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Inquiring readers, I once enjoyed afternoon tea in Fortnum and Mason’s in London. It was an exquisite, elaborate, and unforgettable experience. It was so elegant that I thought of it as high tea, but its presentation and intent had nothing in common with high tea in Jane Austen’s day, or in our present time. This post is meant to complement Rachel Dodge’s excellent post entitled “Jane Austen’s Regency Women: A Day in the Life , Part 1.” 

Afternoon tea:

The tradition of tea in the afternoon as we understand it began in 1840 with the Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857). She requested light food with tea and a few refreshments in mid-afternoon to stave off hunger pangs before dinner, which was served at 8 p.m. The Duchess soon began to invite friends to her rooms to join her in taking tea, and so a tradition began. This custom, which we celebrate to this day, began years after Jane Austen’s death in 1817.

High tea:

High tea was generally known as dinner or supper by the working classes.

For workers in the newly industrialized Britain, tea time had to wait until after work. By that hour, tea was generally served with heartier dishes which were substantially more than just tea and cakes. Workers needed sustenance after a day of hard labor, so the after-work meal was more often hot and filling and accompanied by a pot of good, strong tea to revive flagging spirits.”- Lemm

It seems that the term ‘high tea’ had more in common with furniture than a lofty service.

“Today, the evening meal in working-class households is still often called “tea” but as working patterns have changed yet again, many households now refer to the evening meal as supper. The addition of the word “high” to the phrase “high tea” is believed to differentiate between the afternoon tea that is traditionally served on low, comfortable parlor chairs or relaxing in the garden and the worker’s after-work high tea that is served at the table and seated on high back dining chairs.” – Lemm

Afternoon tea was therefor served on comfortable chairs in a drawing room or lady’s sitting room, or as a refreshment in the garden.

“Afternoon tea, also known as “low tea,” is the most often taken a a low table, like a coffee table in the sitting room before a warm fire. (Of course, it can also be served at a dining table.) High tea gets its name from its tendency to be served at a high table, like a dining table or high counter at the end of the workday.” – Brown

Breakfast:

Jane Austen was in charge of her family’s tea and sugar stores. She made her family’s breakfast at 9 a.m. The simple repast consisted of toast, rolls, or muffins and butter. Jane toasted the bread over a fire using a long handled fork or a metal rack that held the bread in place.

The typical ‘tea and toast’ breakfast that Jane Austen enjoyed was a relatively new invention. Traditionally, British breakfasts had consisted of hearty fare that often included beef and ale.” – Wilson, p. 21

Evening tea:

Tea was also served one or two hours after dinner. The time was variable, because people during the Regency era ate dinner at different times. Some ate early in the afternoon, as Jane Austen’s parents did when they were younger; some at 3 p.m., like the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice; the Bingleys dined at the more fashionable hour of 6 p.m.; and the Duchess of Bedford, a trendsetter, dined at 8 p.m. Kim Wilson quotes Captain Harry Smith in 1814 as saying, “I breakfast at eight, dine at three, have tea in the evening…” People who did not follow the latest fashion in dining kept the earlier dinner hours they and their families had always adhered to.

Confusing the issue further is that people of the time referred to all hours before dinner as ‘morning’, and the period between dinner and teas as ‘afternoon’, even if it fell in what we now call the evening. To them, ‘evening’ started after tea.” – Wilson, p. 91

In the evening after dinner, the assembled guests returned to the drawing-room. Tea was made by the ladies of the house to prevent servants from taking portions of this expensive commodity for their own use. After tea, “…when the tea-things were removed, and the card-tables placed” (Pride and Prejudice) the diners would play games, such as riddles or charades, or read to each other and partake of other pleasures. In Hartfield, “Mr. and Mrs. Weston and Mr. Elton sat down with Mr. Woodhouse to cards.”- (Emma)

Tea was also provided at balls, when suppers were served at midnight, in private alcoves in pleasure gardens, on visits when “Mr. Woodhouse was soon ready for his tea; and when he had drank his tea he was quite ready to go home” (Emma), and at musicales —”The first act was over. Now she hoped for some beneficial change; and, after a period of nothing-saying amongst the party, some of them did decide on going in quest of tea” (Persuasion).

A lady at a public assembly ball was dependent on a gentleman to escort her to the tea-room.

At a grand ball in Bath, Catherine Moreland of Northanger Abbey, and her friend Mrs. Allen, feel awkward and out of place until “they received an offer of tea from one of their neighbors; it was thankfully accepted, and this introduced a light conversation with the gentleman who offered it…”-Martyris

So many unanswered questions remain about tea taking in the Regency era, especially among the working classes and this post does not begin to address them or pretend to. Tea was so universal during this age, that anyone who could afford it (or smuggle it in) drank it, including Emma’s Mrs. Bates, who was “almost past every thing but tea and quadrille.

