In the 18th century, walking in the garden was a popular activity. The proposed health benefits, mixed with the opportunity to talk in unguarded spaces, meant that rambles through the garden became a particular favourite past time for all social groups.
This week’s star bench, donated to Chawton House as part of the North American Friends of Chawton House Share A Bench with Jane campaign, is located at the end of our Lime Walk and bears a quote from Rachel Hunter of Norwich:
“She loved flowers and plants; and I became diligent in the culture of them.”
Rachel Hunter of Norwich, Lady Maclairn, The Victim of Villainy. A Novel (1806)
The domestic garden was a space of aesthetic pleasure, but also of necessity for the Georgians. Many relied on their gardens to provide herbs and vegetables that were well used in their kitchens, as well as providing free, home-made medicinal remedies to avoid costly doctor visits. Gardens also offered vital fresh air and exercise that was needed not only to maintain a healthy lifestyle but also to break up the long days.
“Garden as though you will live forever”
Gisele Lunsford Rankin & Lawson Allen Rankin. Jr
The garden was also one of the only spaces in Regency England where private conversations could be held. Social etiquette dictated that whilst indoors everyone was often confined to the same room, whereas in the garden people could break apart and hold their own private conversations or even break away from the rest of their party to wander in reflective solitude. It is perhaps due to this that some of Austen’s most dramatic scenes play out in the gardens. It is a private walk through the gardens at Barton Park that Eleanor learns from Lucy Steele that she is secretly engaged to her own love Edward Ferrars. Lady Catherine takes Elizabeth Bennet for a walk through the gardens at Longbourn, and it is there that she attacks Elizabeth over the rumours regarding her engagement to Darcy. Thus, through Austen, we are given a clear insight into how gardens were utilised to engage in intimate conversation.
“But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;…”
William Shakespeare, ‘Sonnet 18’
Phala & Larry White and Deborah & Keith McNeil
In grander houses, gardens and wider estates were a statement of wealth and social status. Visitors to the house would take a specific route through the grounds in order to show off the gardens to their best advantage. It became the fashion for owners of these grand estates to bring in landscape artists to reconstruct or ‘improve’ the gardens to match the latest trends. One of the most popular landscape designers of the day was Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who designed some of the most stunning gardens around today including Petworth House and the Chatsworth estate. He promoted the use of the ha-ha – a sunken fence to keep cattle out of formal gardens whilst also providing an uninterrupted view of sweeping parkland – and this is one of the 18th-century features still found in the gardens at Chawton House.
“There I make a comma, and there, where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon: at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the views, a parenthesis: now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.”
Capability Brown to Hannah More (1782)
If you lived in the city, you could still experience the delights of the garden by visiting the English pleasure gardens. These existed on the outskirts of the city, with London alone boasting sixty-four pleasure gardens of various sizes. The most famous two were Vauxhall Gardens in Lambeth and Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea, which were more rural spaces than they are today. The gardens were filled with glamorous and spectacular sights including acres of lighted paths (Vauxhall boasted over 1,000 individual lamps), Greek and Chinese inspired opera pavilions and luxurious private supper boxes, along with various fantastic entertainments like dancing and fayre games. The gardens were exciting spaces for young attendees as they were a place for men and women to socialise relatively freely.
“I find the love of garden grows upon me as I grow older more and more. Shrubs and flowers and such small gay things, that bloom and please and fade and wither and are gone and we care not for them, are refreshing interests, in life…”
Maria Edgeworth, in a letter (1832)
JASNA Southwest Region
Unfortunately, as Vauxhall garden’s popularity increased, its reputation diminished. Many attempts to make the gardens more secure, such as raising the entry fee from 1 shilling to 3 shillings, did not stop questionable characters from roaming the gardens. Courtesans were mistaken for ladies and rogues for gentleman, and anxiety about social mixing resulted in the gardens gaining a reputation as places of debauchery. Robberies, drunken behaviour, prostitution, vandalism and crime all served to keep the ‘right’ people away. This view of the pleasure gardens can be seen in many novels of the period. It is the setting where Mr Harrel, depressed over his mounting debts, commits suicide in Frances Burney’s Cecilia (1782), and where the insecure and shy Joss Sedley gets drunk and makes vulgar advances on women in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848). Thus, a once high-end, fashionable setting slipped into an undesirable place to be seen, all but disappearing by the mid 19th century.
“It is a pleasure to a real lover of Nature to give winter all the glory he can, for summer will make its own way, and speak its own praises.”
Dorothy Wordsworth, writing in her journal (October, 1802)
Cristina & Alex Valeri
The garden was an incredibly important space for the eighteenth century people. It was a place to be treasured and enjoyed. However, it was also a place of social importance, where individuals, and particularly women, could move and speak more freely and decisively than any other space: some of our greatest literary heroines such as Elizabeth Bennet, Catherine Earnshaw and Josephine March, all express themselves by walking through nature and their surrounding landscapes.
Next week will be our final blog for the Share a Bench with Jane Campaign and we will be looking at the importance of landscape in the Regency era, and how it influenced the Romantic movement.