By Kim Wilson (Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2009)
I’m a long-time Jane Austen fan, long before Colin Firth transformed Mr. Darcy into a hunk or film directors riffed off of Jane for movies like Clueless, Bride and Prejudice, The Jane Austen Book Club, and the fairly ridiculous movie take on Jane’s life, Becoming Jane. Like a lot of Jane-ites, I enjoy the world that Austen creates—“a few families in a village,” as Austen once described it—as much as the plots of her novels.
Wisconsin resident Kim Wilson has tapped into the diehard fans’ interest in Austen’s world twice. In 2004, she published Tea with Jane Austen, a slim, fun volume about all things tea—where tea came from in the late 1700s, its class implications, where Jane bought tea, how Jane made toast to go with the morning tea, why tea was kept under lock-and-key and how to make the cakes and tarts people ate in the Regency period. It’s surprising how much history can be gleaned from changing breakfast habits.
In the Garden with Jane Austen is a follow-up to the tea book, and like the previous volume, it’s much more than just a discussion of gardens as settings or plot devices in Austen’s novel. (Though who could forget, the importance of “a prettyish kind of little wilderness,” as Lady Catherine DeBourgh says, in Pride and Prejudice, or as Wilson notes, the propensity of Austen heroines to take a walk in the shrubbery when love’s going gets tough.)
Wilson takes readers to gardens that Austen and her family would have cared for — mostly cottage type gardens that mixed vegetables, flowers, and herbs — as well as the grander gardens she might have visited. Wilson links the gardens to Austen’s novels and letters as well as to the types of gardens that were popular in the Regency and Georgian periods in which Austen wrote. For instance, when Austen says in Pride and Prejudice that the drive around Mr. Darcy’s impressive park at Pemberley is 10 miles, she’s putting it in the same class as Blenheim Palace. Wilson also covers garden trends of the time that are mentioned in Austen’s books, from the need for “shrubberies,” graveled paths surrounded by trees and shrubs, to the fad of installing a hermitage, sometimes with a hermit in residence. It’s a wonderful blend of cultural and literary connections and garden history.
The book includes photos of most of the Austin-era gardens and provides contact information for the sites that are open to visitors. She also has a list of the gardens filmed in the many movies of Jane Austen novels. I’m not sure when I will next get to England, but when I do, this book with be consulted for places to visit.