Tag Archives: Northanger Abbey

Regency Pot Plants, or Learning to Love a Hyacinth

On her first morning at Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland came down to breakfast, Henry Tilney was already there, in order to prevent him teasing her about her fears of the night before she changes the subject by looking at some flowers.

“What beautiful hyacinths! I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.”

“And how might you learn? By accident or argument?”

“Your sister taught me; I cannot tell how. Mrs. Allen used to take pains, year after year, to make me like them; but I never could, till I saw them the other day in Milsom Street; I am naturally indifferent about flowers.”

“But now you love a hyacinth. So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible. Besides, a taste for flowers is always desirable in your sex, as a means of getting you out of doors, and tempting you to more frequent exercise than you would otherwise take. And though the love of a hyacinth may be rather domestic, who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?”

Catherine had arrived at Northanger about the middle of March, so the hyacinths were probably not cut flowers, but ones in pots or glasses. Glasses for hyacinths were available at the time, William Cobbett in The English Gardener (1829) advises;

In water-glasses, the hyacinth makes a very agreeable show in the house during the most dismal part of the winter. Get blue glasses, as more congenial to the roots than white ones, fill them with rain water, with a few grains of salt in each, and put in enough water to come up the bulb about the fourth part of an inch. Change the water carefully every week, and place the plants in the lightest and most airy part of the room, or green-house, in which you keep them.

 However by March, and particularly in a house like Northanger Abbey which had large and extensive glass houses, the bulbs would probably have been grown in pots, so that they could be changed as soon as the flower began to fade.

Flowers were often grown in pots and, if you had a large collection, could be displayed in a fashion that seems strange to a modern reader, as Louisa Johnson in Every Lady her own Flower Gardener (about 1840) describes;

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We recollect once seeing a very interesting collection of more than two hundred species, growing in a high state of perfection, in the house of an amateur living in Brussels. The room containing them was fitted up much in the same way as an ordinary library, with abundance of light shelves round the walls, and a large table in the middle of the room, on which were placed the pots containing the plants. At night, the room was lighted up by an elegant glass lamp, and it was heated by one of those ornamental stoves which are so common on the Continent, Altogether, it had a very handsome appearance.

However, in smaller room she advises to use pot stands rather than stages, (the pretentious term jardinière didn’t come into England from France until the mid-nineteenth century). A Regency, or perhaps a facsimile of a Regency, plant pot stand is to be found in Lytes Cary, a country house in Somerset.

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Courtesy National Trust

I didn’t have the material to make a curved front, so settled on an angular form. Painted black with a gold chinoiserie pattern.

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Cobbett says that there were over a thousand varieties of Hyacinth available in his day, so I felt justified in using a range of colours, to give an impression of the display admired by young Catherine Morland.

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Snuffed but not Extinguished, some curious facts about candles

This is the second of my series of blogs, Five things you might not know about Jane Austen.

You will recall how, on Catherine Moreland’s first night at Northanger Abbey, she discovered some mysterious papers in her room. She was about to read them when;

‘The dimness of the light her candle emitted made her turn to it with alarm; but there was no danger of its sudden extinction; it had yet some hours to burn; and that she might not have any greater difficulty in distinguishing the writing than what its ancient date might occasion, she hastily snuffed it. Alas! It was snuffed and extinguished in one. A lamp could not have expired with more awful effect. Catherine, for a few moments, was motionless with horror. It was done completely; not a remnant of light in the wick could give hope to the rekindling breath. Darkness impenetrable and immovable filled the room.’

So what is going on?

The text reads as if Catherine sees that the candle is burning well but dimly, so to make it burn brighter she snuffs it, and unintentionally puts it out! Surely if she snuffs a candle it is to snuff it out, and what on earth does she mean by the ‘rekindling breath’?

First there are the many meanings of the word ‘snuff’, amongst which is ‘to extinguish’, but this meaning was rarely used before the mid nineteenth century. In Jane Austen’s time to snuff a candle did not mean to extinguish it, but to trim the wick.

