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Or perhaps this post should be entitled William Larkin’s strawberries…or even Mrs Elton’s:
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.”
I adore this stream of consciousness passage from the hateful Mrs Elton’s lips.
Jane Austen wrote about strawberries in Emma with a connoisseurs eye. She certainly knew of the varieties available in the early 19th century.
The story of the cultivation of the strawberry in England is quite interesting. Let’s look at it…
From medieval times till the 18th century, the only strawberries available for cultivation in England were the woodland strawberries, Fragaria vesea which was native to England. Plants were collected from the wild and planted into kitchen gardens .They came in two types-white and red. The fruits were very small, quite unlike our modern varieties, but similar to the Alpine Strawberries of today:
Thomas Tusser in his book Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie Newlie Augmented (1557) lists that variety as being the only one available for cultivation in England at the time.
(Alpine Strawberries in an 18th century tea bowl)
Improvements by careful breeding with other varieties from abroad began to be made during the 17th century.
The woodland strawberry was eventually crossed with the hautbois strawberry- Fragaria elatio- which was introduced to England from Europe. By 1642 another variety was added to the stock, when the woodland strawberry was interbred with a much better flavoured variety from Virginia , Fragaria Virginiana
The strawberries were still small in size compared to modern varieties, and it was not until the late 18th century that a large fruited strawberry was obtained by cross breeding with the Chilean strawberry, Fragaria Chilensis, which originated in South America.
At first, though breeding with this strawberry produced large fruit, the resulting strawberries had poor flavour and whitish fruits.
It was not until 1806 that a plant of this type was produced which bore large red, well flavoured strawberries which are comparable in size and flavour with the ones we know today: it was known as “Chili” ,and is one of the ones mentioned by Mrs Elton.
The only varieties current in the early 19th cenury that she failed to mention were the Carolina, Fragaria Carolinensis and the Pineapple strawberry.
They are both listed in a gardening book of the era, Every Man His Own Gardener (1809).
Jane Austen may have been familiar with this book for one, in a different edition, was to be found in her brother Edward Knight’s library at Godmersham:
The author, ,John Abercrombie was the son a of a nurseryman and market gardener, from Edinburgh in Soctland.
Trained by his father, he left Scotland to come south to work for George III’s mother Princess Augusta in London at her residences in Leicester House and Kew, between 1751 and 1757.
He was invited circa 1764 to write a gardening book by Mr L Davis a bookseller and Oliver Goldsmith. He agreed on condition that Goldsmith would overlook his manuscript. Goldsmith refused to do so saying that Abercrombies’ style was best suited to his own subject.
Abercrombie eventually wrote the text of Every Man His Own Gardener, which as you can see from the title page, above, is a truly comprehensive gardening book of the late 18th and early 19th century.
But, cannily realizing that he needed to market it in a manner to be attractive to the snobbish world, he paid the Duke of Leeds head gardener, Thomas Mawe, £20 to pose as the author. Every Man etc, appeared in 1767 under the title of Mawe’s Gardener’s Calendar. The book was a great success, and eventually, in 1776, Abercrombie added his own name on the title page as joint author with Mawe. The book continued to be issued, in revised editions, until 1879.
John Abercrombie did not actually meet Mr Mawe until after the publication of the second edition, when Mawe invited him to Yorkshire. They remained friends, and collaborated on another book, The Universal Gardener and Botanist (1778).
Interestingly , two years after Jane Austen died a strawberry of fine quality was introduced by Thomas Andrew Knight (a pioneer of large scale systematic strawberry breeding)…and it was called Elton!!No relation I am glad to say…
And it was good thing that the strawberry picking party at Donwell was not real for Cassandra Austen ,Jane Austen’s sister, seems to have been rather keen on them. As Jane remarked in her letter of 1811:
I had the agreeable surprise of finding several scarlet strawberries quite ripe – had you been at home, this would have been a pleasure lost!