Persuasions #11, 1989 Page 14
The Northanger Hyacinths
On entering the
breakfast-parlour at Northanger on the first morning after her arrival,
Catherine Morland expresses her admiration for a display of hyacinths, and tells
Henry that she has “learnt to love a hyacinth.”1
Why did Jane Austen single out this flower?
chapter (II, 7) in Northanger Abbey is mainly concerned with depicting General Tilney’s
conspicuous consumption, his vain parade of affluence. This is shown in his
remarks on his breakfast-set, and in the size and scale of the gardens, where
the hothouses are so numerous and extensive that they seem like a village, and
where a whole parish appears to be at work.
The gardens are stocked with what the General calls “valuable
hyacinths have their place in this parade of wealth, for in the eighteenth
century they were extremely expensive flowers.
In Tales of the
Castle (1785), a translation by Thomas
Holcroft of Les Veillées du
Château (1784) by Madame de Genlis,
there occurs the following exchange:
Would you think that there are people silly enough, mad enough, to give
two or three hundred guineas for a flower-root?
Three hundred guineas!
I have seen several hyacinths, at Haerlem, in Holland, which have cost
But what, Mamma, could make a flower so dear?
— The minute delicacy of amateurs; they, for example, seek for uncommon tints, and require a hyacinth should have certain properties, on which they set an imaginary value, and into which they enquire with the most scrupulous exactitude.3
the Notes to the book, Madame de Genlis wrote that:
famous florist in Holland, told me that he had given 6,800 livres (£263) for a
root; adding, that he had seen others far dearer.4
Austen refers to having “finished the first volume of Les Veillees du
Chateau”5 in a letter to Cassandra of Saturday 8th November 1800. It is generally believed that Northanger
Abbey was written, and revised, under
the title Susan, in the period
1798-1803. Thus there is clear
evidence that Jane Austen knew of the expense and prestige associated with the
1 Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, ed. R.W. Chapman (Vol. V, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd. ed., 1933), p. 174.
Madame de Genlis, Tales of
trans. T. Holcroft (Dublin: Price, Moncrieff etc., 1785), I, 267.
Madame de Genlis, I, 295.
Jane Austen, Letters to her Sister
Cassandra and Others,
ed. R.W. Chapman (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 82.