The Loudons were considered the leading horticulturalists of their day. John Claudius was a passionate reformer and saw gardens and horticulture as a means to improvement. He designed the first public parks and argued, for example, that all trees should be labelled to encourage ordinary people to read and become informed. Their circle of friends and acquaintances included people such as John Locke, Charles Dickens and William Thackeray among many other prominent names. Undoubtedly, Jane Loudon herself would have been part of these debates on reform.
As she sought to improve her horticultural knowledge, Jane Loudon had found the gardening manuals of the day were targeted at those who already had a solid level of horticultural understanding – there were no entry-level manuals, for which she saw a need and potential interest and so began to write them herself. She set to writing them as she herself learned: Instructions in Gardening for Ladies; The Ladies’ Flower Garden; The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden; Botany for Ladies; The Lady’s Magazine of Gardening. These became standard books of reference, and attained a large circulation, making gardening an accessible pastime for women, who were often excluded from planting practices.
Like Mary Wollstonecraft, another keen reformer, Jane Loudon was acutely aware of her position. Mary Poovey’s book, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (1984) and Alexis Easeley’s First Person Anonymous (2004) explore the challenges female authors faced in a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century society which emphasised the proprieties of the Proper Lady and the accommodations which women writers made. They also point out why many prominent female writers chose to publish anonymously, as it provided effective cover for exploring a variety of conventionally ‘masculine’ issues’.
Despite its associations with virtuous endeavour and the home, the garden also provided opportunities for women to negotiate between domestic space and the larger world. Jane Loudon was not alone in publishing for women, although most focused on botany – a far less ‘practical’ activity than gardening. And it is clear on reading Jane Loudon’s work, that she is actually encouraging women to get outside in the garden and to engage in some gardening activity – the reader is advised on how best to dig, the most suitable types of implement, as well as on soil quality, compost and plants themselves. Her work is encyclopaedic. Not quite advocating the throwing away of dresses, she treads a careful line between decorum, education and reform. For many years she has languished in the shadow of her husband, but her work deserves to be read on its own merits and for the contribution it makes to the study of the history of women in the garden.
For anyone interested in reading a little more about Jane Loudon, Bea Howe’s book, ‘Lady With Green Fingers’ is a very readable account of her life. Bea Howe herself ( a ‘fringe ‘member of the Bloomsbury Group) was born in Chislehurst.