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Jane Webb Loudon (1807-1858)




                         Jane Webb was born at Ritwell House near Birmingham, England, in 1807 and was orphaned at the age of seventeen when her father, Thomas Webb, Esq., died in 1824. She later wrote that after her fathers death " and, finding on the winding up of his affairs that it would be necessary to do something for my support, I had written a strange, wild novel, called the Mummy, in which I had laid the scene in the twenty-second century, and attempted to predict the state of improvement to which this country might possibly arrive." Published under a man's pen name, the book and its futuristic innovations caught the attention of John Loudon, a well respected landscape gardener and writer.

  In 1829 Loudon published a note in The Gardener's Magazine, referring to a steam plough Jane had included as one of her "hints for improvement." Loudon wanted to meet the author of The Mummy, whom he naturally assumed was a man. Jane later described their meeting. " In February, 1830, Mr. Loudon chanced to mention his wish (to know the author of The Mummy) to a lady, a friend of his, who happened to be acquainted with me, and who immediately promised he should have his wished for introduction. It may easily be supposed that he was surprised to find the author of the book a woman; but I believe that from that evening he formed an attachment to me, and, in fact, we were married on the 14th of the following September."

     John Claudius Loudon was forty-seven years old, twenty-four years older than his bride, and his health was never very good, but still they had a remarkable marriage. Their wedding tour was idyllic, with trips to the Lake District and Scotland. Jane was a dutiful wife to her husband, who was quite famous at the time for his books and journals on gardening. She knew little about the subject, but she learned quickly. The couple spent many hours together in the garden, growing roses and peonies in great abundance. John experimented with plants for his writing. Jane learned how to plant and weed with a meticulous hand, for John was a perfectionist and a workaholic who insisted that every plant be labeled with its botanical name. Acting as his secretary, copyist, researcher and note taker, Jane assisted John with his monumental work, Encyclopedia of Gardening, published in 1834.

     Jane Loudon readily acknowledged that she knew little about gardening before she met her husband. She claimed that reading books on the subject was useless because they were too technical. Ever resourceful, Jane decided that a gardening book that could be easily understood by the general public was needed, and so she wrote Instructions in Gardening for Ladies in simple, clear language. She presented sensible and original ideas on how to garden, demonstrating why gardening was a fitting avocation for ladies and not all that difficult to master. Her book included personal sketches of and stories about gardeners - a casual approach that appealed to the public. An excellent botanical book, Instructions in Gardening for Ladies, went through nine editions, selling upwards of 20,000 copies.

    Part of Jane's understanding about gardening was due to the influence of John Lindley, and important figure in horticulture who lectured regularly at the Royal Horticultural Society. He campaigned to get women interested in gardening. Jane attended his lectures and became one of his ardent followers. Lindley maintained that the garden was a woman's palette to paint, design, or embroider as she would a canvas, tapestry or pillow. Jane often wrote about gardening using similar metaphors.

     Unlike the ladies of her day, Jane Loudon continued working through her pregnancy in 1832. Until the day her daughter was born, Jane worked in the garden and helped her husband with his Arboretum Britannicum. This was an expensive production for the Loudons. The book was an enormous undertaking for the already frail John Loudon, and in the end, it cost him both his health and his wealth. By 1838, his health was declining and he was in severe financial debt.

     About this time, Jane began working on The Ladies Flower Garden, which would eventually be published in four volumes. Although it was not as financially successful as Gardening for Ladies the book won her great acclaim. A review in Gardeners Magazine, volume 15 of 1839, declared that "as a drawing-room book for young ladies to copy from, the work is unrivaled". Today a copy of the work is extremely valuable.

  Despite their financial problems and grueling work schedules. The Loudons were a very popular couple in their day. Considered among the leading authorities on horticulture, they were frequently invited to society dinner parties. They were friends of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. They traveled extensively to Manchester and Leeds to see the Botanic Gardens. In fact they helped popularize the idea of garden tours around the country.

     Even when she traveled, Jane continued writing. She tried her hand at periodicals, issuing The Ladies Magazine of Gardening and The Ladies Companion in 1850 and 1851. Neither venture was successful, but she continued writing books. Extremely prolific, Jane wrote Botany for Ladies and was working on a second volume of The Ladies Ornamental Flower Garden when her husband became gravely ill with lung disease. Almost penniless, John Loudon died at the age of sixty. Jane described his death in great detail in an article she later wrote about his life. " Soon after this he became very restless, and walked several times from the drawing-room to his bed-room and back again. I feel that I cannot continue these melancholy details; it is sufficient to say, that though his body became weaker every moment, his mind retained all its vigour to the last, and that he died standing on his feet. Fortunately I perceived a change taking place in his countenance, and I had just time to clasp my arms around him, to save him falling, when his head sank upon my shoulder and he was no more.

     "I do not attempt to give any description of the talents or character of my late husband as an author; his works are before this world, and by them he will be judged; but I trust I may be excused for adding, that in his private capacity he was equally estimable as a husband and a father, and as a master and a friend."

     John Loudon's Self Instructions for Young Gardeners was published posthumously and included a memoir by Jane about their life together. After his death Jane received a small annuity of one hundred pounds from the Civil List " granted to her in recognition of the literary services rendered herself and her husband. Still, she was in debt and left with a young daughter, Agnes, to support. Though Jane was only thirty-six years old and still a very attractive woman, she never re-married.

     As an author, Jane Loudon was successful in part because she took every opportunity to turn her own life into books that held a personal appeal for her readers. Ladies Country Companion, for example, is an innovative book composed of a letter to a young married woman who moves from the city to the country. In it, Jane chronicles aspects of her own life and how she felt when she made the same transition as a newlywed. When Jane and her daughter Agnes visited friends in France and fell in love with the host's clever pets, she wrote a book called Tales for Young People, which recounted these animal stories.

     By 1848, Agnes was a beautiful young woman of sixteen who enjoyed parties and dances. Her extravagances depleted her mother's finances, and Jane was forced to take a position as editor of a periodical called The Ladies Companion at Home and Abroad. She spent two years working at the company before being asked to resign. By then, Jane Loudon's brilliant career had burned out and she struggled through her final years. She died in 1858 and was buried next to her beloved husband.

     Her talents were passed along to her daughter. Agnes Loudon went on to write several children's books and various stories for publication.

  -From "Women of Flowers" by Jack Kramer




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