PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.33, NO.1 (Winter 2012)

The English Columella, or Pigs in the Primroses and Periwinkles

Pauline Beard


Pauline Beard (email:, Professor of English at Pacific University, Oregon, and author of A Riddling Thing: Time in Five Twentieth Century Novels, has presented at several AGMs; was Regional co-coordinator for South Washington and Oregon; co-coordinated the 2010 AGM in Portland; and was a JASNA Traveling Scholar for 2011-12.


richard Graves’s quasi-novel Columella is cited in Sense and Sensibility when Mrs. Dashwood, showing sense for once, gives Edward Ferrars sound advice:  “‘you would be a happier man if you had any profession to engage your time and give an interest to your plans and actions’” (102).  Edward’s answer winds its way from clergyman (which is not considered smart enough by his family, especially for a first born), through the army (too smart for Edward), to the navy (for which he is too old), to his confession of no profession at all:  so “‘idleness was pronounced . . . advantageous and honourable’”; he entered Oxford at 19 and has been “‘properly idle ever since’” (103).  In Columella the titular protagonist plans out his three sons’ professions so that they “would be secured from that tedium and disgust of life which he experienced, and which he had brought upon himself by a life of indolence and inactivity” (Graves 2:210).  Mrs. Dashwood’s advice prompts Edward to affirm that his sons will be as unlike him as possible:  “‘In feeling, in action, in condition’” (SS 103).  Clearly Edward knows Graves’s work, as did Jane Austen.  This hilarious romp of a book, whose Preface comes remarkably at the end, serves as a source of much of Austen’s Swiftian satire in her novels, satire against Romance, the landscape movement, improvements, and the follies of the rich seeking out the agrarian life.


Richard Graves’s Columella; or, the Distressed Anchoret.  A colloquial tale.  By the Editor of the Spiritual Quixote, in two volumes leads readers into many byways and digressions.  Susan Allen Ford’s essay on Columella and Edward Ferrars lays out perfectly the way the book works, defining “the frame, [in which] as our Editor, a Kentish gentleman, and a Canon ride in a coach from Bath to London, the Canon reads his manuscript account of a man he and the Kentish gentleman knew at Oxford, Cornelius Milward nicknamed Columella for his interest in Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella’s De Re Rustica” (77), as well as the subplots and corollaries (77-78).


In order to analyze Graves’s satire at work, a little background is first needful on the Roman Columella.  Writing in AD 60-65 in very pragmatic terms, dealing with agrarian life and how to live sustainably from the land, the Roman Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (whose name in itself sounds like a satire) criticizes the wealthy who retreat to the land as relief from the cities, and practice unwise husbandry.  As early as the Preface to De Re Rustica, he lambasts the ridiculous methods of the rich man who, “if [he] purchases a farm, out of his throng of footmen and litter-bearers, . . . sends off to the fields the one most bankrupt in years and strength, whereas such work requires, not only knowledge, but the age of vigour and physical strength as well, to endure its hardships” (11).  Such criticism is borne out by the various incompetent servants the English Columella hires to care for the land that he has inherited and to which he has retreated as an aesthete and recklessly farms.  Indeed the reader’s first view of the English Columella—also represented in the frontispiece to the first volume—is of him “running across the lawn, with a faggot-stick in one hand, and a book in the other,” cursing the pigs that had “routed up all [his] primroses and periwinkles . . . planted in [the] shrubbery” (Graves 1:45-46).1


In his twelve-volume De Re Rustica (On Agriculture), the Roman Columella gives advice on the depth of trenches, the amount of dung per acre, and the right use of stewards of the land, but he is most renowned for his work with growing and grafting vines.  Even today the makers of the South African wine Columella Syrah, the Sadie family, refer to Columella’s work as the most comprehensive account of Roman viticulture.  Two thousand years after Columella, the Sadie family still uses very similar methods, thinning the vine crop in a particularly dry year producing a modest yield, following Columella’s advice “that a well managed vineyard will yield at least twenty amphora per iugeram,” or approximately twenty-five hectoliters per hectare (Sadie).  Quality not quantity, and the rarity or purity of grapes is the main impetus behind Columella’s vine culture:  “The most excellent wine is one which has given pleasure by its own natural qualities.  Nothing must be mixed with it which might obscure its natural taste” (qtd. in Sadie, emphasis added).  This statement concerning “natural taste” could be defined as the impetus in Graves’ work and Austen’s.  Both authors make the move away from sentimentalized Romantic poetry (so beloved by Marianne); they make fun of the glamorizing of the rustic life and the mismatched styles of garden landscapes proliferating in their century.  Above all, they suggest a need for a strong work ethic.


