Posts Tagged ‘Gilbert White’

“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.

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Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. Post written by Tony Grant, London Calling.

Gilbert White

Claire Tomlin’s biography of Jane Austen called Jane Austen A Life begins with:

The Winter of 1775 was a hard one. On 11th November the naturalist, Gilbert White saw that the trees around his Hampshire village of Selborne had almost lost all their leaves. “Trees begin to be naked,” he wrote in his diary. Fifteen miles away, higher up in the Downs, in the village of Steventon, the rectors wife was expecting the birth of her seventh child from day to day as the leaves fell.”

And thus we have the first introduction to Jane, still inside her mother’s womb, with a reference to the reverend Gilbert White of Selborne.

Map of Selborne

Selborne is a village about five miles to the east of Chawton. Gilbert White was in his 55th year just as Jane began her first year. His writing was to become the most continuously published piece of writing in the English language. It has been published more often than Jane’s own writing and the Bible. It is still on the shelves of all good bookshops today and new editions are always being prepared.

Mayflies, Gilbert White, 1771

Gilbert White was born in 1720. He was educated in the town of Basingstoke, the town Jane knew well. Thomas Wharton was his schoolmaster. He then embarked on an academic career at Oriel College Oxford. Following his grandfather and uncle into the church, he became ordained as a church of England priest. From an early age he took a deep interest in the natural history and the plants and animals in his native Hampshire.

Gilbert White's journal. Image @Tony Grant

Gilbert White is best known for his collection of letters compiled in a volume called Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, (1789) The book comprised his correspondence with two of the leading naturalists of the time, Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. In the letters White discussed his theories about the local flora and fauna.

Vegetable garden. Image @Tony Grant

Gilbert White was also a keen gardener and grew many species of flowers, vegetables and fruit. What made him different and unique and applicable to naturalists today was that he observed things closely in their natural state. Naturalists, during his lifetime and before him, tended to examine the dead carcasses of animals brought to them.

Natural collection. Image @Tony Grant

They would dissect and examine in detail the animal or plant before them; dead, cut off, out of it’s natural environment, there, on their table or desk. White performed some of this type of research, but what really made him different was his observations of animals and plants in their natural habitat. We would not think of studying an animal today without knowing it’s habitat, life cycle, and breeding habits. This is what made White unique for his time. His records are unique also in the length of time he kept them and the systematic detail of his observations. Darwin quoted some of Gilbert White’s observations in his own research.

Martin, The Natural History of Selborne, Gilbert White

Gilbert White especially studied the species known as hirundines. These are what we know as swallows, house martins and swifts. He observed them flying, soaring, whirling about the great hanger that stood behind the village of Selborne . The base of the hanger was literally at the bottom of his garden. A hanger is a large, very steep hill, with almost vertical sides. Trees adorn its face and seem to ”hang” there. The hanger at Selborne was home to a vast variety of flora and fauna. It is very much the same today as it was in Gilbert White’s time.

The hanger at Selborne. Image @Tony Grant

In fact, by using his letters as guides, you can follow the very same paths and walks he took all those years ago and see the plants and wild life he observed. And, yes, you can still see his beloved hirundines, whirling and twirling and flickering , darting and swooping about the hanger in the springtime and summer months.

Gilbert White's house at Selborne. Image @Tony Grant

Most of Gilbert White’s contemporaries were convinced that swallows hibernated during the winter months in hollows and under the mud of local ponds. White disputed this and tried throughout his life to gain evidence to prove or disprove this. Unfortunately he never reached a definitive conclusion.

Interior, Gilbert White's house. Image @Tony Grant.

Gilbert White’s brother, Benjamin, who was a publisher of natural history, introduced him to Thomas Pennant, the foremost zoologist of the time, and to Daines Barrington. He corresponded with them and other naturalists, such as Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.

Pennant and Barrington

In his first letter to Thomas Pennant,  White describes Selborne and it’s situation.

At the foot of this hill, one stage or step from the uplands lies the village, which consists of one straggling street, three quarters of a mile in length, in a sheltered vale and running parallel with the hanger. The houses are divided from the hill by a vein of stiff clay (good wheat land), yet stand a rock of white stone, little in appearance removed from chalk; but seems so far from being calcareous, that it endures extreme heat.”

Selborne from the hanger. Image @Tony Grant

Just in this short extract we can see White’s eye for detail, his wondering mind, and his clarity of recording.

Selborne cottage. Image @Tony Grant.

In LetterXL to Thomas Pennant on September 2nd, 1774, White writes:

Nightingales, when their young first come abroad, and are helpless, make a plaintive and jarring noise; and also a snapping or cracking, pursuing people along the hedges as they walk; these last sounds seem intended for menace and defiance.”

The Hoopoe, The Natural History of Selborne, Gilbert White

You can imagine Gilbert White being hounded and bothered in this way as he walked the lanes around Selborne, and being utterly fascinated and engrossed in this behaviour. Maybe our beloved Jane experienced such sights with the same wildlife too on her daily walks in Chawton five miles away?

Selborne Church. Image @Tony Grant

In a letter to Danes Barrington November 20th, 1773, Gilbert White writes about house martins.

A few house- martins begin to appear about the sixteenth of April; usually some few days later than the swallow. For some time after they appear the hirundines in general pay no attention to the business of nidification ( the act of building a nest), but play and sport about either to recruit from the fatigue of their journey, if they do migrate at all, or else that their blood may recover it’s true tone and texture after it has been so long benumbed by the severities of the winter.”

Church window. Image @Tony Grant

Gilbert is not sure, do they migrate or do they hibernate? This is the crux of his life long investigation.

Memorial window dedication. Image @Tony Grant

Every Spring, Gilbert White looked forward to the return of the hirundines and when reading his letters at that time of the year you can sense his uplifted spirits. His friends have returned.

Gilbert White's grave. Image @Tony Grant


Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen A Life, Penguin Books, 1998 (revised edition 2000). Read Chapter One here.

Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (First published 1788-9). Reprinted by Penguin Classics, 1987.

Cimex linearus

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