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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jane Austen and Capability Brown

The 50 miles of good road in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy's 10,000 a year, and the "ha-ha" in Manfield Park are all features of the times and background for Capability Brown's influence on English gardening.

August 30th 2016 marked the tercentenary of the baptism (his date of birth is unrecorded) of Lancelot 'Capability’ Brown (1716-1783). If you were in England this year, you may have seen certain events dedicated to this man who transformed the British landscape with his vision of naturalistic gardens See The genius of Capability Brown. People in Britain  were  even given the opportunity to buy special stamps to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown's birth. 

But you don't have to travel all the way to England to see examples of Capability Brown's work, you can travel as far as New Haven, Connecticut to the Yale Center for British Art. That's where the painting of Warwick Castle is housed. Lancelot Capability Brown was commissioned to design the grounds in 1750.  I only came across this in May 2018, though I heard of Capability Brown back in 2016 on a visit to an attraction that he wasn't directly involved in but had inspired.
Francis Harding, active 1730–1766, British, Warwick Castle, ca. 1764, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection 

I only heard about him on this side of the Atlantic because on one of the tours of Old Westbury Gardens  (which were designed to emulate English estates to appeal to the taste of the owner's British bride) the guide mentioned Capability Brown as the designer. Of course, he couldn't have designed the Long Island estate directly, but his influence came through in the play of lawns, trees, and water to be found even on Long Island.

thatched cottage at Old Westbury Gardens

Curious about the person who shares our last name, my husband looked for books about him in our library system. We only succeeded in obtaining one: Roger Turner's  Capability Brown and the Eighteenth-Century English LandscapeThe History Press Rizzoli International Publications, 1985. While Turner frequently quotes the poet Alexander Pope to give some literary background and one time quotes the writer Hannah More, he fails to mention Jane Austen in connection with the transformation of the landscape at all, and this is an omission I intend to rectify here. 
In Ch. 32 of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy tells Elizabeth,  "`And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day's journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance.''  Darcy was particularly appreciative of "good road"  because it was still a relatively recent convenience that made a dramatic difference to travelers. As Turner writes on p. 17,  "During Brown's practising years, 1750-80, the time taken between London and the major towns was halved. Before these improvements bad weather and wintry conditions made travel impossible for wheeled traffic."  

Earlier in the book, we have the famous pronouncement about Darcy's wealth amounting to 10,000 a year. That figure is also one that Turner mentions as requisite for an estate owner to really maintain a good figure in society: "At least five or six thousand pounds a year was required to support a great house, to allow for the expenses of the London season and to enable the owner to patronize the arts. More comfortably it required ten thousand a year" (p. 17). 
Awareness of garden features gains prominence in Austen's Mansfield Park. In chapter 10, Maria Bertram complains,“Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,' as the starling said.” Refusing to remain restrained, she goes through, ignoring Fanny's warning of the danger of slipping into the ha-ha.

 Of course, all this foreshadows Maria's breaking through the set boundaries of her marriage and becoming a fallen woman. But there still had to be a physical ha-ha, a type of sunken fence that created a barrier between the extended grounds of the estate where animals could graze and the gardens near the house without obstructing the view. This was not a feature that Brown invented but one that he did use. 

Taylor refers to this device and the explanation for its name on p. 29 in  quotes Horace Walpole's 1770 essay On Modern Gardening: 
"The capital stroke, the leading step to all that has followed, was (I believe the first thought was Bridgeman's) the destruction of walls for boundaries, and the invention of fosses -- an attempt then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them Ha! Ha!s to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk."
In fact, though, Charles Bridgeman (1680?-1738) could not have been the first to make use of this 
sunken fence, as it already was in use in Versailles before it appeared in England.  Howeve, it appears to have become increasingly common in England in Jane Austen's time, enough so that she could safely assume her readers would be able to picture the obstruction posed by the ha-ha she references several times in Mansfield Park

 The woman writer Turner does quote, Hannah  More (p. 78) was already quoted by a prior biographer of the master gardener, Dorothy Stroud. She records what the writer said about here"friend Mr. Brown" who "illustrates everything he says about gardening by some literary or grammatical allusion."
She said:
"He told me he compared his art to literary composition. 'Now there," pointing a finger, “I make a comma, and there”, pointing to another spot, “where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon, at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis, now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.”

