Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                    Page 14

The Northanger Hyacinths

Cambridge, England

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?

This 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 fruits.”2  The 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 such sums. 

           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

In the Notes to the book, Madame de Genlis wrote that:

A 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 

Jane 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 hyacinth.  



1 Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, ed. R.W. Chapman (Vol. V, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd. ed., 1933), p. 174.

2 Ibid., 178. 

3 Madame de Genlis, Tales of the Castle,   trans. T. Holcroft (Dublin: Price, Moncrieff etc., 1785), I, 267.  

4 Madame de Genlis, I, 295.  

5 Jane Austen, Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed. R.W. Chapman (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 82.  

Back to Persuasions  #11 Table of Contents

Return to Home Page