The background for the English Columella reveals what Graves is satirizing:  the foolishness of privileged young men who believe that the solitude of an anchorite’s life will fulfill their romantic ideals.  Thus Graves portrays a young man, Cornelius Milward, who leaves Oxford without a degree and with no profession..  Having inherited a small family estate in the West Country, Columella retreats to Nature to manage his estate in seclusion and meditation, the life of an anchorite.  He knows nothing about farming or the managing of an estate except what he has read in Virgil’s Georgics, from Cowley, and from Columella, from whom he acquires the nickname.  At Oxford Columella was in a triumvirate with longtime friends Atkins (Atticus) and Horton (Hortensius), who both worked with “unvaried diligence and assiduity” (1:12), finished their degrees, and became successful men in the church and law respectively.  In contrast, alas, Corry (another nickname), after the first year at Oxford “indulged himself in a more vague and desultory way of reading” and, becoming “disgusted with systems of every kind, . . . deviated into the more enchanting regions of poetry and romance” so that the “pastoral and descriptive poets [became] his favourite authors” (1:12-13).  He became “less fond of Newton and Locke, than of Pope and Milton, Spenser, and Thompson” (1:13).  In letters from the countryside Columella regales his two friends with “florid descriptions of the Arcadian scenes which he had discovered and embellished round the habitation of his tasteless ancestors” (1:16).  Caught up in their busy, work-driven lives, Atticus and Hortensius envy their friend, who tells them he reads, gardens, and “diversifie[s] his solitude by the variety of his studies, and the constant amusement which he found in improving and adorning his place” (1:17).


Improving” and “adorning” his land become Columella’s driving force in his life as an anchorite.  A long description—based on the “fact” of Graves’s friend Shenstone’s garden at Leasowes—shows what Columella has devoted his life to in between bouts of depression and indolence, the latter a word that resonates throughout the novel.  After routing the pigs out of the primroses, Columella and his friends sit in his little hermitage, strategically placed so that the view may be admired.  He has decorated the tops and sides of little wooded hills with a “Sybil’s temple ruinated like that at Tivoli,” “a pediment, supported by Ionic columns,” and a “venerable gothic tower . . . discovered at a distance amongst the tufted trees” (1: 48).  The reference to “tufted trees,” a forestry term for a small clump of trees, suggests that Columella has cut down the natural formation of trees merely to make the view from his hermitage aesthetically pleasing.


In many of her novels Austen satirizes the folly of landowners cutting down trees and setting about so-called “improvements.”  Sense and Sensibility shows this folly through the role of John Dashwood and his blatantly aggressive attitude to his old country estate, Norland.  When Marianne leaves Norland, thrust out by the outrageous machinations of her stepbrother and his wife, she mourns that she will no longer view the house from a beloved spot in the grounds but rejoices that the trees will remain the same:


And you, ye well-known trees!—but you will continue the same.—No leaf will decay because we are removed, nor any branch become motionless although we can observe you no longer!—No; you will continue the same; unconscious of the pleasure or the regret you occasion, and insensible of any change in those who will walk under your shade!—But who will remain to enjoy you?”  (27)


Who indeed?  When John Dashwood moves into the property, Norland Common is enclosed, driving the village folk off their common grazing ground, forcing them to become laborers on previously accessible land.2  Simply put, enclosure involved the removal of communal rights, controls, or ownership over a piece of land.  Celia Easton explains that by paying large legal fees and gaining government approval, the rich landowners could take over the communal grazing land of country families who had used them for centuries: “commoners claimed their right to gather fuel or building materials from this land, and to hunt or trap whatever small birds or game might live upon it” (74).  Once the land was enclosed, the landowner worked it (often to better rewards agriculturally than the commoner could have achieved) and drove the already poor farmers out, often into destitution.  For example, in Buckinghamshire “in 1808, Arthur Young reported that since enclosure, ‘Poverty has very much sensibly increased:  the husbandmen come to the parish, for want of employment’” (Easton 78).


