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Pomona Britannica and Emma

Michele Larrow, Regional Co-Coordinator

In planting a new garden, the first grand object is, to consider what are the proper varieties with which the table may be supplied, and the dessert set out with the highest flavoured fruit, and from the earliest to the latest period possible.” 

George Brookshaw, quoted in Pellgrü-Gagel (2002, p. 20)

While looking for a botany book in the Washington State University library, I found George Brookshaw Pomona Britannica: The Complete Plates, a 2002 book published by Taschen that reproduces the color plates in Brookshaw’s book, originally published in 1812.  Many of the fruit mentioned by Jane Austen in her novels and letters are featured in this book in beautiful detail.  The original Pomona Britannica (1812) took almost 10 years to create through a process of copperplate engraving, aquatint, and hand-painting the 90 plates.  It was dedicated to the Prince Regent[i] and is based on fruit grown in the Royal Garden at Hampton Court and other gardens around London.  Brookshaw’s purpose was to help those who have estate gardens distinguish between the many varieties of fruits and increase the cultivation of the best fruits.  The high cost of the book (almost 60 pounds) and the complexity of the printing process, which would have limited the number of copies, meant that probably only the very wealthy would have been able to purchase copies.  The copy used to make the 2002 book belonged to Prince George’s sister, Princess Elizabeth, and followed her to Germany when she married; its current location is in the Staatliche Bücher und Kupferstichsammlung Greiz, Thüringen (State Collection of Books and Engravings, Greiz, Thuringia) in Germany.  Only 6 other complete copies are known (including three in the U.S. at the New York Public Library[ii], the Library of Congress, and Oak Spring Garden Library, Virginia.)[iii]  It is highly unlikely that Jane Austen knew of this publication, yet the color plates give a vibrant representation of the fruits that would have been in estate gardens during the Regency era.

Pomona Britannica and Strawberry Picking at Donwell Abbey

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.” 

Jane Austen, Emma, Vol III, Chap. 6, pp. 389-390

Mrs. Elton’s monologue when she is picking strawberries at Donwell Abbey is unique in the novels in that it names specific varieties of a fruit: Chili, hautboy, and white wood strawberries.  The Chili and hautboy strawberries are pictured in Pomona Britannica (see the fourth picture below, hautboy is top left and Chili is top right)The white wood strawberry is not pictured precisely.  There is a wood strawberry (lower left in the fifth picture below) and a white alpine strawberry (lower right in the fifth picture); the white wood strawberry would looks like a combination of the two pictures.  Unfortunately the text of the original Pomona Britannica is not available online, so I consulted Thomas Mawe and John Abercrombie’s The Universal Gardener and Botanist, a 1778 gardening book that we know was in Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight’s Godmersham library in the 1818 catalogue (https://www.readingwithausten.com/catalogue.html) for information about the plants mentioned in Emma.  According to Mawe and Abercrombie, all of the strawberries mentioned by Mrs. Elton are varieties of the species FRAGARIA Vesca, cultivated strawberry, known for “beautiful fruit with admirable fragrance”. Hautboy (from hautbois or Musky strawberry) and Chili strawberries (named after the country Chile, where they originated) have larger fruit (Chili is the largest,) and wood strawberry has smaller fruit.  It is only the alpine berry that bears throughout summer.  All the other varieties produce fruit once in “June, July, or August”, perfect timing for Mr. Knightley’s strawberry picking party almost at midsummer!

As we know, Mrs. Elton becomes bored with strawberries and turns her attention to cherries and currants.  Cherries are another fruit with many varieties in the late 1700s and early 1800s (there are 21 varieties shown in Pomona Britannica).  Currants are related to gooseberries (both Ribes genus) but only have three main varieties: black, white, and red.  The plates for currants and one of the pages for cherries are shown below, along with Mawe and Abercrombie’s discussion of the fruits. Cultivated cherries (Prunus Cerasus) are in the same genus as plums, apricots, and laurels. Note how many varieties of cherries are listed in Mawe and Abercrombie, including the May Duke, White Heart, and Black Heart, all pictured below in Pomona Britannica.

Pomona Britannica and the Wide Variety of Apples

And when I brought out the baked apples from the closet, and hoped our friends would be so very obliging as to take some. . . . The apples themselves are the very finest sort for baking, beyond a doubt; all from Donwell—some of Mr. Knightley’s most liberal supply. He sends us a sack every year; and certainly there never was such a keeping apple anywhere as one of his trees—I believe there is two of them. My mother says the orchard was always famous in her younger days. But I was really quite shocked the other day—for Mr. Knightley called one morning, and Jane was eating these apples, and we talked about them and said how much she enjoyed them, and he asked whether we were not got to the end of our stock. ‘I am sure you must be,’ said he, ‘and I will send you another supply; for I have a great many more than I can ever use. William Larkins let me keep a larger quantity than usual this year. I will send you some more, before they get good for nothing.’ . . . ‘However, the very same evening William Larkins came over with a large basket of apples, the same sort of apples, a bushel at least, and I was very much obliged. . . . I found afterwards from Patty, that William said it was all the apples of that sort his master had; he had brought them all—and now his master had not one left to bake or boil. William did not seem to mind it himself, he was so pleased to think his master had sold so many; for William, you know, thinks more of his master’s profit than any thing; but Mrs. Hodges, he said, was quite displeased at their being all sent away. She could not bear that her master should not be able to have another apple-tart this spring.” 

