Jane Austen planned her stories very carefully. She seems to have worked out the action of her tales with a calendar or diary beside her. This has meant that later scholars could work out exactly when they were written but, apart from Persuasion, the actual year the tale is set doesn’t seem to have mattered to Jane Austen. Rather she wanted to avoid the mistakes of other novelists, who can suggest June lasts eight weeks, or summer has eight or nine months.
Another aspect of her work is the absence of description, we hardly know what any character or place looked like, so when she does describe a scene it is noteworthy. This comes from Emma, in the novel we are told that it is in June, a party is going to Donwell Abbey to pick strawberries, when they stopped to look at Abbey Mill Farm.
The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.
It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.
….. There had been a time also when Emma would have been sorry to see Harriet in a spot so favourable for the Abbey Mill Farm; but now she feared it not. It might be safely viewed with all its appendages of prosperity and beauty, its rich pastures, spreading flocks, orchard in blossom, and light column of smoke ascending.
And this is one of Jane Austen’s most famous mistakes. Can you spot it? well here’s a clue. These pictures were taken in our village orchard yesterday, 7th May.
The apple trees are in full bloom, indeed some are already beginning to go over. As Edward, Jane’s brother, who was a very practical gentleman farmer said.
“Jane, where did you get those apple trees that blossom in June?”
Fast forward two hundred years, to the latest film version of Emma, a very entertaining version, with absolutely brilliant costumes. When it comes to the proposal scene, in the film given as mid-summer, in the book it can be dated to 9th July. Emma is seen standing by a Horse Chestnut tree in full bloom,
and guess what is also flowering in our village at this very moment.
Did the film maker deliberately reference Jane’s blunder, or did she just think that the candles of a Horse Chestnut make a beautiful backdrop to a pretty young woman, as indeed they do.
I was recently in London, and took the opportunity to visit Kew. The one thing I particularly wanted to see there was the Great Pagoda. As you approach you can see the changes, where once there was a shabby building of brick and slate – now there are dragons.
When it was originally built in 1762, Sir William Chambers, who had visited China and knew exactly what a Chinese pagoda was like, decorated the roofs with carved dragons.
Unfortunately the dragons were made of carved pine, which rotted and few survived the terrible winter of 1783, those that did were removed and the pagoda was left bare for over two hundred and thirty years.
In 2018 a major renovation project led to the return of the Dragons. Carefully reconstructed from surviving drawings, the lower ones are carved wood, the upper, in a modern touch, of 3D printed plastic. So now we can glimpse something of the colourful splendour of Georgian popular architecture.
But there may be another explanation, this is the one preferred by my granddaughter.
When the Pagoda was first built, it was occupied by a small flock of Chinese Dragons, they didn’t do very well in the increasingly smoky air of London, and disappeared during the terrible winter of 1783.
Now, with the warming climate and cleaner air the dragons have returned. They sleep during the day, and at night they fly across the gardens. Then this year something strange has been seen in the gardens, giant glassy spheres in the gravel near the base of the pagoda.
I was trying to find out about early nineteenth century plant labels (I will tell you why another time), when I came across an interesting name, a name associated with ghosts in the garden.
Now I don’t mean ghosts like the young lady, wearing a long white dress, who I saw one late summer evening, long years ago, walking across an old garden in Bristol. She stepped behind a clump of shrubs and vanished. I hope she walks there still. I can think of worse ways to spend your afterlife than walking though English gardens in the summer twilight.
No this ghost is very real.
At the beginning of the last century lived Ellen Willmott, she was a great gardener. One person dubbed her “the greatest of all living women gardeners”, though none would agree with that now, simply because the remark was made by Gertrude Jekyll, who was the greatest of all women gardeners.
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Ellen Willmott was a great gardener. She was also a notable garden writer, writing for magazines like ‘Country Life’. In the course of her journalism she visited many gardens, up and down the land, nervously welcomed as everyone wanted a good review from Miss Willmott, and all dreaded a bad one.
And then – after a few years gardeners everywhere began to notice a new flower appearing in their herbaceous borders, a straggly blue flower with spiky leaves. Then it was realised that the flowers began to make an appearance a year or so after a visit from Miss Willmott. She never admitted it, but people though that she had a secret pocket full of the seeds, which she discretely scattered in the flowerbeds as she bent to admire a particular flower.
It is for this reason that Eryngium giganteum is now known as;
Miss Willmott’s ghost