In Austen’s subtle satire on “improvements,” John Dashwood laments how much money he is spending on enclosure, “‘a most serious drain,’” but admits to making “‘a little purchase’” of East Kingham Farm, “‘where old Gibson used to live,’” land “‘very desirable’” because it adjoins Norland:  it was his “‘duty to buy it’” (225).  These throw-away lines encapsulate what was happening all over rural England at this time.  Small land-owning farmers like “Old Gibson” were being bought up, in William Cobbett’s terms, by “nabobs, negro-drivers, admirals, generals” (qtd. in Williams 115).  Once the land was bought, and in this case added to substantial property, “improvements” could be made.


For Norland, improvements in the minds of John and Fanny involve building a greenhouse and marking out a flower garden (226).  And where is the greenhouse to be built?  John has the ready answer:


“Upon the knoll behind the house.  The old walnut trees are all come down to make room for it.  It will be a very fine object from many parts of the park, and the flower garden will slope down just before it, and be exceedingly pretty.  We have cleared away all the old thorns that grew in patches over the brow.”  (226)


Like Elinor, readers are “very thankful that Marianne was not present, to share the provocation” (226).  But one sees the waste of land and the desire to move away from the old country cultivars:  walnut trees—valued by the Romans who introduced them into England for their wood and fruit—and of course thorn trees, often looked upon as holy, introduced into England from Persia in the Middle Ages.  Marianne is fond of dead leaves (88), but she is also a lover of the history of the old house of Norland and its plantings, and she would rail against the frippery of building greenhouses to grow presumably foreign exotic flower and fruits.  (Compare General Tilney’s radical modernization of Northanger Abbey, his pinery, his succession houses, and his contempt for Mr. Allen’s one small hot house [NA 179].)


The English Columella holds his country neighbors in similar contempt.  Having retreated to the countryside to become the perfect philosopher, he finds no one with whom to have stimulating conversations.  He can’t stand the locals interrupting his ideas with tales of “Jack such-a-one got drunk with Harry such a one” and admits he would “rather live entirely alone, than be entertained with such idle company” (1:75).  Columella looks down upon his malaprop-ridden housekeeper, but it is obvious they are “involved” in some way.  His friends find him unhappy in his role, a distressed anchorite indeed.  His servants run circles round him:  Peter keeps interrupting the friends’ tirades against Columella’s depressed state to announce horrors such as a farmer’s heifers getting into Aaron’s Well—now, according to Columella, called Arno’s Vale but in the old country days called Tadpole Bottom (1:117-19).  (The names reflect the gentrification that Columella has imposed upon the landscape defined by old folklore.)  Ruffians break in, topple the urn off the pedestal, and “besmear the forest seat (in the hermitage) with a christian irreverence” (1:120).  Atticus sums up what has gone awry with the plan of communing with and aestheticizing Nature when he chastises Columella, “You fancy yourself an hermit and a philosopher; but I am afraid your vulgar neighbours look upon you as an enthusiast at least, if not a mad-man” (2:178).


What has really gone wrong is that Columella has disregarded the English work ethic:  being industrious and earning a good living first before retreating to the countryside and indulging his fancies of becoming a hermit.  Graves ridicules this role, describing an old hired hermit turning up at Columella’s doorstep wanting to be employed to live in his woods.  (Such “ornamental hermits” did exist of course at this time, as Edith Sitwell describes).  The old man begging for a hermit job is recently unemployed because his master Sir Humphrey Whimwham died; and the son taking over the land wanted more work out of the old hermit than simply keeping his hermitage clean and sitting in the door with a book in his hand to impress any company stopping by (2:121).  The younger Whimwham wanted the hermit to weed the garden, feed the hens, and “do a great deal more hard work [with] diminished wages” (2:122); he turns the hermitage into a dog-kennel.  And herein lies the core of the satire on the English Columella.  Words such as indolence, idleness, imprudence echo in the advice given to Columella, the most obvious coming from his rich neighbor Mr. Nonsuch.  Having made his fortune in trading stocks, Nonsuch states that “he would rather marry his daughter to a man that got four or five hundred pounds a year by his business, than to an idle man of as many thousands, who had nothing to do but to spend what his ancestors had left him”—advice to which Columella listens with “a sullen taciturnity” (2:61).


