Gardening for Ladies

3D front cover of Instructions in Gardening for Ladies by Jane LoudonAfter weeks of grey damp and cold (and I know Cambridge damp and cold is nothing to complain about in a worldwide context) the sun came out on Thursday, and it happened again on Friday, and on Saturday, and on Sunday… Moreover, the first of the Crocus tommasianus which we planted with back-breaking effort in the little orchard in the conservation area on the Press’s Cambridge site are just peeking through. (They will be eaten in the next few days by the local muntjac deer, whose views on plant conservation are not what we could wish, but never mind.)  So it’s almost time to get going with the seeds and potting compost, and in a timely manner, Mrs Jane Loudon’s Instructions in Gardening for Ladies has arrived.

Mrs Loudon is completely disarming. Her introduction begins: ‘When I married Mr Loudon, it is scarcely possible to imagine any person more completely ignorant than I was, of every thing relating to plants and gardening; and, as may be easily imagined, I found every one about me so well acquainted with the subject, that I was soon heartily ashamed of my ignorance.’  After ten years of instruction from her husband, however, she feels confident in her ability to pass on his instructions to the wider (female) public.

She is also, of course, disingenuous. Jane Webb (1807–1858) did not merely sit at her new husband’s feet for ten years when she married J.C. Loudun. In fact, she went systematically about educating herself in botany, like the professional author she was. Her mother had died when she was twelve, and her father when she was seventeen. Determined to earn her living by writing, she published some ‘Prose and Verse’ in 1824, but made a name for herself with a three-volume novel, The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, in 1827.  Among the futuristic innovations presented in this melodramatic tale, in which everyone has a medieval name (except the Mummy, who is called Cheops), are the election of the monarch, the abolition of coal and wood fires (rendering the air of London ‘pure and bright’) and the steam-driven lawn-mower.

This latter seems to have attracted the attention of the landscape designer and publisher John Claudius Loudon (1783–1843), who reviewed the book favourably, and took steps to meet the author, who he assumed to be a man. He was clearly pleasantly surprised when he encountered Jane in February 1830: they were married in September, and Jane took herself to the botanical lectures of John Lindley, recycling the notes she took as published articles. She subsequently travelled widely around the UK with her husband, acting as his amanuensis (after an attack of rheumatic fever in 1806, he was left with reduced mobility in his limbs, and  his right arm had to be amputated in 1825, after a failed operation to improve the condition), and helping to edit his Gardener’s Magazine.

Loudon had begun life as a farmer’s son in Lanarkshire, and in the traditional lowland Scots manner, had educated himself, studying agriculture, botany and chemistry at the University of Edinburgh while apprenticed to a firm of nurserymen. He visited London in 1803, and came into the orbit of Sir Joseph Banks and Jeremy Bentham. He also became involved in the aesthetic debates of the time about landscape and the picturesque (a thread which we will be pursuing soon in CLC).

The marriage was clearly a happy one, and a good fit in terms of interests and enthusiasms. The down-side was financial insecurity: Loudon had a good, if fluctuating, income from publishing and from design commissions, but he over-reached himself with the 1838 Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum, a massive survey of all trees grown in the British Isles, which required the services of seven artists and subsequently engravers. The project left him with £10,000 of debt to his publisher, Longman, which he (and Jane) struggled for the remaining five years of his life to pay off.

Her Instructions (published in 1840) was very successful, selling 1,350 copies on the day of publication and more than 200,000 in total. It starts at the beginning, with ‘Stirring the soil’: an explanation of the biological and physiological reasons for digging your garden, and a description of how to do it, including advice on the correct size and length of spade, and the appropriate boots and gloves. The ladies were clearly expected to get stuck in – they were excused only ‘digging for the purpose of exposing the soil to the action of the weather, trenching, and ridging on a large scale’, which were ‘too laborious to be performed by anyone but a gardener’s labourer’.

Her brisk, scientific explanations of the reasons why you need to sow seeds, plant bulbs, prune fruit trees, or trap slugs and snails, in a particular way are useful and encouraging: much more so than some of the more prescriptive ‘do this in March and never mind why’ approach common in some Victorian (and later) manuals. An interesting aspect of the book is the emphasis on the vegetable garden, and the variety of produce which could be grown: three types of asparagus (the Battersea, the Gravesend and the Giant), a dozen varieties of strawberry, sea-kale, artichokes (and Jerusalem artichokes), salsify, borecole, scorzonera, sorrel, chives, garlic, endive, chicory, corn salad, winter cress, and many herbs, as well as the cabbages, peas, beans and onions that we would expect. And it’s also interesting to see the pelargonium/geranium nomenclature issue firmly dealt with, and the danger of over-watering pelargoniums in winter emphasised.

Jane followed this initial success with further instructional books ‘for ladies’, including Botany for Ladies (coming soon), which she intended to take away the terrors of the discipline for those whose education was unlikely to have been either classical (for the Linnean taxonomic system) or scientific. She also wrote a biographical notice for her husband’s posthumously published (and also coming soon) Self-Instruction for Young Gardeners (professionals, that is, not children).

She was helped in her widowhood by a public subscription to raise funds to clear the remainder of the debt, and she also received a Civil List pension of £100 per year, but she remained active in publishing and editing for the rest of her relatively short life. John Claudius Loudon deserves a blog of his own in due course, but his wife equally deserves to emerge from his shadow as a great communicator and populariser of gardening.


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5 Responses to Gardening for Ladies

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