Two little girls in long gowns and ruffled bonnets danced with their grandmother to the music of the Old Time Fiddlers of Port Alberni. They squealed with delight and tried to follow the puzzling steps, big smiles on their faces. They had come to the family dance, the first event of the Jane Austen Festival. Rosemary, a talented instructor guided us all through the English country dances. With her generous praise and clear instructions everyone felt they could do it.
The next morning, at the Glenwood Centre, the Guinness World Record count was held to determine how many people were dressed in Regency attire. The record is held by Bath, England, at 409. Sadly our numbers stopped at 286 but people-watching was fascinating. This year more men in top hats, vests and knee high boots made the count. The ladies, whose empire waist gowns and bonnets, are easier to assemble, always outnumber the men.
The highlight of the festival was the candlelit Masquerade Ball on Saturday evening. It began with the Grand March so that everyone could admire the exquisite costumes. Satins, lace, long white gloves, fans and jewelled masks abounded. A live orchestra of dedicated musicians performed period music for the dancing. Rosemary again cued the evening, the movements a little more complex than the night before, but never beyond anyone’s abilities. One piece dated from the early 1800’s and we were assured that Jane Austen herself had danced it.
To put up your hair, wear a long gown and curtsey to your partner as he bows gracefully before you, is a magical moment which carries you back in time and is priceless for an author who writes historical romances…
Today I’m going to travel two hundred years forward in time to the 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen’s death July 17th 2017.There will be celebrations in many parts of England but the little town of Port Alberni, B.C. situated in the middle of Vancouver Island, Canada, is having its own. Each Tuesday I drive forty minutes past a lake nestled in pristine forests and over the hairpin curves of a mountain highway to attend their English country dance classes.
The Centennial Belles of Port Alberni are not just putting on a festival. They want to break the Guinness Book of World Records set for the most people dressed in Regency costume at one gathering. Bath, England, holds that record with a count of 409. Last year Port Alberni, managed a head count of 265. Everyone is expected to return this year – and bring a friend. The dress code is quite specific but coming up with the perfect costume is a lot of fun.
Last year a good friend of mine sewed my costume, an empire waist gown which I wore with long gloves, shawl and carried a fan. I let my hair grow out for the event and suffered the back-combing and stabbing of at least six hundred hair pins needed to put up my hair. I felt like a true Regency lady with an elegant chignon – but this year I’m going to use a hair piece.
The citizens of Port Alberni are very warm and friendly. They try to make it easy for you to acquire a costume. There are hat-making workshops, thrift shop adjustments, children’s and gentlemen’s easy-fix solutions. The Festival includes readings by authors, myself included, and scenes performed from Jane Austen’s Emma and Persuasion. There are also afternoon teas, Jane Austen style murder mysteries, a family dance, a Masquerade Ball and a picnic – in full costume.
I encourage you to come out, enjoy the beautiful scenery and take part in Port Alberni’s Jane Austen Festival. When you do, come to my table at the readings. I’d love to meet you and you could buy a paperback copy of ‘an Orchid for Penelope’. If you do not live in this area I would encourage you to hunt up a branch of JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America and see what they have planned for this July. I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised.
I look out of my window at my less than perfect lawn and overgrown flower beds and compare them to the manicured gardens created in England’s history. Capability Brown, 1716-1783, focused on the big picture. He transformed the English countryside by creating sweeping vistas of lawns and parkland stretching as far as the eye could see, out of the existing formal gardens and agricultural land.
Humphry Repton, 1752-1818, his successor, often fine-tuned the earlier work of Brown. He was skilled with water colours and used this in his unique marketing technique. He produced ‘Red Books’ so named for their red covers. In these he explained in text and a series of water colour overlays, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ views of his proposed garden designs. Another technique unique to Repton was his use of borrowed items, such as church towers. He would cut vistas through existing trees to make the towers appear to be part of his design.
One criticism of Brown’s work was the lack of a formal setting for the country mansion. Repton reintroduced the use of trellis work, balustrades, flower gardens, ornate garden seats and formal terraces around the house itself. At Woburn Abbey he turned open gardens into themed ‘rooms’ such as a Chinese garden, an arboretum and an American garden through the use of shrubs, thickets and herbaceous borders.
I would dearly love to invite Repton to assess my garden and have him present me with a water colour painting of his proposal. Perhaps he could suggest a unique garden seat or a trellis for the new rose bush I received on Mother’s Day.
I am focusing on the pineapple in this newsletter – its early history, cultivation and popularity, especially in the early eighteenth century. European pineapple cultivation began in the Netherlands as early as 1688 but relied on the plant stock imported from the West Indies. British-grown pineapples came much later.
Orangeries, designed to provide frost protection for citrus fruit in winter months did not provide enough heat and light for the tropical pineapple which grows all year round. During the seventeenth century furnaces were placed within early glass houses but the fumes damaged or killed the plants. Then firewalls were tried with hot air rising through flues built into the walls. This caused many ‘pineries’, as they came to be known, to burn down from the accumulation of soot in the pipes. An amazing example of one of these pineapple hothouses was built in Dunmore, Scotland between 1761 and 1776. The roof was shaped like a giant stone pineapple. Manure and fermenting tanners bark were tried next as a source of consistent bottom heat which would be released into early glasshouses through pigeon holes.
The invention of hot water heating in 1816 and sheet glass in 1833 changed the cultivation of pineapples radically. Glass was still expensive but large estates like Chatsworth could afford grand structures where up to one thousand plants could be grown at a time. Joseph Paxton, head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire regularly won medals for his pineapples. Size mattered as well as quantity.
Pineapples were in such demand that hostesses could rent a pineapple to use as a centerpiece for a dinner party, but woe unto the guest who asked for a slice for dessert. The hostess would then have to buy the fruit, rather than return it at the end of the evening.
I continue my tale of the English conservatories and the exotic plants grown in them. Joseph Banks, 1795, triggered the tropical plant hunting frenzy when he travelled to Haiti. He brought back thirteen hundred specimens plants and influenced other plant collectors. David Douglas was inspired to walk across North America in the 1820’s and collect samples. The Douglas fir is named after him. Captain Wilson brought plants back from China. Most of these samples were in the form of seeds, or corms or dry rizomes and roots.
The hardest part was keeping the actual plants alive on the trip back to England and Dr. Ward did a first test of his Wardian case, in 1833. He sent two specially glazed cases filled with British ferns and grasses to Sydney, Australia. They were essentially small trunks turned into greenhouses with a compost layer on the bottom, which could be watered and adjustable shutters. On a good day at sea, these cases could be carried up on deck and opened to let in sunshine and fresh air. A number of Australian plants that hadn’t previously survived the trip arrived back in England in good condition.
The craze for exotic plants blossomed. Joseph Paxton, 1826, became head gardener at Chatsworth for the sixth Duke of Devonshire. He took glass houses to a new level when he built the great conservatory there. I am enclosing a picture of what it must have looked like in one of the grand glass houses. My second novella takes place in this interesting time period.