Sources:

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“after descending to the brink of the river for the better inspection of some curious water-plant, . . .” –Pride and Prejudice, chapter 43; Elizabeth Bennet, the Gardiners, and Mr. Darcy do a bit of “botanizing” during their walk at Pemberley.

On May 30 and 31, 2020, Chawton House hosted a refreshing Virtual Garden Festival. If you missed it, you can still watch most of it online. You can virtually tour the beautiful Chawton House Gardens with Chawton House volunteer Yvette Carpenter or walk the Jane Austen Garden Trail with Clio O’Sullivan. An intriguing section of the gardens highlights a pioneering woman botanist of the eighteenth century. She lived in an era when science was the nearly-exclusive province of men.

The Elizabeth Blackwell Herbal Garden

The Elizabeth Blackwell Herb Garden is inside the Walled Garden built by Edward Knight. In Jane Austen’s letter of July 3-6, 1813, she wrote from her home, Chawton Cottage, that her brother Edward Knight was enjoying his property at nearby Chawton House. She said, “He talks of making a new Garden . . . at the top of the Lawn behind his own house—We like to have him proving & strengthening his attachment to the place by making it better.” The garden Edward built (which was finished after Austen’s death) has been restored, and the Herb Garden was added in 2016. 

Each section of the Elizabeth Blackwell Herb Garden is planted with medicinal herbs that were used to treat different parts of the body. For example, the Chest Bed includes herbs used to treat ailments of a person’s chest, such as coughs. The other sections are Head Beds, Digestion Beds, and Skin Beds. Carpenter tells us that many of these medicinal herbs, such as rosemary, were also used in cooking. Others have -wort as part of their names, indicating they were used for healing. For example, doctors today still recommend the use of St. John’s Wort for the treatment of mild to moderate depression. In the 1700s, Blackwell said it was used against “melancholy and madness.” Other herbs, as the narrator points out, sound magical, like the dragon tree, snakeweed, and mandrake.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Blackwell, Lady Botanist

The plants in this garden are described in a book owned by the Chawton House Library. A Curious Herbal (1737-9), by Elizabeth Blackwell, is said to be the first herbal produced by a woman. It was also far superior to other herbals available at the time. An “herbal” was a book of plants used as medicines. Blackwell drew and colored 500 meticulously-detailed color plates, each of a different plant, with its flower, seeds, and fruit. Along with each plate is the name of the plant in various languages, a description of it, and how it was used medically. The British Library shows 42 pages of A Curious Herbal online, with summarized information about 38 of the plants. (The Biodiversity Heritage Library offers a complete scanned version.)

Amanda Edmiston, an herbalist and professional storyteller, tells Elizabeth Blackwell’s story. According to Edmiston, Elizabeth was born around 1707 in Aberdeen, Scotland. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Elizabeth eloped with a physician named Alexander Blackwell. His medical credentials were called into question, so they fled to London and she set him up in a printing business. (In Scotland, unlike England, women kept their own property after marriage, so she had the money to do this.) Unfortunately, Alexander was also not qualified to be a printer. He got deep into debt, and ended up in debtor’s prison. Elizabeth, penniless, stayed loyal to her husband, and looked for a way to support herself and their young son, and to pay off his debts. 

Elizabeth Blackwell came up with a plan as she and her son enjoyed the Chelsea Physic Garden. Physic meant medical; the plants in this garden were used to treat illnesses. It was filled with exotic plants. Sir Hans Sloane, a respected doctor and renowned naturalist, had collected the plants on his botanical journeys around the world. Many, including cocoa, came from the Americas. Elizabeth became friends with Sir Hans, as well as with the director and the head gardener of the Physic Garden. They supported her idea of creating a whole new herbal, including both native and imported plants. The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, who rented the garden from Sir Hans Sloane, also officially approved her project. This support was crucial, since otherwise the scientific work of Blackwell, a woman, would probably not have been accepted and respected. 

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden, near the statue of Sir Hans Sloane, 1750. Wood engraving by T. W. Lascelles after H. G. Glindoni, 1890.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden, near the statue of Sir Hans Sloane, 1750. Wood engraving by T. W. Lascelles after H. G. Glindoni, 1890.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Even after Blackwell’s achievement, women botanists of the 1760s had to disguise themselves as men to study plants. In the 1790s, a clergyman wrote that it was “unseemly” for girls to study botany. But with the approval of medical and botanical experts, Elizabeth had been able to publish her groundbreaking Curious Herbal

A Curious Herbal

Before this time, most plants in herbals were not drawn from life. For example, mandrakes were often drawn with the root in the shape of an actual man and were said to scream as they were uprooted (as Harry Potter experiences in his magical herbology classes!). Elizabeth Blackwell, however, drew all 500 plants directly from real plants, some from the Physic Garden and others from other collections in Europe. Her illustrations were thus completely accurate. They can still be used today to clearly identify plants. 