Finally, of course, as we learn from Mrs. Dashwood, Columella resolves to make his three sons follow professions rather than his life of internment with romantic poetry, Arcadian views, and sheer indolence.  And his sons?  They are born to Mrs. Betty the housekeeper, whom he marries at last even though she “tortures [his] ears every hour in the day with her solecisms, her rustic dialect, or her uncouth expressions” (2: 81).  The eldest son is to train as a lawyer under an “eminent solicitor,” “a man full of business,” so he would be “constantly employed.”  The second is to become a tradesman with a view to becoming a partner in “a very busy, flourishing manufacture.”  The last will train under a man who has several professions:  “apothecary, surgeon, man-midwife, bone-setter, tooth-drawer, hop-dealer, and brandy merchant” (2: 209-10).  The moral of the tale is that “The busiest and most laborious man” will “be found to live happier than the idle man can possibly do, in the most romantic rural retreat which nature has ever formed, or the richest poetical imagination ever described or conceived” (2: 212).


Jane Austen makes a similar point about the importance of work in many of her novels.  Hard work, even among those who do not need to work, makes for a good, solid member of a community.  Austen teaches this concept through negatives with Edward in Sense and Sensibility and through many positive examples throughout her novels.  Colonel Brandon has achieved a high rank in the army and, like Mr. Knightley, is constantly busy about his estate.  Mr. Weston has risen though trade and obvious hard work.  Even General Tilney—terse, disciplined, avaricious, and not the most pleasant of characters—has set both sons to professions (unlike most landed gentry who let the first-borns go their own decadent ways).  He claims that employment for his sons is not for the money—“‘The money is nothing’”—but that “‘employment is the thing’” (176).  Though he is quick to assure the assumed heiress Catherine that his son Frederick will “‘perhaps inherit as considerable a landed property as any private man in the county,’” he believes it “‘expedient to give every young man some employment’” (176).  The contrasts to these positive examples are striking:  Robert Ferrars, who spends over fifteen minutes choosing a tooth pick case, deliberating among the ivory, the gold, and the pearls (221), making Elinor and Marianne wait; Frank Churchill, who goes off to London from the country (ostensibly) for a haircut; and Henry Crawford, who does very little but eagerly tells Edmund (another industrious worker) how to improve Thornton Lacey to make it look “‘something above a mere Parsonage House’” (MP 243).3  The contrasts between indolent young men who selfishly waste others’ time and the diligent, constantly employed men demonstrate the wiliness of a writer who subtly exposes the follies of the age.


In his sociological study The Country and the City, Raymond Williams sums up Austen’s achievement of a “settled and remarkably confident way of seeing and judging in the chronicle of confusion and change” (115).  Whereas Richard Graves pokes fun at the upper classes and satirizes the failings of young men who retreat to the country and lead useless lives, destroying the idea of noblesse oblige and neglecting to care for their communities, Austen records the changes of her century in a light-hearted manner, gently reprimanding or at least chiding the landowners who improve their estates at the expense of the villagers.  According to Williams, Austen is “more exact about income which is disposable than about acres which have to be worked” (115), but by humorously criticizing the wealthy and privileged she invokes a very solid idea of what is morally right behavior.  For example, Colonel Brandon and Mr. Knightley are estate owners who care for their people and involve themselves in the running of their communities as a social and moral obligation.  Columella, however, laments the fact he was elected to the “parish-offices of constable, church-warden, and overseer” and against all his romantic ideas has to act in cases like Doll Tympany’s pregnancy (2:47).


Names such as Doll Tympany, Whimwham, and Nonsuch reveal that Graves is having fun with his novel—which he insists is not that genre at all.  The Editor, addressing Rev. Dr. Demure, his good lady, and Miss Sophy, insists that his narrative is fact, not a novel or a romance (1:iii-iv).  The narrative exists as a cautionary tale from the Canon to his young relation with the central moral “That an active life is generally attended with more happiness than an indolent or retired one” (1:10).  Every little digression and story slipped in along the way (and there are many) point to that moral with the addition of not being fooled by appearances (maids masquerading as their mistresses; merchants pretending to be learned scholars), of remaining constant to a loved one,4 and of the dangers of romanticized love in a cottage.


