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May 2010

Listen to Gardening Women on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour

Hope everyone enjoyed Woman's Hour's Bank Holiday special on gardening women of all sorts today. Jane, Duchess of Northumberland was so impressive on her mission to transform the bleak land around Alnwick Castle. I can't wait to devote an area of my garden to night-time plantings inspired by Marylynn Abbott and Anne Jennings. Hear how Phyllis Reiss created those magical beds at Tintinhull. And, of course, it was great to be able to talk about those inspiring early women gardeners at Kew known as the 'Kewties' and 'Kewriousities' - not my puns!

If you missed it, you can listen to it online by following this link:

Woman's Hour Special on Gardening Women

Gardening Women on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour Monday 31 May at 10am

Woman's Hour wants to hear what gardening means to you for their special Bank Holiday Monday programme on women and gardening. Photographs and thoughts are being asked for.

In the programme, there will be contributions from Catherine Horwood, author of Gardening Women, as well as from the gardener in charge of NT Tintinhull designed by Phyllis Reiss and Penelope Hobhouse, and Jane, Duchess of Northumberland, inspired creator of the gardens at Alnwick Castle.

Review/Interview by Ruth Gorb

For more years than she'd probably care to remember along with marvellous interviews with all the local glitterati, Ruth Gorb wrote the gardening column in the Hampstead & Highgate Express. All us keen gardeners would devour it for she always knew about the best gardens long before they appeared in the NGS's Yellow Book.

Nowadays, Ruth Gorb writes for the Camden New Journal/Islington Tribune and I was delighted to be interviewed by her about Gardening Women.

Joan Stokes tends her strawberries

Joan Stokes of Waterperry School of Horticulture with her prize-winning strawberries (Photograph Valerie Finnis:RHS)

Published: 20 May 2010

THE title says it all. “Women Gardeners” would have been soft, friendly, ordinary. But “Gardening Women” are strong, a force to reckon with, as they prove themselves in a fascinating new book. From the 17th century Mary, Duchess of Beaufort – (“Gard’ning,” they said of her disapprovingly, “took up two-thirds of her time”) – to the spade-wielding goddesses of 21st-century television, women have been at the forefront of our horticultural tradition.

But, says the book’s author, Catherine Horwood, their  importance has been lost along the way. “It’s like men are chefs and women are cooks. If you ask anyone if they can give you the names of great women gardeners in the past, you’ll be very lucky if they come up with Vita Sackville-West, and maybe Gertrude Jekyll. But there are so many, and their contribution  is so great…I want to reclaim them.”

The book represents a culmination of Catherine Horwood’s two great passions – gardening and women’s history. She is not a trained garden historian but a social historian – “so my book is about people”.  She became an academic after raising three daughters; her PhD became her first book, Keeping Up Appearances: Fashion and Class Between the Wars, which was followed by a humorous look at Worst Fashions, What We Shouldn’t Have Worn, But Did. Her most recent book is Potted History: The Story of Plants in the Home. 

She is honorary research fellow at the Bedford Centre for the History of Women at Royal Holloway.

She is no mean gardening woman herself, creator of a prize-winning garden in Haverstock Hill, open to the public for many years, and now of a stunning roof garden overlooking Primrose Hill. She learned about gardening from her mother, the most romantic of women (a childhood spent in Rupert Brooke’s Old Vicarage in Grant­chester, a ballerina beloved of a Russian prince ) whose love of beauty found its expression in her gardens. 

What is this special relationship women have with gardening? It goes back originally to caring for the family, growing medicinal herbs and strewing scented plants in often less than fragrant houses. More well-heeled ladies found an outlet for their creative energies in designing and botanizing, spending huge amounts of money on stocking their gardens and greenhouses – the great 19th-century beauty Louisa Lawrence had 500 varieties of roses, 600 species of herbaceous plants, and 227 varieties of orchids in the grounds of her home near Ealing. Her much older husband, it is hardly surprising, lived in a separate house, surrounded by his books and wine.

Gardening women were feisty, often unconventional. Lady Mary Coke, married off in 1748 and regretting it almost immediately, left her husband, bought a villa in Notting Hill, cut down trees to open the view towards Hampstead and Highgate, and hired a woman weeder to come and clear the kitchen garden – for economic (cheap labour) rather than feminist reasons. The glamorous Edwardian hostess Norah Lindsay, in her fifties and with a failed marriage behind her, became the most sought after garden designer in London society.  Her daughter Nancy inherited her mother’s horticultural talent but blotted her copybook when on a plant-hunting expedition in Persia “when she was delayed too long in a silken tent.”

Nearer home, a century earlier, Lady Dorothy Nevill spent rather too long in a summer house with a well-known rake, was ostracised from respectable society and obviously didn’t give a damn. She set about amassing a huge collection of plants that became so well-known that it attracted the attention of Charles Darwin. She provided him with an insecti­vorous plant that got him so excited that he wrote to her that “I have hardly enjoyed a day more in my life”.

