We have recently added some fruit trees to the edge of the lawn. They are all old varieties; 2 pears, Williams’ Bon Chretien and Bishop’s Thumb, and two apples, Golden Spire and Keswick Coddling. Golden Spire was discovered in Lancashire around 1850 and the Keswick Codling in Ulverston in the early 19th century. The trees will be trained as espaliers, as we have done with the existing fruit trees along the wall of the car-park.
A word search through the novels of Mrs Gaskell brings up two scant references to apples. However, the result for pears produces a different picture. They are clearly seen as a treat, fruit that has to be cherished and “delicately peeled in one long strip of silver-paper thinness and which he [Mr Hale] was enjoying in a deliberate manner.” (North and South, Chapter III).
They are also fruit that people take to those in ill-health. The doctor recommended to Mr Thornton that “[Mrs Hale] craves for fruit, – she has a constant fever on her; but jargonelle pears will do as well as anything…”. (North and South, Chapter XXVII).
When Ruth’s son, Leonard, was recovering from his illness “[The poor] brought what they could – a fresh egg, when eggs were scarce – a few ripe pears that grew on the sunniest side of the humble cottage, where the fruit was regarded as a source of income.” (Ruth, Chapter XXV).
Mrs Gaskell names one particular pear, the jargonelle, in two or three instances in her novels. It is an old variety, known in England from the late 17th century. It is a tip bearer and therefore not suitable for espalier training.
It is the pear that grows against the wall in Ruth: “The yellow rose had clambered up to the window of Mr Benson’s bedroom, and its blossom-laden branches were supported by a jargonelle pear-tree rich in autumnal fruit.” (Ruth, Chapter XIX).
Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Gardening of 1850 describes the pear as “tender, juicy, rich and melting”.
Charles McIntosh, who is described on the frontispiece of his book The New and Improved Practical Gardener and Modern Horticulturist, published in 1855, as “late gardener to the King of the Belgians at Claremont”, recommended the jargonelle and wrote, “…the jargonelle of the French is not the same with ours, theirs being a much inferior sort; ours they designate by the name of Grosse Cuisse Madame, or Large Lady’s Thigh, a very ridiculous name for any fruit.”
Charles McIntosh, despite his nationalist pride, is clearly enjoying the frisson of French naughtiness.
There is no reason to think that Mrs Gaskell was aware of the French name. Otherwise, it would be a strange choice of pear for Mr Benson’s wall, in a novel with the moral tone of Ruth.
Author: Chris Tucker with editorial assistance from the garden team