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Traditionally made candles, tallow on left in reproduction iron stand and beeswax on right in Georgian candlestick

Candles were very different, in construction, from those used to day. They were generally made of either tallow (refined animal fat) or beeswax (much more expensive). Wicks were made of twisted cord, that burnt slower than the candle, whether it was a wax or tallow one. For this reason, after a little while, the wick would be long, hanging to one side, and burning irregularly. For close work these candles needed to be trimmed, or snuffed, regularly. This is what Catherine was trying to do when she unfortunately put the candle out.

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 Candle needing snuffing

To snuff a candle a special tool was developed, a candle snuffer. This was like a pair of scissors incorporating a box or tray, which was intended to catch the piece of wick that was cut off, in case it fell and burnt something. A tale is told of Lord Tennyson’s aunt, which both demonstrates the danger of carelessly snuffing a candle, and of the way in which experienced servants knew their duties and those of their fellows. Whilst snuffing a candle she accidentally caught her headdress alight. She rang for a footman.

‘James, my head is alight.” She said.

‘So it is Madam,’ replied James, ‘I will go and fetch Amy.”

Since it was clearly the duty of the ladies maid to sort out his mistresses headdress, whatever the situation.

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 A selection of Candle snuffers

To put out a candle, a conical extinguisher, made of metal or pottery was used, it was placed over the wick and, in a few moments the candle would be out.

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A ‘Chamber Stick’ with conical extinguisher and decorative pottery extinguisher

And finally what is meant by the passage;

‘not a remnant of light in the wick could give hope to the rekindling breath.’

When the candle was extinguished, the tip was sometimes left glowing. In this case the candle could be relit by gently blowing on it, this was a skill that many children acquired, usually from a gardener or stable hand, as it was an activity frowned on by many adults. The tomboyish, outdoorsy type of girl that Catherine Moreland was, would certainly have known how to ‘blow in’ a candle.

 

And you thought candles were a simple method of lighting a room, and that candlelight was just romantic.

 

 

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Reconstructing the Regency – A Parminter Picture

Of all the buildings of the late eighteenth century, none is so remarkable, or so charming as the delightful ‘Cottage Ornee’ called A La Ronde. Not only is the house, a bizarre sixteen sided structure, wonderful, but it was decorated by its first owners, the Misses Parminter. The Parminter ladies were well travelled and very talented, and the house still contains many examples of their remarkable craftsmanship.

a-la-ronde

I am currently teaching a class on the Regency using objects and, having seen A La Ronde, remembered the curious way in which some pictures were mounted. This provided an excellent reason to visit the house again, so I could examine the pictures and try and recreate their technique.
The technique is now called ‘block mounting’, pasting a picture on a piece of wood. However the Parminter cousins added a decorative border. So to begin.

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I first cut a suitable size piece of wood, larger than the print I wished to mount, and painted the edges. Then I pasted on a sheet of coloured paper.

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The print was then pasted in the middle of the board, and a decorative border, made from gold paper trimmed within pinking shears into a series of chevrons, added.

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I chose a suitable late eighteenth century print by a publisher called Carrington Bowles (incidentally he seems to have had a thing about hats, just about every lady he drew wears a big hat, even if she isn’t wearing anything else!).
For two independent ladies I chose an image of two Georgian Sportswomen.

Miss Trigger you see is an excellent shot, And forty five notches Miss Wicket’s just got

With young Catherine Morland in the background.

There is plenty of further inspiration to be found at A La Ronde, perhaps I will try something else in the future.

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Blood and Beauty – A Gruesome Georgian question

I was recently reading The Castle of Wolfenbach, a gothic tale of 1793, which is only known today as one of the seven ‘Horrid’ novels listed by Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, when I came across the following passage. The heroine Matilda is recovering from the shock of being pursued by her ‘uncle’.

