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In the Garden with Jane Austen: Privies and Ha-Ha Walls

By on Tuesday, May 31, 2011 in All Things Jane | 0 comments

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At last, spring has hit Northern Ohio.  Well, actually, I think we skipped spring and went right into summer.  Believe it or not, today the temp here (90-ish) is going to be hotter than Miami, FL!

 Okay, those were some shots from my garden.  I love flowers!                                            

I’d like to share some things I learned from a beautiful book called In the Garden with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson.  This book is essentially a stroll through the kinds of gardens Jane would have known and visited–from cottage gardens, town gardens, public gardens and parks, to gardens of the great estates.  It is peppered wtih beautiful photographs, period drawings, biographical information, and exerpts from Jane’s novels and letters.  Clearly, the author recognized Jane’s love of gardens, and marries that to all sorts of wonderful details about the Regency period.  Here are just a few fascinating facts I learned.  Keep them in mind, Regency writers (or just enjoy them, everyone else):

–“Plucking a rose” meant visiting the privy.  (Can you imagine using this expression in your next Regency novel?)  Why?  Because the “conveniency” or “necessary house” was often located in the very back of the garden (as far away from the house as possible!), so you had to pass by all the flowers to get there.  (Might as well pick a few on your way, I reckon.)

–On a great estate, the main pleasure grounds of the house (decoratively planted areas, walks, shrubberies, lawns, gardens, conservatories, hothouses, and temples) were separated from the park (the grounds reserved for timber, deer, cattle and sheep) by a hidden wall called a ha-ha.  (Supposedly it was named for the expression of surprise one would utter when accidentally coming upon this drop-off as one was walking around).  This clever structure (often made of stone) preserved the view from the house but also created a barrier to keep the livestock off the beautiful main lawn.

I had read of ha-ha walls before, but the way they were described, could never picture them.  Wilson’s book has a perfect picture of one that is instantly understandable.

 You can read more about ha-ha walls here and you can see one below.   This pic doesn’t really do it justice–the top of the wall should be level with the grass–so the wall is essentially hidden from view.  If, for example, you are standing in front of a grand estate looking out over the lawn, you would not see the wall at all.

This is a rather gruesome cartoon (taken from the BBC link above), but it illustrates this hidden wall idea a lot better, IMO:

 These interesting but obscure facts don’t by any means do this book justice–it’s loaded with rich, beautiful pictures of gardens in various settings. 

Next post, I’m going to describe exactly what a shrubbery is–and why your heroine is likely to do something illusive, secretive, or even downright shocking in one!

Enjoy the weather!