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Thursday, June 16, 2011

From Mummies to Mums

Photograph of Jane Webb Loudon taken before her
death in 1858.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

"In the year 2126, England enjoyed peace and tranquility
under the absolute dominion of a female sovereign."

Thus begins the novel The Mummy!:  Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century written in 1827 by Jane Webb.  One of the earliest works of science fiction it was published anonymously.  She was a teenager at the time.  She shifted her attention to gardening as an adult, becoming a successful horticultural writer, which may be science fiction's loss.

Although she was born to a wealthy family and raised in the lap of luxury, her father died penniless when she was 17.  To support herself she turned to writing. The Mummy! was most likely inspired by the French frenzy for anything Egyptian during Napoleon's invasion of Egypt.  No doubt it was also influenced by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and scholars are still trying to find links between the two women.

Kitwell House where Jane lived with her father.  Image courtesy of www.birmingham.gov.uk.

Unlike Frankenstein however, Webb's protagonist, the pharaoh Cheops, isn't running around horrifying people, but offering sage advice to those who choose to listen.  Her future Britain was not similar to her contemporary Britain with a few political changes.  She portrayed changes in society, technology, and even fashion (her ladies of the court wore pants and head bands of controlled flames).

The Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden.

Illustration from The Ladies'Flower-Garden of Ornamental Greenhouse Plants.

One of her innovations in the book was a steam plough.  Her work intrigued John Claudius Loudon, a horticultural publisher and writer.  Because of the subject matter and the fact it was published anonymously, he thought she was male.  He arranged an introduction, they met, and within seven months they married.

Illustration from British Wildflowers.
Illustration from The Ladies Flower-Garden of Ornamental Greehouse Plants.

Although she claimed to know little about gardening, she was eager and after working with her husband she became knowledgeable enough to help him with her books.  His greatest work was an epic Encyclopaedia of Gardening, and Jane assisted him with research and note-taking.  She thought that the terms were a bit confusing and not geared toward beginners.  In fact, until recent times gardening was not thought suitable for a lady.  But with the advent of trains, people were able to move away from the city but still easily access it, and now had more room to spread out their houses.  Lawns and gardens were now possible, and she helped make gardening an acceptable activity, no longer limited to servants or the poor.

Illustration from British Wildflowers.

Jane wrote books encouraging women to take up gardening as a hobby.  Her books became the standard references for the hobby gardeners. She and John became the leading horticulturists of the era, and their social circle included Charles Dickens, and William Makepeace Thackery, among others.

A page from Plain Instructions in Gardening.

She was a self-taught artist and began to illustrate her own books.  Her illustrations became very popular to copy, and to use for decoupage on tables, trays, and lampshades.  To increase her output and make print production faster, she used chromolithography.

Both images above are pages from Botany For Ladies.

In 1843, John Loudon died.  He had always been in poor health, and in his declining years earned little money.  Jane worked as editor of The Ladies Home Companion at Home and Abroad, but wrote no more books.  According to their daughter, Agnes, she burned all her papers, so little is known about her. But assuming she never lost the feminist leanings exhibited in The Mummy, and with her promotion of the new lady-like hobby of gardening and her flower illustration, she is the feminine feminist.  Or perhaps one of the first earth mothers.

Unless otherwise stated, images courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum.


  1. We had one of her books not long ago: "How to Enjoy Country Life Rationally." Some great stuff on taming squirrels for the drawing room.

  2. ROFL! Did it have illustrations?