Jane Austen, Emma, Vol II, Chap. 9, pp. 256-258

Apples figure prominently in Emma, and, as we can see from Miss Bates narrative above, are mainly connected to Mr. Knightley and his generous gifts of “keeping” apples during winter to the Bates family.  At the end of the 18th century there is a great range of apple varieties (there are 39 apples pictured in Pomona Britannica).  In 1826, there were over 1200 varieties in England (Pellgrü-Gagel), many having more than one name. In the 1700s, botany was still an evolving science and apples were listed by Mawe and Abercrombie (following the Linnæan system of the time) in as a species of the pear genus (Pyrus malus). Now apples are given their own genus, Malus. Mawe and Abercrombie describe apples as “the most valuable fruit in the world for its various economical uses”. They organize their listing of 36 preferred apple varieties (see pictures below) according to when the fruit ripens and then name another 27 varieties of lesser quality that appear in catalogues or for sale through nursery men.  It is likely that Brookshaw organized his plates similarly in order of ripening in Pomona Britannica as the late-ripening Pippins (including aromatic, embroidered, and lemon mentioned by Mawe and Abercrombie) and the Colvilles (both white and red are pictured below) come toward the end of the apple plates.  Many of these specific varieties are listed in Abercrombie and Mawe as ripening in October and keeping over the winter.  Since there are so many varieties of apples that ripen in fall and keep over the winter, it makes sense that Jane Austen would be vague about what specific apple is gifted to the Bates family by Mr. Knightley.

Jane Austen enjoyed eating fruits and mentions gardens, plants, and fruits frequently in her letters. She says she had strawberries three times while at her brother Edward’s estate, Godmersham, and hopes that Cassandra is gathering them at home in Southampton (20 June – 22 June, 1808). When she still lived in Steventon, she wrote about the possibility of their planting apple, pear, and cherry trees (20-21 November 1800). It is amazing to see these detailed pictures of fruits that would have been known to Jane Austen.  We will continue to present more Austen-connected plates from Pomona Britannica in future blogs.  I appreciate that we can read digital copies of historical botany and gardening books and I highly recommend finding a copy of the Taschen edition of Pomona Britannica if you enjoy Regency-era gardening books.


[i] See the pictures for the Brookshaw dedication compared to Jane Austen’s dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent.  Note that she is not a “devoted” servant.

[ii] The New York Public Library has digital copies of every plate available for free download.  Several of the plates were downloaded for use here (see works cited at the end).  The color of the digital copies of the plates was edited and enhanced to come closer to the color of the plates in the 2002 Taschen version. Because the Taschen book is printed on high quality paper, there is considerable reflection and it is hard to get a good photograph of the pages. The header image is a detail from the Taschen book.

[iii] Information in this paragraph is drawn from Uta Pellgrü-Gagel, “Pomona Britannica: A Masterpiece of Pomology”, translated by Ann Hentschel (2002). In George Brookshaw Pomona Britannica: The Complete Plates, Koln, Germany:Taschen.

Works Cited

1. Austen, Jane Emma Eds. Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan. Cambridge: CUP, 2005.

2. Mawe, Thomas, and Abercrombie, John. The Universal Gardener and Botanist: Or, A General Dictionary of Gardening and Botany. Exhibiting in Botanical Arrangement, According to the Linnæan System, Every Tree, Shrub, and Herbaceous Plant, that Merit Culture, Either for Use, Ornament, Or Curiosity in Every Department of Gardening … Together with Practical Directions for Performing the Various Mechanical Operations of Gardening in General. United Kingdom, G. Robinson, 1778.  https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Universal_Gardener_and_Botanist/eMtCAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0 (version from The Ohio State University)

3. Pellgrü-Gagel, Uta. “Pomona Britannica: A Masterpiece of Pomology”, translated by Ann Hentschel (2002). In George Brookshaw Pomona Britannica: The Complete Plates, Koln, Germany: Taschen.

4. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “Strawberry varieties: Hoboy – Chili strawberry – Scarlet-Alpine – Scarlet-flesh pine.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1812. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-8854-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

5. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “Wood strawberry – The new early prolific strawberry – White Alpine.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1812. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-8858-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

6. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “Black currant – Dutch red and white currants.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1812. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-886a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

7. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “May-Duke, the White and Black-heart Cherries.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1812. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-887f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

8. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “Apples (Robertson’s, Blanchard’s, Rasberry, Lemon, Aromatic. Fern’s, Embroidered and the Spitsburgh Pippins).” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1812. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-8b77-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

9. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “Apples (White Colville, Red Colville, Norfolk Beefin, Norfolk paradise, Norfolk storing varieties).” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1812. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-8b7a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99