It was said that her husband Alexander wrote the text of the book while he was in prison. Edmiston speculates that it’s more likely that Elizabeth did the writing herself. She had access to experts and to a library including texts that she often references. The idea that Alexander, a male physician, had written the text was probably a fiction to make the book more acceptable.

Elizabeth Blackwell published a section of the herbal with four plants every week, from 1737 to 1739 (about forty years before Jane Austen’s birth). Serial publication made her knowledge available and affordable for many, as well as giving her a regular income. The book did well and raised enough money for her to pay her husband’s debts and get him out of prison. However, he then took a job in Sweden. He got caught up in a plot there to overthrow the king and was executed, just as his wife was about to travel to join him. So Elizabeth and her son were on their own again; we don’t know much about the rest of her life.

 

 

 

In Edmiston’s further videos, she tells stories about many of the plants in Blackwell’s herbal. In Afternoon Tea with the Curious Herbal, we learn about cucumbers, tomatoes, green tea, chocolate, and coffee. Part 3, A Walk Through a Garden, includes stories about rosemary, St. John’s wort, lavender, yarrow, sage, and lemon balm. Take a look!

Other Lady Botanists

Blackwell was not the only woman botanist who published about plants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In “The Women Who Wrote Plants,” Katie Childs introduces us to other women whose books on botany are in the Chawton House Library. 

The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White. Cover of the Penguin Classics edition

The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White. Cover of the Penguin Classics edition

My favorite title is The Wonders of the Vegetable Kingdom, by Mary Roberts, published in 1822. The “wonders” are described in a series of letters; perhaps imitating the approach of the famous naturalist Gilbert White. (Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne in 1789 was a groundbreaking book on the natural world and ecology. You can visit his house, which is now a fascinating museum, just a short drive from Jane Austen’s house at Chawton.) Roberts also wrote A Popular History of the Mollusca, with 18 color plates showing varieties of seashells and the creatures that live in them. It doesn’t sound like a “popular” subject, but perhaps it was in her day!

While women were not expected to write adult books on botany during Austen’s lifetime, it was fine for them to write botany textbooks for children’s education. These are quite detailed, like adult books. Priscilla Wakefield’s text for children, Introduction to Botany, was published in 1796. She wrote it as a series of letters, with color illustrations. In Katie Childs’ presentation, she tells us that Wakefield was a Quaker social reformer who started a maternity hospital. Elizabeth Fry, the famous Quaker prison reformer, was Wakefield’s niece.

Cover of An Introduction to Botany by Priscilla Wakefield, Cambridge Library Collection.

An Introduction to Botany by Priscilla Wakefield, Cambridge Library Collection. 

Botany did become a fashionable pursuit for elegant ladies. Botanical Rambles (1826), by Lucy Sarah Atkins, is subtitled, “Designed as an Early and Familiar Introduction to the Elegant and Pleasing Study of Botany.” The ability to draw plants accurately became an “accomplishment” ladies aspired to. Books were written specifically on how to draw plants, including information about the plants themselves. Watch Ms. Childs’ talk for more about early female botanical writers, and to see illustrations from their books.

Beatrix Potter, Expert on Fungi!

Speaking of discrimination against women in science, especially in botany: Much later, in 1897, a paper on fungi by Beatrix Potter (yes, the author of Peter Rabbit) was presented at the Linnaean Society in London. However, since she was a woman, she was not allowed to present, or even to attend the meeting. Her paper, presented by her uncle, was not taken seriously since it was written by a woman. Today, though, Beatrix Potter’s illustrations of various fungi are used around the world to identify species of mushrooms.

Les Champignons by Beatrix Potter book cover, French Edition, ABE Books. ISBN 10: 2909808211 / ISBN 13: 9782909808215

Les Champignons by Beatrix Potter book cover, French Edition, ABE Books, ISBN 10: 2909808211 / ISBN 13: 9782909808215.

Highlight of the Festival: Gardens in Jane Austen

On Sunday, the Garden Festival offered some presentations specifically for gardeners, so if gardening is one of your passions, you may want to check those out.

