The Middle Ages introduced the first “household” book, written by a middle-aged Parisian bourgeois to train his child wife. What the Young Bride Should Know about Managing a Home, featured myriad uses for herbs. And it gave rise to instructional texts for women, mostly written by men or with men’s well-being firmly in mind.

In the ancient Middle East and Al-Andalus in Moorish Spain, girls were given edifying guides to deportment, called adab books, not unlike the fare that still circulates for young women in the West. In the 19th century, a princess of Bhopal in India, Shajan Begam, produced one called Tahzibu ‘n-niswan wa tarbiyatu ‘l-insan (The Polishing of Women and the Education of Humanity). Among the knowledge women required for running a household was at least a minimal knowledge of the culinary and medicinal uses of herbs.

The Heart of the Garden

I have a small collection of books passed down through my family, writings by women gardeners that are, in their way, descendants of the household book — with one foot out the door! In addition to Rosetta Clarkson’s Magic Gardens, I love The Heart of a Garden, by Rosamund Marriott Watson, written in 1907. Watson, a noblewoman, presided over a huge English estate, and her lavish book provides detailed descriptions of her gardens, excoriations of her gardener and long, lyrical passages full of phrases unattributed to their originators, poets such as Alexander Pope and John Keats. Lady Watson addresses her rhapsodic prose to various ancient Greek deities, who are both inspiration and nemesis — and peppers her chapters with her own sonnets.

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One of my books is inscribed “Christmas 1905” to my paternal grandmother from her Aunt Eunice. What Can a Woman Do? Or Her Position in the Business and Literary World, by Mrs. M. L. Rayne, seems to have been an encouragement by Eunice to my grandmother to find a vocation. Eunice’s life was relegated to quilting and housekeeping for her own mother. The book seems not to have intrigued my Grammy. She never found or seemed to be interested in making even a mild career. The options listed in What Can a Woman Do? include government clerk, stenographer, typist, photographer, dressmaker. The law, medicine and music are very clearly listed as female-unfriendly. Still, in 1905 anything that was not housework must have looked pretty good to many women, like Aunt Eunice, imprisoned in the home.

Mrs. Rayne’s chapter about gardening calls it an occupation “well-adapted to women as it offers healthy employment in which delicacy of touch, judgement, calculation, and expectation are all realized without an undue amount of labor.” Mrs. Rayne cites several young women “who appeared to be fatally ill with consumption, who recovered by gardening. Strawberry and flower farms,” Mrs. Rayne informs her readers, are “excellent avenues to money-making for women.” Then she ups the ante with a chapter on the profitability of poultry farming.