Categories: Victorian

by Jeanne Gehret


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My novel characters often take a ramble when life gets too much for them. Victorians particularly loved their gardens, but any movement in the fresh air calmed their heart rate and lowered their blood pressure. It’s the same for us today. In fact, it’s all the more possible since the pandemic allows more people than ever to work from home.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of spending a few glorious hours outside in the gardens of the Stevens-Coolidge House in Andover, Massachusetts. Though built in 1914, both the house and gardens had elements that harked back to earlier times. These reminded me of the Victorian era when Daniel Anthony and his wife Annie furnished a beautiful home in Leavenworth, KS.

Author Jeanne Gehret at Stevens-Coolidge House

Botanical and historical delight

During our July visit, the rambling perennial garden was in full bloom. The garden view from the home’s morning room made me nostalgic for times when I’ve relaxed with a book and lemonade outside.

I was particularly interested in the serpentine wall in the above photo where I’m enjoying the shade. This wall commemorates one of the owners’ ancestors Thomas Jefferson, who built a similar one at the University of Virginia. Besides its beauty, it’s notable because it is only one brick wide, as you can see in this photo of the wall’s top.

Top of serpentine wall

I do a lot of research into Victorian culture, architecture, and fashion for my historical novels about the Anthonys of Kansas. I’ve seen pictures of the lovely plantings around their Leavenworth home. And I’ve read newspaper accounts of them picnicking in their yard, swinging in the hammock. While the serpentine wall isn’t a hallmark of that era (1837-1901) I did find a beautiful Victorian home in Knoxville, Tennessee that has a similar wall. It’s not surprising, really, because many Victorians were avid gardeners.

Here’s a peek at more details of Westwood in Knoxville.

What can we learn from the garden-obsessed Victorians?

The Victorians, and even people before Thomas Jefferson, knew the value of gardens to calm and restore us. They knew that observing the patterns of nature reminds us of whatever is stable and reliable in our lives. As a grandmother, I’ve seen several educational bandwagons sweep through our schools. Even so, I have confidence in teachers who suss out what’s best for individual children, regardless of trendy teaching practices. The presence of mature trees reminds us that desired social changes really can blossom over time. An hour in the woods removes us from people who expose us to dangerous viruses or toxic thoughts. These things never alter.

Like us, the Victorians experienced a period of tremendous social adjustment. Their contemporaries were debating reforms such as the antislavery movement and women’s rights. Industrialization was causing pollution and prompting those who could afford it to move out of cities, at least for the summer. They endured the Mexican War and the American Civil War. The sewing machine, telephone, and electric lights changed home life.  Cholera struck, and so did economic downturns such as the one in 1837 that bankrupted Daniel Anthony, father of suffragist Susan B. Anthony and her brother Daniel. As a result, neither sibling could complete their schooling. Despite this traumatic event, both went on to score big social reforms.

Take a page from the Victorians: spend some time in the shade of a tree or even in the moonlight. Listen to the wind and marvel at nature’s many forms. Breathe.