One particular embedded story brings all these elements of Columella together.  In the celebrated gardens of Stour, Hortensius follows a young wood nymph from the temple of Apollo (2:12-13).  He finds the nymph’s mother in a desolated cottage with three children in early stages of infancy.  Her story is heartbreaking:  the daughter of a man who inherited a small estate and retreated to the country (sound familiar?), she marries a footman whom she really suspects of being a gentleman in disguise.  Her mother had not allowed her to read romances, but she had read “several plays” like Love in a Village “and a good deal of poetry,” including “Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard, and the like romantic tales” (2:19-20).  She turns down a proposal from a worthy clergyman because he is not as handsome as the footman; she thought she “could live happier in a cottage with the man [she] loved,” and, quoting from Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard, asks, “Fame, wealth or titles, what are you to Love?” (2.22).  Her money soon dissipates; her husband shirks work in the town; they retreat to the countryside to a romantic little cottage where he “grows tired of home and continual labour” (2: 26) with predictable results


Such a moral story moves one to think of the possibilities if Marianne, with all her romantic notions, had married Willoughby.  Elinor of course sees clearly what would have happened, cautioning Marianne:  “‘you must have been always poor.  [Willoughby’s] expensiveness is acknowledged even by himself, and his whole conduct declares that self-denial is a word hardly understood by him’” (350).  Austen takes a digressive story from Graves’ Columella and, fleshing out the story of romantic love gone poignantly, disastrously wrong, renders a social and moral judgment.  Marianne will never forget her romantic attachment to Willoughby forged through reading romances and sonnets but the remembrance “‘shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment’” (347, emphasis added).


Satiric pieces always involve a somber lesson or two.  Laughing at Graves’s English Columella and the ways in which Austen has incorporated the novel, which is not a novel, always involves recognizing that Austen in her novels (not just Sense and Sensibility) writes about the changes in the rural life she observed around her.  She draws attention to enclosure, to the greediness of landlords eager to improve their property at the expense of their tenants, and to the indolence of young men who pilfer ideas from a great agriculturist without fully understanding the concepts and the work ethic that underpins them.  Austen in her subtle satire mocks the hypocrisy of those who attempt to lead lives defined by esoteric principles but fail miserably in building on their learning and education to forge good, wholesome communities.  The final lesson from Graves’s tale of a distressed anchorite might well rest with Hortensius’s solution to his friend’s lack of pleasure in his chosen path.  The solution lies in reason and religion, Christian patience and philosophical fortitude (2:72) and, as Atticus advises, developing “a mind conscious of right behaviour in every occurrence of life” (2:169).





1. The satire of pigs grubbing up pretty flowers when the land could be used for edibles prompts a contrast to Mr. Knightley, who treats his servants with respect and governs as the rational, realistic good steward of the land.


2. Austen scholarship over the years has dealt extensively with enclosure.  The most accessible historical view of the process may be found in Celia Easton’s essay, “Jane Austen and the Enclosure Movement: The Sense and Sensibility of Land Reform.”


3. Among Henry’s suggested improvements:  “‘The farmyard must be cleared away entirely, and planted up [perhaps with primroses and periwinkles?] to shut out the blacksmith’s shop.’”  The timber must be bought up on the adjoining land.  And “‘something must be done with the stream’” though he can’t quite determine what (MP 242).


4. One sees Anne Elliot in the story of Miss Julia Arundel.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1933-1968.

Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus.  De Re Rustica.  Loeb Classical Library.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1941.

______.  On Agriculture Vols.1-4.  Trans. Harrison Boyd Ash.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1977.

Easton, Celia.  “Jane Austen and the Enclosure Movement: The Sense and Sensibility of Land Reform.”  Persuasions 24 (2002): 71-89.

Ford, Susan Allen.  “Mrs.Dashwood’s Insight: Reading Edward Ferrars and Columella; or, The Distressed Anchoret.”  Persuasions 33 (2011): 75-88.

Graves, Richard.  Columella; or the Distressed Anchoret; A Colloquial Tale. By the editor of the Spiritual Quixote.  2 vols.  London, 1779.

Sadie, Eben.  Sadie Family Columella 2003.  Syrah/Shiraz from South Africa.

Sitwell, Edith. The English Eccentrics.  London: Faber, 1933.

Williams, Raymond.  “Three Around Farnham.”  The Country and the City.  New York: Oxford UP, 1973.


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