Carol Chernega worked in the garden at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton in the summer of 2005 when she was chosen as the first International Visitor for JASNA. (Read more about the International Visitor Program here.) She’s continued the association she began that summer by collaborating with the House gardener, Celia Simpson, on an upcoming book, The Garden at Jane Austen’s House: Past and Present. Carol is past President of the Pittsburgh Region of JASNA, and she spoke at the 2008 JASNA AGM in Chicago about her experience as the International Visitor.
I’m very pleased to introduce her guest post for Emma in the Snow on the strawberries at Donwell Abbey, and to share with you her photos of Jane Austen’s House and of Pittsburgh in the snow. I don’t have any new photos of Halifax in the snow, because we’ve had some mild weather recently and the snow has pretty much disappeared. But the forecast for tomorrow tells me there’s more on the way, so perhaps I’ll have some new photos to share with you next week.
Carol and I couldn’t find any recent pictures of strawberries or strawberry picnics, but I managed to find a photo of strawberries from a few years ago, so I’ll include it below. If any of you have hosted or attended Austen-inspired strawberry picnics, we’d be glad to hear about them.
The whole party were assembled, excepting Frank Churchill, who was expected every moment from Richmond; and Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking—strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.—“The best fruit in England—every body’s favourite—always wholesome.—These the finest beds and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one’s self—the only way of really enjoying them.—Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest flavour of all—price of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple Grove—cultivation—beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to cherries—currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no longer—must go and sit in the shade.”
Such, for half an hour, was the conversation—interrupted only once by Mrs. Weston, who came out, in her solicitude after her son-in-law, to inquire if he were come—and she was a little uneasy.—She had some fears of his horse.
Volume 3, Chapter 6 (Mollands.net)
One of the most popular scenes in Emma is the outing at Donwell Abbey. JASNA members frequently host strawberry picnics in June in tribute to this scene. We love to laugh at Mrs. Elton as she drones on about strawberries and gives her opinion on the attributes of different varieties.
But is this scene really a monologue by Mrs. Elton? And what’s so great about “hautboy”?
On the surface, it looks as though it is Mrs. Elton who is droning on about the various types of strawberries. She tries to present herself as an expert, but we know her for the pretentious bore that she is. We know Emma and Mr. Knightley don’t like her, so we’re predisposed to dislike her too. We’ve all probably met a Mrs. Elton, somebody who ostentatiously expounds on a subject, so we’re ready to laugh at her.
But is it really only Mrs. Elton talking? In the next paragraph, Austen refers to this as a conversation, not a monologue, and states it covers a period of half an hour. I’d suggest that the dashes used as punctuation are the points at which others try to enter the conversation. Perhaps people even contradict her statements. But she overcomes their objections every time. You can almost hear the other dialogue in those dashes. Somebody might say: “Oh, strawberries are much better than cherries.” Mrs. Elton shoots back: “Inferior to cherries.”
We’re only hearing Mrs. Elton’s side of the conversation, but it isn’t strictly a monologue. Presenting it as a monologue is, perhaps, Austen’s way of emphasizing the point that Mrs. Elton is trying to establish herself as the hostess. She doesn’t realize that the role of a good hostess is to place the spotlight on her guests, not to shine it on herself. She’ll never make it in Highbury society.
Now let’s talk of strawberries. Today, strawberry jam is the quintessential jam served with any self-respecting cream tea in England. However, during Austen’s time, strawberries would not have been used only as a food source. An infusion of fresh strawberry leaves would be used as a gargle for a sore throat. People were also advised to drink large quantities of this infusion for urinary problems.
When Jane Austen was a child, there were two native strawberries available in England. White wood was a small white strawberry, probably Fragaria vesca semperflorens. We now call this an alpine strawberry. The other was hautboy, Fragaria moschata, also known as hautbois or a musk strawberry.
In the late 18th century, a revolution in strawberries took place in Europe. By chance, two strawberries were crossed and produced a larger, tastier strawberry which is the ancestor of all English varieties known today. One of those crossed strawberries, Fragaria Virginiana, came from the Colonies and contributed the red color. The other, Fragaria Chileonsis, came from Chile and contributed the larger size. Its name was shortened to Chili. The new strawberry was called Fragaria X ananassa.
By the time Austen wrote Emma, she was obviously aware of these new, more flavorful strawberries coming in from Europe, and she used them to comic effect during the strawberry picking scene. The assertion that hautboy was scarce was probably true, and that’s due to the fact that hautboy has separate male and female plants and is therefore more challenging to cross-pollinate.
Although the statement is made that white wood was the finest flavored, today we’d probably find it bland. But in Austen’s time, it’s not surprising that the general feeling would be that the native strawberries, white wood and hautbois, would be considered the best.
The next time you host a strawberry picnic in Emma’s honor, see if you can find the strawberry varieties mentioned in the strawberry gathering scene. Compare them and decide which ones are superior. But do be sure to respect the opinion of your guests.
Twenty-second in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow. Coming soon: guest posts by Sarah Woodberry, Deborah Yaffe, and Kim Wilson.