Gardens belonging to the general public are rarely as well documented as the grander gardens of the wealthy. So it was a happy surprise to find how frequently gardens of middle class (and some working people) are described and pictured in a sample of children’s literature from the early 19th century.
While the gardens mentioned in these stories might not always represent actual places, the images and descriptions provide vivid glimpses of how gardens looked and were used by their owners and visitors. We also sense some tension in the relationship between children and gardens. Although gardens are viewed as positive places for children to play and learn about plants, they are also places of potential danger. A genre of books teaching moral conduct show the pitfalls that await reckless children out of doors, such falling out of trees, drowning in open water or being attacked by bees.
The books I’ve consulted, many written by women, are from the Internet Archive’s Children’s Library, made available by various US universities (see links at the end of this post).
Little Mary; or, the Picture-book by Sabina Cecil (1823) is a picture book designed for young children, using hand coloured illustrations and bold text suitable for children learning to read. A series of household objects and plants are discussed, including a crocus and a moss rose. The characteristic mossy growths on the sepals of the moss rose are clearly visible in the illustration of this fashionable plant. Mary’s visit to Tatton Park where she sees deer for the first time is also recorded.
The Little Visitors: in words chiefly composed of one and two syllables by Maria Hack (1815) is designed to encourage older children to read and to inform them about the world. This atmospheric narrative takes the form of a visit by Ellen and Rachel to their aunt. Almost the first thing they do when they arrive is to tour the garden, with their aunt as their knowledgeable guide.
Their aunt went first, and opened the glass door in the hall, and then led them down the stone steps into the garden, which they saw was a very handsome one. There were four large beds of flowers in the front, and fine tall trees and shrubs at the further end. The children were much pleased with the rose trees, on which were great numbers of flowers, some full blown, and some only in bud.
Their aunt left them, and went into the house to fetch a knife. She soon came back, and began to cut the stalks of some of the flowers. She gave each of the little girls one full blown rose, and two nice buds; three fine pinks, a large tulip, a pretty bunch of sweet peas, and a white lily, and then she cut two handsome pieces of sweet-brier, to place at the back of each nosegay.
Later on they take a shady route through the garden, rest on a seat ‘made of branches of knotted wood, painted of a green colour’ and visit a shell grotto;
On turning a winding corner of the path, they saw a little door before them, with ivy growing round it. The inside of this place was very small, and made of knotted branches of trees. .. All at once they came to a very handsome light grotto, with spars and shells on the walls, and the windows were made of glass of many colours.
On another visit to a friend of their aunt the girls are delighted to see goldfish for the first time. (Goldfish are so familiar to us now, it is easy to forget that two hundred years ago they were more unusual). The illustration below shows the two girls at the edge of the goldfish pond, with the two women observing them at a distance.
This garden was a very large one, and they went some way before they came to where the fishes were kept: at last they walked through a narrow path, with high rows of laurel on both sides, which led to an open spot which had rock all around it, with ivy and moss growing over it and mountain flowers blooming on its sides. The tops of the trees rose above the rock, and cast a pleasant shade over the scene beneath. On one side was a fountain, that cooled the air as it foamed into the basin below, and ran into the little fish-pond, which was at some distance, where Ellen and Rachel bent their steps. There were a great number of fish. They threw in crumbs of bread, which the little creatures soon eat up.
We catch glimpses of a smaller, plainer garden through the window of Mrs Clifford’s house in Little Downy, or, the history of a field-mouse: a moral tale by Catherine Parr Strickland (1822). This is the saga of a family of mice (an example of a genre of children’s literature using animals as characters). The garden is separated from the surrounding countryside by a high hedge, which contains beds divided by pathways. There are a pair of bee hives at the end of the garden and we can see a trained vine on the wall of the house. Here is the narrator’s description of the garden:
situated .. on a beautiful sloping green bank, under the shade of a fir tree, not many yards from a nice white brick house, the front of which was covered with vines and wall-fruit; there were pots of balsams and geraniums, placed on the beds opposite the windows and glass door.
The potential dangers of playing out of doors (as well as inside) are spelled out in graphic detail in The Accidents of youth: consisting of short histories, calculated to improve the moral conduct of children, and warn them of the many dangers to which they are exposed, published anonymously in 1819. With its disobedient children, acerbic parents and satirical tone these stories anticipate Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, or Roald Dahl’s children’s stories.
In The Climbers, a story about the dangers of climbing trees, little Henry is berated by his father for causing the accident, despite being quite badly injured. In the chapter entitled The Bees, William thrusts a stick into a hive to get some honey, and is horribly stung. Here’s a flavour of the prose:
More tales from the Georgian Garden in a future post – in the meantime, here are links to the various texts at the Internet Archive: