Being a Jane Austen super fan and dedicated JAFF author means you sometimes come across some odd bits of knowledge. Did you know that garden gnomes were a thing in regency England?
Lately my daughter has become fascinated with garden gnomes, those small, whimsical figurines commonly displayed in gardens and outdoor spaces as decorative ornaments. Naturally she got me into them too! And when she told me I should read some of the history behind them I was delightfully surprised. These pint-sized statues have a history that goes way, way back.
The first known use of garden gnomes in Europe can be traced back to the 19th century, especially in Germany. Gnomes as garden ornaments probably originated in the early 1800s, and they gained popularity in various parts of Europe during that time. These early garden gnomes were made of clay or porcelain and they generally portrayed human activities like fishing and farming.
Enter the upper class members of regency England, who were already building whimsical elements like grottos, temples and fake ruined castles into their landscaping, just for the fun of it.
It was natural for them to add gnomes into the mix, sometimes portraying mythical creatures from Greek or Roman legends, or posing as an eccentric sprite that would surprise a visitor when they least expected it. The gnomes became status symbols, showing off an owner’s education and sophistication to the wider world.
As time went by regency England became more and more fascinated with returning to nature and celebrating the outdoors. Garden gnomes fit into this scheme nicely. What could be more natural than to suddenly encounter a gnome splashing about in an outdoor fountain, eating a meal off of a miniature stone table, or reading a book in a corner of a ruined castle?
The Victorians took garden gnomes even further, making them more humorous and playful. Gnomes didn’t reach the height of their popularity until the early 20th century, but they were known and enjoyed for decades before then.
Did Jane Austen ever encounter a garden gnome? Most likely, yes, since they began their rise in popularity during her lifetime. It’s a shame she didn’t mention them in any of her writings. I like to think that Elizabeth Bennet might have come across a gnome on the grounds of Pemberley and asked Darcy about its origins. Perhaps they could have discussed the eccentricities of English high society and how imaginary creatures like gnomes expressed a desire for a simpler, less sophisticated way of life. Or maybe Elizabeth would have slyly used her comments about a gnome as a way of poking fun at Darcy himself!
What do you think of garden gnomes? Do you have any of your own? Are you surprised to think of them in Jane Austen’s day? Would you enjoy reading a scene where Elizabeth decorates a gnome to look like Darcy? Let me know what you think in the comments below!