Of Mummies and Mums

I discovered an amazing woman last week, a woman who was creative (and versatile) enough to have written a very early science fiction book about a time-traveling mummy as well as a series of popular garden books, which she also illustrated. Jane Webb Loudon (1807-1858) was born into a wealthy industrial family and later married to a gentleman, but both father and husband left her virtually penniless and to her own devices. She made her own way, in her own fashion.

When she was only 20, Jane published (anonymously) The Mummy!:  Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, featuring an Egyptian mummy named Cheops who is “reanimated” in 2126 in a very connected, technological, and female-dominated world which is nevertheless plagued by political discord and moral decay. No doubt she was influenced by the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a decade earlier, as well as the fascination with all things Egyptian, initiated by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, and the publication of his entourage’s 24-volume Description of Egypt. The Mummy! (love the exclamation point) apparently sold well and relieved Miss Webb of some of the financial stress she must have felt after the death of her father.

Jane connected her world to that of the future through steam:  still a dynamic force, it powered the movement of people, houses and plows. The reference to a steam-powered plow caught the attention of her future husband, John Claudius Loudon, an increasingly-eminent horticultural writer and landscape architect nearly twenty years her senior.  They met, married, had a daughter, and forged a professional relationship in addition to their personal one, working together on a series of agricultural encyclopedias and guides to garden design.  As a novice gardener herself, Jane must have realized that her husband’s technical publications would not satisfy the demand for more accessible gardening advice, and so she began authoring a series of illustrated books catering to the ladies: Young Ladies Book of Botany (1838), Gardening for Ladies (1840), Botany for Ladies (1842) and the multi-volume Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden, published just after her husband’s death in 1843.

Before his death, Mr. Loudon became involved in an arboretum plan that left Jane saddled with debt (shades of her father’s “legacy”), so she ramped up her publishing, catering to the demand that she virtually created with more popular gardening books for ladies, illustrated with the colorful groupings of flowers that would be the standard in horticultural illustration for years to come. Chromolithography probably broadened the appeal of the multiple editions of The Ladies’ Flower Garden and British Wild Flowers as well, and consequently the self-taught Mrs. Loudon seems to have emerged as a more recognizable authority on Victorian gardening than her scholarly husband.

Plates from The Ladies’ Flower Garden of Ornamental Annuals (1842) and British Wild Flowers (1846), Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

I’d like to know a lot more about Jane Webb Loudon so I’m chasing down a few sources. Sheffield Hallam University reportedly has one her scrapbooks in its archives which I’d love to see and the National Trust has published a modern version of Mr. Loudon’s travel diaries titled In Search of English Gardens:  The Travels of John Claudius Loudon and His Wife Jane (ed. Patricia Boniface, National Trust Classics, 1987).

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