Jane Webb Loudon, 1807-1858: A Tale of the Nineteenth Century

“In the year 2161, England enjoyed peace and tranquility under the absolute dominion of a female sovereign.”

The year 2161 AD, mind.  And, for the record, the queen was named Claudia.

It’s a provocative opening for a book published in 1823, that is to say, just 13 years after the arrival of Pride and Prejudice,  and nine after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Not a lot of science fiction being done at the time, and in this case by a woman, well….

The book is familiar chiefly to academics and monomaniacs, as the vast majority of out-of-fashion novels tend to be, and of only moderate interest to casual readers.  Ms Webb’s own life story, however,  is quite interesting. 

She had a background closer to something out of Dickens’ than Austen’s, or even the unfortunate Ms Shelley.  Her mother died when she was young, her father, a Birmingham manufacturer, took her to Europe for a year for a change of scenery and to learn a few languages.  He was perhaps a little too trusting of the men left in charge of the factory.  Father and daughter  returned home to a faltering business which failed soon after.  The father too soon failed, and at age seventeen, Ms Webb was left an orphan.

And then, and then?  For three years, she relied on the kindness of friends, including the painter John Martin and his family.  Eventually, she writes that:

“finding on the winding up of [my father’s] affairs that it would be necessary to do something for my support, I had written a strange, wild novel, called the Mummy, in which I had laid the scene in the twenty-second century, and attempted to predict the state of improvement to which this country might possibly arrive.”

Strange and wild is right.  The book (the full title was The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty First Century),  written under a male pseudonym, foreshadows the future in a fashion that would get the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne all sorts of readership.   In an age of horse drawn plows and carts, she envisions steam powered earth movers, mechanical milking machines, steam powered doctors and lawyers and women in trousers.

The mummy in question is indeed the Egyptian artifact you would imagine, revivified by heavenly spirits (this was a religious age, and this in part a reaction against the atheistic/scientific Dr Frankenstein).  His resident Svengali is a Dr Entwerfen, loosely, Dr  Designer, or Dr. Creator (that year in Europe paid off). As literary conceit go, this one bordered on impiety.  Despite, or because of this, the book, as Twain would say, fetched ‘em.

The story is more E.T. than Alien. Our Visitor From The Past brings with him the Wisdom of the Ages.  Which is pretty much the only kind of wisdom that would be of any use to a civilization that had advanced over four thousand years since the old boy’s internment.  Specifically, what he has  to offer is not medicine, or science, or technology, but Political Insight, which doesn’t really change much over the years, and which determines what direction this book  is going.  Our Egyptian takes a balloon ride from Egypt to England where he lands, rather like Dorothy Gale, on top of Queen Claudia, causing the monarch’s eventual death, leading to a some scheming for succession for the crown, leading to  – well, it’s a nineteenth century three volume novel, you can take it as and if you wish.

The books was well reviewed and sold well.  What happened next gets us back to  Jane Austen, or more likely (because so unlikely) of Charles Dickens reference.

John Louden (1783-1843), a successful gardening writer and publisher, chanced on the book and liked it.  He mentioned in passing to a lady friend that he was much taken with the strange and wild notion of steam plows, and would very much like to meet the author.  By coincidence his friend happened to know the author.  An introduction was arranged, a kinship felt, and, despite the twenty four year gap between them, a marriage arranged.

It was a good marriage, too.  Their happily-ever-after began with a trip to the Lake Country and Scotland, after which they returned to his home where he was laboring on his life’s work, The Encyclopaedia of Gardening No sooner done with that than he was onto other large horticultural books, most notably the eight year effort, the Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, an exhaustive compendium of all plant life in the British isles, their history and preferred habitats.

Jane had had no particular enthusiasm for horticulture before meeting him, not least of all because the works on that subject at the time were technical and frankly dull.  Obviously the author of a best seller called The Mummy! is going to know something about writing for a wider audience, and so as he continued his great work, she set about to writing  Instructions in Gardening for Ladies. It was another success, and from now on works flew from her pen.  Pregnancy scarcely slowed her down, and she gave birth to a daughter Agnes in 1832 while hard at work on yet another of her botanical productions.

Publishing has always been a risky business, and Mr. Loudon’s work, however estimable, proved a considerable drain on his finances and eventually on his health.  (That, and his opium habit.) He died, if his wife is to be believed, in her arms, of what appears to have been apoplexy. (His final work, which should appeal to the ironic, was On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries.)

Her last years were not easy.   The lively and attractive Agnes who, surrounded by family friends of a high order, was easily bored by the run of the mill, and had no problem in running up bills. Ms Loudon continued to work until 1850, after which she stopped writing entirely.  She also received a small government stipend for services to greenery. She died in 1858.

As to the daughter- at age eleven she had published her first children’s story (“”The Lost Gloves, or We Shall See: A Story for Little Girls”).   Others followed.

Eventually Agnes would marry a barrister of the Wodehousian name of Markham Spofforth, a great friend of Disraeli and believer in the democratising of the conservative party.  We can hope was has happy as her mother had been.  She died at age 32, too young even in that uncertain age.

Mr. Spofford never remarried.

And, of course, the theme of living mummies had to wait another few decades and the discovery of King Tut to reestablish its commercial appeal.   In publishing, as in all business, timing is everything.


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