All of the settings of the Austen Six include a garden as a prerequisite for a happy life. For those who could afford it a full time gardener would do the backbreaking work. However, the various gardens were managed for food and flower production as well as pleasure. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens are often mentioned in the Austen Six; one example was Barton Cottage in Sense and Sensibility. The three women, recently moved from a much larger house but found pleasure in the garden. Also landlord and neighbour, Lord Middleton’s Barton Park was a successful estate and upon arrival he had sent “a large basket full of garden stuff and fruit” which was later followed by a present of game. But the Dashwoods would have to be mindful of making their own garden productive. There were no green grocers down the road and the concept of self sufficiency was a necessity, not a modern eco friendly dream. Any garden needed to be planted with vegetables as well as flowers if the family were to stay healthy and happy. And no doubt the planning and planting, and later the harvesting of the garden would have afforded much pleasure and satisfaction for the family. When one faces hardship, disruption and loss, the importance of keeping busy and doing worthwhile tasks cannot be overstated. Sometimes tilling a garden is only a short respite – but a short respite might be all that is possible. As well as a chance to refresh the brain, gardens can be an opportunity to feel real satisfaction. It is somewhat absurd that had the Dashwood family been wealthier they might not have developed such resilience in the face of their loss as there would have been less to do.
I can still feel the excitement and I will continue to cherish the memory of the various moments while reading the Austen Six when I came across references to the fresh produce or the gardens. In Mansfield Park, the apricots are “so valuable a fruit”. Local fresh produce is again on our radar. As I eat my bland fruit from the supermarket I think back to the small basket of apricots I finally managed to coax from our tree at the beginning of last summer. Their unspoilt flesh and juicy insides gave such pleasure, albeit fleeting as they lasted such a little while. The growing of food of course is never central stage in the Austen Six but it is often a signpost about the characters and can certainly only help us in the happiness stakes.