For Jane Austen lovers like me, though, the highlight of the festival was “Love in the Shrubbery: Gardens in Jane Austen’s Life and Works.” Kim Wilson, author of In the Garden with Jane Austen, finished out the festival with this charming presentation. In it, she shows us gardens Austen knew. She also explains and illustrates those terms like shrubbery and wilderness, describing places where Austen’s ladies and gentlemen walk. Did you know that shrubberies had paths made of gravel to keep the ladies’ feet dry, since wet feet were considered potentially fatal? (Think of Marianne Dashwood, sitting in wet shoes and stockings before her near-fatal illness.) If you only have time to watch one video from the Chawton House Virtual Garden Festival, I recommend this delightful 28-minute presentation.

I also joined in an engaging creative writing workshop led by Claire Thurlow, “A Garden Writing Retreat.” Claire encouraged the participants to imagine ourselves in our own special gardens as we write. While that workshop is not available online, you might use Kim Wilson’s talk, or any of the virtual garden tours from the festival, to enjoy time in a virtual garden today. I hope it will refresh your soul.

Note for anyone who might be wondering: There was also a later Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman to graduate in medicine in the United States, in 1849. Both Blackwells were pioneering women in the medical field of their times.

A Word About the Author: Brenda S. Cox blogs on “Faith, Science, Joy, . . . and Jane Austen!” at brendascox.wordpress.com . Under the category “Science” at her site, you will find other articles on science in Jane Austen’s England, including women of science like Caroline Herschel and Mary Anning.

Quote from Austen’s letters is from p. 224 of Deirdre Le Faye’s fourth edition of Jane Austen’s Letters.

Links embedded in the article:

 

 

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Instead of commemorating Jane Austen’s death at 41 on July 18, 1817, I would like to celebrate her life with a book giveaway of In the Garden With Jane Austen by Kim Wilson. It is a slim hard-back book filled with color photographs. In it Kim discusses the gardens that Jane Austen would have known and visited.

This contest will end on July 18th at midnight, EST. The winner will be chosen by random number generator.

To leave a comment, please let me know which flower you would leave behind at her grave. Update because of a confusion: A comment enters you into the contest. CONTEST CLOSED: Congratulations Eileen Landau! Your comment about a tussie-mussie was chosen by Random.org

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If I had only read Kim Wilson’s Tea with Jane Austen many years ago, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble. Yes, gentle readers, I spent hours researching the history of tea and how and when people in the Regency era served it only to find that most of the information had already been gathered in this book.

Tea With Jane Austen at the Morgan Library & Museum gift shop. Image @Jane Austen's World

Kim published her slim but informative book in 2004, two years before I began this blog. It is now in its second edition, and rightly so. The author has included almost all the facts and social customs about tea that a Regency romance author or Jane Austen fan or 18th- and 19th-century social historian could want.

Image inside the book. Copyright 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd

I read this slim but fact-packed volume in two sittings the first time around, and have since read it twice more. Each time I have been DELIGHTED. Kim includes information about the Austens; a short history of tea; mealtimes and the hours they were taken by both simple folks and the gentry;

A sample page - Making the Perfect Cup. Click on image. Copyright 2011 Kim Wilson

tea served in the home and outside of it; tea served in the morning and at a grand ball; the best way to prepare tea (or how the English do it); the health benefits of tea; shopping for tea; recipes for tea treats (including one for Mr. Woodhouse’s gruel!); and the difference between high tea and low tea (and why so many of us use the terms wrong).

One of the many charming quotes sprinkled throughout the book. Copyright 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd

If I have any fault to find with the book is that it’s too short. Thankfully, Kim Wilson also wrote In the Garden with Jane Austen, a book I shall review at a later time. I give Tea with Jane Austen five out of five china tea cups. Order the book here: Frances Lincoln, UK; and Amazon.com US

5 out of 5 tea cups

Binding: Hardback, 128 pages
ISBN: 9780711231894
Format: 215mm x 165mm
40 colour and 45 b/w illustrations

BIC Code: BGL, WBX
BISAC Code: BIO007000
Imprint: Frances Lincoln

More About Tea

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Gentle Readers: To celebrate the 3 millionth visitor to this blog, I will be giving away Tea With Jane Austen, a delightful and informative book by Kim Wilson. Deadline: The contest will end the moment my blog meter records 3 million or July 4th, whichever comes first! Contest Closed! Congratulations, Sherry, and thank you ALL for participating and leaving such excellent questions!

All you need to do is leave a comment and a way for me to reach you. Please address this question: If Jane Austen came over for tea, which burning question would you want to ask her?

Thank you all for visiting my blog and for making it such a joy to meet you online.

Page 16 of Tea with Jane Austen. Image @Amazon.com

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