabeth Bennet to trust Mr. Darcy when even faith in a most beloved sister falters? ( Includes mature content )

 About the Author  

Linda Beutler’s professional life is spent in a garden, an organic garden housing America’s foremost public collection of clematis vines and a host of fabulous companion plants. Her home life reveals a more personal garden, still full of clematis, but also antique roses and vintage perennials planted around and over a 1907 cottage. But one can never have enough of gardening, so in 2011 she began cultivating a weedy patch of Jane Austen Fan Fiction ideas. The first of these to ripen was The Red Chrysanthemum (Meryton Press, 2013), which won a silver IPPY for romance writing in 2014. You might put this down as beginner’s luck—Linda certainly does. The next harvest brought Longbourn to London (Meryton Press, 2014), known widely as “the [too] sexy one”. In 2015 Meryton Press published the bestseller A Will of Iron, a macabre rom-com based on the surprising journals of Anne de Bourgh.

            Now, after a year-long break in JAFF writing to produce Plant Lovers Guide to Clematis (Timber Press, 2016)—the third in a bouquet of books on gardening—we have My Mr. Darcy and Your Mr. Bingley bursting into bloom. 

Contact Info:  
Buy the Book:

The eBook is available on Amazon. The Paperback should follow in two to three weeks.