While Taylor doesn't like the literary take on landscaping, it strikes me as an inverse of what Austen said about her own writing in the expression about her own miniature scale. The quote comes from a letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh: "What should I do with your strong, manly, vigorous sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?"

Capability Brown's landscaping took a great deal of labor to produce subtle effects that could be appreciated many years later. The same can be said of Austen's novels. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

The recipe for the nursery rhyme

image from


I'm in the middle of a work of historical fiction that takes place during the Middle Ages. It referenced pies with live birds à la the four-and-twenty blackbirds mentioned in "Sing a song of sixpence." It also suggested that some people topped this with a human child popping out of the pie but suggested that some kids may have been hurt in the attempt. In reality, there really were such recipes, but no birds (or children) were actually baked into the pie. Rather the pie was baked and then cut on the bottom to allow them in. 

What else is the internet for if not to find recipes for such whimsical concoctions dating back over five centuries? I found it on more than one site but went for the one from Chef Frank for better clarify. The origin is an Italian cookbook from 1549 that was translated into English 49 years later. Chef Frank writes up the recipe in modern English with modern instructions, as well as assurances that the birds will be completely unscathed. Supposedly this kind of crust only works with lard, so it wouldn't do for people with kosher or hallal dietary requirements. 

Four and Twenty Blackbird Pie
24 live blackbirds12 cups all purpose flour1 1/2 tbsp salt6 eggs, slightly beaten2 lb lard1/2 cup water3 eggs, beaten2-3 heads decorative kale (for garnish)
Make sure all the blackbirds are alive and comfortable. Reserve. In a large bowl, place the flour and salt. Pour the eggs into the center of the bowl and with 2 knives, cut the eggs into the flour until it looks like course cornmeal. In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil and add the lard. Heat until all the lard is melted. Pour hot lard into the flour mixture, and work into a firm dough. While the dough is still warm, divide 2/3 - 1/3. Roll the larger part out on a floured surface into a large circle, at least 36" in diameter. Don't worry if the dough is thick. Keep the other part warm. Find a wide and deep pot big enough to hold 24 standing blackbirds comfortably. Grease the outside of the pot and form the circle of dough around the outside of the pot. This will form the bottom crust, or the "coffin" (no, the birds will still be alive when served! Honest!!). Allow to cool. Cut a circle 6" in diameter in the center of the bottom of the crust (actually, in this case, the top on the form) and remove the dough. Carefully remove the bottom crust from the form and place on parchment paper on a large baking sheet. Crumple sheets of aluminum foil into balls, and place inside the bottom crust, 2" higher in the center than the sides. Roll out the other part of the dough to 2" wider than the coffin. Brush all along the edge of the dough, and place on top of the coffin. Crimp the edges. Using the 6" circle of dough, cut out decoratve shapes. Brush the top crust with the beaten egg and attatch the decorative cut-outs. Don't be bashful - how often do you get to decorate a coffin? Brush again with beaten egg. Place in a 325F oven and bake until the crust is golden brown. Allow to cool.
When the crust has thoroughly cooled, carefully lift up and remove the crumpled foil. Prepare your serving platter by lining it with the decorative kale. You may further dress up your platter with small bunches of grapes, small whole fruit, and/or baby vegetables. When ready to serve, place the coffin on the center of the platter. Gather up your reserved blackbirds. Carefully lift up the coffin and gently place each blackbird inside, being careful not to crowd them. When all the blackbirds have been hidden in the crust, let the crust lie flat on the platter. Serve immediately. 

Note that recipes were not written in this fashion centuries back. The original text, which I found here is:
Make the coffin of a great pie or pastry, in the bottome thereof make a hole as big as your fist, or bigger if you will, let the sides of the coffin bee somewhat higher then ordinary pies, which done put it full of flower and bake it, and being baked, open the hole in the bottome, and take out the flower. Then having a pie of the bigness of the hole in the bottome of the coffin aforesaid, you shal put it into the coffin, withall put into the said coffin round about the aforesaid pie as many small live birds as the empty coffin will hold, besides the pie aforesaid. And this is to be done at such time as you send the pie to the table, and set before the guests: where uncovering or cutting up the lid of the great pie, all the birds will flie out, which is to delight and pleasure shew to the company. And because they shall not bee altogether mocked, you shall cut open the small pie, and in this sort you may make many others, the like you may do with a tart. (From Epulario, 1598)

Seems weird to us, of course. But perhaps the people of that time would find things like sprinkles and rainbow bagels  even more absurd.