- Elizabeth Kent’s Collaborators
In 1823 Taylor and Hessey published an innocuous handbook for the suburban gardener. The author of Flora Domestica, they announced in a puff piece in the London Magazine, ‘has devoted much time, and talent, to the subject on which his heart is set’.1 ‘We have no doubt’, their reviewer noted, ‘that our readers will rise from the perusal of it quite satisfied’ (London Magazine, 147). In the Preface to Flora Domestica, its unnamed author was equally understated about the purpose of her volume, and her own botanical skills: ‘Many a plant have I destroyed, like a fond and mistaken mother, by an inexperienced tenderness; until, in pity to these vegetable nurslings and their nurses, I resolved to obtain and to communicate such information as should be requisite for the rearing and preserving a portable garden in pots’.2 The Preface continued by outlining the modest scope of the volume:
It has not been attempted to make a complete catalogue of every plant that may be reared in a pot or tub, but such as have been selected as are the most frequently so cultivated; and such as are most desirable for beauty of form or colour, luxuriance of foliage, sweetness of perfume, or from interesting or poetical associations with their history. In the belief that lovers of nature are most frequently admirers of beauty in any form, such anecdotes or poetical passages are added, relating to the plants mentioned, as appeared likely to interest them.(Flora Domestica, xiv)
The London Magazine qualified its approval of the volume’s ‘poetical passages’ by quoting the thoughts of an unnamed correspondent: ‘how pretty is the allusion to poor Keats’s grave! Hazlitt says, the early writers described flowers the best; perhaps they do; and, I think, they are mentioned too sparingly, and the living writers almost (will vanity let me own it) too much’ (London Magazine, 148). Despite this quibble however, the unnamed correspondent professed to be ‘pleased with the mention the author has made of me, and not only pleased, but proud of it’ (London Magazine, 148).
There is, however, something rather strange about Flora Domestica, and about The London Magazine’s critical advertisement for it. We might wonder why Taylor and Hessey should choose to publish and champion a gardening manual, or why such a gardening manual should have less interest in plant care than in anthologising literary quotations about the beauty of flowers. We might question the author’s insistence that her guide is designed for the care of a ‘portable garden in pots’ for those who ‘reside in town’ (Flora Domestica, xiii). And we might also wonder about the author of a volume who, as the London Magazine’s correspondent indicates, quotes more from the work of Keats and Leigh Hunt than from that of Shakespeare and Milton. [End Page 272]
It is, of course, in the peculiarity of Flora Domestica that its significance lies. Its author, Elizabeth Kent, was Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law. Best known now for an abortive attempt to drown herself before breakfast, her filthy temper and her life-long passion for her brother-in-law, Kent was, for a brief moment in the 1820s, one of the more successful authors to emerge from the group gathered around Leigh Hunt. She acted as Hunt’s agent and amanuensis,3 and was thought by Keats to be responsible for work by Shelley.4 Until the Hunts’ departure for Italy in 1822 Kent lived surrounded by Hunt’s ‘Cockney School’ and her work is thoroughly informed by both a Cockney insistence on the importance of luxury and by the virulent reactions of Blackwood’s Magazine. Her work has received almost no critical attention,5 but it has much to tell us about the philosophy and creative practices of the Cockney school.
Critical work in recent years has focused its attention on the intense, almost claustrophobic sociability of the Cockney school. The work of Jeffrey Cox has been particularly important in this respect. ‘The Hunt circle’, Cox writes, ‘can be thought of as [a] group of individuals, as a series of locales and linked activities. . . and as a body of...