Mme de Bouville payed her a visit in the evening: she was sitting up, and, from the quantity of blood taken from her in the morning, she looked uncommonly delicate and beautiful.

L0005745 A surgeon bleeding the arm of a young woman: she is being co

Bleeding a Young Woman picture from the Wellcome Collection

Bleeding was one of the commonest treatments in pre-modern medicine, it was the standard treatment for so many conditions, it seems to have often been carried out ‘just in case’. Some people seem to have been bled even when they weren’t ill, just as people today take vitamin supplements, and for more or less the same reasons.

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Lancet (above) for bleeding people, and Fleam (below) for bleeding animals

Since Eliza Parsons describes Matilda looking ‘uncommonly delicate and beautiful’ shortly after a ‘quantity of blood’ had been taken from her, other people must have noticed this effect of bleeding, and considering how crazy people have been are, when it comes to looking good, I wonder if bleeding was ever done for cosmetic reasons?

I have found no accounts of cosmetic bleeding, I rather hope they don’t exist, but would love to know if they did.

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Eggs for Easter – in the time of Jane Austen

I recently came across a couple of curious egg cups, they bear the inscriptions, ‘[A] Trifle from Ramsgate’ and ‘A Present from Clifto[n]’. They date from the early nineteenth century and are tourist souvenirs.

Then, as now, Ramsgate was a seaside resort on the Kent coast, and so was an obvious place from which a souvenir might be sent. Clifton was a fashionable part of Bristol (I believe it still is) and was where Jane Austen moved with her mother and sister after her father’s death. It was also just above the Hotwells, a spa which had a certain popularity, Catherine Morland missed out on a trip there in Northanger Abbey, but it never seriously rivalled Bath and was in decline by the 1820’s.

Egg production, was unusual in British agriculture, it was essentially a female pursuit. In The Lady’s Country Companion, the indomitable Mrs Louden tells her correspondent;

My hints for teaching you how to enjoy a country life would be sadly deficient if I were to omit poultry, as the duties of attending on them are so completely feminine, that even in farm-houses they are entirely under the care of females; and, indeed, few artists or authors would think a picture of rural life complete, if they did not introduce into it the image of a fair young girl feeding poultry.

She then quotes a few paragraphs from a popular novel, before returning to her usual style.

I must now, however, return from the region of poetry to plain matter of fact.

And goes on to discuss the correct methods of heating a hen house, and ways of looking after chickens.

As poultry rearing was such a feminine occupation it is hardly surprising that Lady Lucas was concerned to know about her married daughter’s, ‘health and poultry’, whilst it was the theft of Mrs Weston’s turkeys that finally precipitated Emma and Mr Knightly’s marriage.

Stephens curing a sick chicken by hunting it round the yard – Harriet and Diana looking on.
An unusual method of curing a sick chicken, drawn by the talented Diana Sperling, and published many years ago as Mrs Hurst Dancing.

Eggs were semi seasonal, in that far fewer were laid in the winter than in the summer, recipes abound for preserving eggs, and for testing that they were fresh. Indeed it was around Easter time that hens began to lay well again, and the price of eggs dropped. Eggs for breakfast were commonplace.

After seeing William to the last moment, Fanny walked back to the breakfast-room with a very saddened heart to grieve over the melancholy change; and there her uncle kindly left her to cry in peace, conceiving, perhaps, that the deserted chair of each young man might exercise her tender enthusiasm, and that the remaining cold pork bones and mustard in William’s plate might but divide her feelings with the broken egg-shells in Mr. Crawford’s.

And they were cooked in similar fashion to today.

Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else; but you need not be afraid, they are very small, you see–one of our small eggs will not hurt you.

Actually Mr Woodhouse is right to praise Serle, as to successfully soft boil an egg in days before egg timers took quite a bit of skill.

An if you want to enjoy chocolate in the manner of Jane Austen, you will have to wait until after dinner – and drink it.

