So much has been written about Jane Austen’s life and work, that finding a unique topic is nearly impossible. As I wondered what I could possibly share with you that you haven’t already read, I thought back to a course I’d taken in college called Chaucer to Donne, which explored literature written in Middle English. (I can hear the flood of questions now—why on earth would anyone voluntarily take such a course? Shockingly, I’ve been told that I sometimes meander with my writing! So, for the moment, let’s set those questions aside.) The interesting thing about the single lecture that I managed to drag myself to was not that people actually wake up before noon, it was that the speaker didn’t address the novels or stories we were required to read, write about, and be tested on. Those works were discussed in small groups. Instead, the lecture explored the events that occurred during the lives of the authors we studied and considered how these things impacted architects, artists, writers, and musicians who lived during that window of time.
Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817, in a period of rapid change. The First Industrial Revolution, the birth of the United States, and the French Revolution are just a few of the events she was alive to experience first hand. Surely, if I looked at events occurring during her formative years, I could find some fascinating tidbit you may not have heard about. I searched, and I found one… drum roll, please.
On February 17, 1795, Thomas Seddal harvested a 8.3-kg (that’s 18 pounds) potato from his garden in Chester, England. Potatoes aren’t what you had in mind when you were thinking about influential events, were they. Well, when they were first brought over from the new world, they weren’t all that exciting to the Europeans either.
(Nowadays, we can get them to be six tons!!)*
Potatoes made their way to Europe because they have a decent shelf life. Sailors returning from the Americas brought them on board to eat during the journey home. But once introduced to Europe, the potato didn’t take off as a food source for quite some time. Initially, many European countries banned them from being planted in fields, reserving this land for grain. People were suspicious of the plant and thought potatoes might be poisonous. They were nicknamed the devil’s apples
While awaiting their day as a commercial crop, the potato found its way into more and more smaller personal gardens. Some people planted them for their flowers, others in order to feed their livestock. When the peasants discovered that potatoes, which grow underground, were less likely to be eaten by armies marching through the land, potatoes became a popular food for the poor. When the poor moved into the cities to find factory work, they found city living offered even less space for gardens. Fortunately, many potatoes can grow in a small area, and the potato became a feature in urban landscapes.
By 1750, the French and German governments finally saw the value of growing potatoes in bulk. They began promoting, and even started dictating, the development of potato fields. Then in 1770, a mini Ice Age hit, and famines raged through Europe. Fortunately, potatoes do just fine in the cooler weather and this crop saved the day. In 1774, a French physician published a paper extolling their nutritional value. In 1785, a French gardening publication wrote of the potato, “There is no vegetable about which so much has been written and so much enthusiasm has been shown.” The vegetable even infiltrated fashion. Marie Antoinette once wore a headdress made of potato flowers to a ball.
So, you see, the potato was entering its heyday during Jane’s lifetime. It wouldn’t surprise me if reading about Mr. Seddal’s enormous find was the equivalent of seeing one of today’s memes for the first time. It might have taken a little longer before the potato made its debut on Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s menu considering it was still seen as “foodstuff for the poor”, but having firmly won the hearts of the masses, potatoes eventually earned their place on even the finest of tables.
*created using things like paint and concrete… (wink emoji)