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The Pineapple of Perfection – An Historical Quest

Is, of course, a misquotation of that most magnificent word-mangler, Mrs. Malaprop who describes a fellow character in Sheridan’s The Rivals as being ‘the very pineapple of politeness!’

 

The Pineapple has a unique place in eighteenth century life culture, it was only a fruit but it came to symbolise luxury and hospitality, advanced technology and wild and savage lands, it is hardly surprising that some people held that it would cure the sick, and other that it would kill healthy people!

As European explorers visited more and more tropical lands during the sixteenth century they came across many strange animals and plants, gardeners were fascinated by the tales of the explorers and wanted to grow these newly discovered rarities. As men like John Tradescant explored Florida (guess what he discovered) in Europe architects were designing hothouses and stoves to try and keep these wonders alive, and this was where the Pineapple came in. Of all the tropical fruits discovered it was only the pineapple that could be kept alive using the primitive technology of the times, and not only could it be kept alive but it could fruit!

Charles II receiving a pineapple from John Rose, 1675 (picture from Wikipedia)

At first only Royalty could afford to grow pineapples, Charles II was painted receiving his first pineapple, but soon they became available to the very rich. At first they were known as Anana, a version of the native name, but were then called pineapples, because they looked a little like pineapples, and in due course the original pineapples were renamed pine cones.

Pineapples make a wonderful centrepiece and so they decorated the tables of the wealthy on grand occasions.

Morning Post – 23 June 1808

Indeed some enterprising fruiterers would rent out a pineapple for display, it could serve as a table decoration on several London dinner tables until it became too ripe, when it would be sold to be eaten.

As great houses began to grow pineapples themselves they wanted to celebrate their gardeners abilities, General Tilney in Northanger Abbey with very false modesty claimed that;

‘The pinery had yielded only one hundred in the last year.’

Pineapples began to appear on gate posts, a smug claim that the householder grew them, though in Scotland one landowner took this to extreme.

The Pineapple House at Dunmore (picture from Wikipedia)

As well as growing pineapples, some were imported, they rarely made it, as even a slight delay could lead to the fruit rotting. 

Stamford Mercury 24 August 1721

Though most of the pineapple imports were in the form of candied fruit or Pineapple Rum, which was very popular. If fruits could not be imported directly to Britain, it was different in the American colonies. Here the shorter sailing time from the West Indies meant that they could be readily available, indeed so popular were they that they became a symbol of hospitality, a pineapple on the table was a sign of welcome.

Also imported in great quantity to North America were candied pineapples, they had been diced then boiled in sugar to preserve them. Indeed candied fruits became virtually the sole sweetmeats served there, so much so that another case of language separation took place. In Britain the word ‘sweetmeats’ was shortened to ‘sweets’, whist in America ‘sweetmeats’ were forgotten all these sweet objects were called ‘candy’.

This unusual fruit naturally attracted the interests of doctors, who had violently opposing ideas. Those working in the West Indies, where the fruit grew, soon discovered that it was a very good at treating scurvy, so much so that pineapples were sent on board ships as soon as they arrived, for the benefit of any sick sailors. Perhaps this is the origin of Pineapple Rum, another alcoholic health drink.

Other doctors were less sure about the Pineapple,

The pineapple, the most pleasant of all fruit is the most dangerous. Its sharpness flays the mouth; and ‘tis easy to know what effect such a thing must have upon the stomach and bowels of persons weakened by age. I have known it bring on bloody fluxes, which have been fatal. (John Hill, The Old Man’s Guide to Health. 1750)

And tales were told of one young woman who died on her arrival in India of ‘injudiciously eating a pineapple.’

A fruit so valuable, it would obviously be a target for thieves, though I have only found a few cases of Pineapple theft.

Leeds Intelligencer 02 September 1777

Whilst the one case that came up at the Old Bailey will be another story.

 

This blog was inspired by Emma Theobald who asked me to write a note on the pineapple in the Georgian era for the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society.

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