But between the grand ladies and the working-class “weeding women” there was a growing army of middle-class women whose contrib­ution to horticulture was inestimable. There was Gertrude Jekyll who more than anyone changed the whole style of gardening in this country. Much has already been written about her, but Catherine Horwood has managed to unearth one particularly poignant incident. A group of young horticultural students were taken to see the great lady at her home, and were told to each pick something they liked. Jekyll was by this time completely blind. “One by one we put our bits of plants in her hands. She felt them and smelt them and then without hesitation named them…” 

There has been, as in all other areas, a good deal of sexual discrimination in the gardening world. Lady Anne Monson, an 18th-century botanist hugely admired in her profession, was not accepted in English society because she had an illegitimate child. It took years for women to be made head gardeners on grand estates or given posts in the horticultural establishment. As late as the 1960s there were no women on the council of the Royal Horticultural Society. Why? Because “there never had been ladies on the council and there were none at present who had as useful experience as the men available”. Arrant nonsense as Catherine Horwood’s book resoundingly and delightfully proves.

There is a difference in what men and women contribute to gardening, and one has to say “vive la difference”. Men, says Dr Horwood, tend to look at the grand picture, the lay-out of a garden – that’s when they are not being obsessive about one plant, such as dahlias. For women, gardening is a nurturing process, which often blossoms when children are grown and gone. As the great gardening woman Beth Chatto says: “You can’t go on having babies, but you can nurture life.”

Gardening Women: Their Stories 1600 to the Present. By Catherine Horwood. Virago £17.99

Catherine Horwood is consultant to a current exhibition at the Geffrye Museum, A Garden Within Doors. She will take part in an event at the Hampstead and Highgate Festival in September

Books: Review - Gardening Women: Their Stories 1600 to the Present. Catherine Horwood. Virago | Islington Tribune.

Review in the Mail on Sunday by Andrea Wulf

Gardening Women has had a lovely review in the Mail on Sunday today by Andrea Wulf. I must admit to being relieved by this as she can be a stern critic. She knows her gardening history which is why I can thoroughly recommend her last prize-winning book, The Brother Gardeners, on the links between British and American botanists in the eighteenth century.

When a link comes on line to her review from the MOS I will post it. In the meantime, enjoy this lovely weather!

Gardening, my mother and Alzheimer's - article in the Daily Mail

Today, the Daily Mail in London published an article I have written about how gardening helped me cope with my mother's painful battle with Alzheimer's. It was incredibly difficult to write as I'd buried so many of the most disturbing memories. But it was also cathartic and helped bring back so many happy memories as well. It confirmed more than ever before just how much of a link plants and gardens were between me and my mother and that is a link that can never be broken. I hope others find this helpful and comforting.

How gardening sustained one woman as she watched her mother's decline to Alzheimer's

By Catherine Horwood

Even today, I can’t dead-head a rose or plant a bulb without thinking of my mother.

Eight years after her death, these routine jobs in the garden still have the power to bring her back to me with pin-sharp clarity.

Because for virtually the whole of my adult life, my mother and I shared a passionate love of anything horticultural.

A passion shared: Catherine Horwood developed a lifelong love for 
gardening thanks to her mother

A passion shared: Catherine Horwood developed a lifelong love of gardening thanks to her mother

Every phone call began with us comparing notes on our plants; weekends were happily spent together visiting nurseries or other people’s gardens.

It was a bond I thought we’d always share — but that changed when I was enjoying the last day of a wonderful holiday in Spain.

It was particularly special holiday because my three daughters had joined my husband and I on our two-week trip, which was unusual, as since they’d grown up they’d stopped coming away with us.

On the last evening, we partied until dawn as our favourite local restaurant — the one we’d been going to since the girls were tiny — celebrated its 25th anniversary.

The next day my eldest daughter, who was then 26, was the first to leave to fly back to Britain, and once home immediately got on the phone to tell her beloved grandmother (my mother) about the holiday.

Granny was looking forward to hearing all our stories.

So when, on the way to Barcelona airport, I got a call, I expected reassurance that all was well, not that our lives were about to be lurched forward into blackness.

‘There’s something wrong with Granny — something very, very wrong,’ my daughter explained in distress.

My heart sank but I was not entirely surprised.

This daughter lived away from London and couldn’t visit her grandmother very often, so she had been shielded from the gradual mental deterioration I had been witnessing.

The three girls hadn’t seen her tears of frustration when she found she could no longer read (something she had loved ever since I can remember) because by the time she’d finished a paragraph she couldn’t remember what the first sentence was about.

Nor had they seen her struggling to button up a cardigan — this once-elegant woman who had taught me so many years ago just the right way to wear a silk scarf.

But this day, when my daughter called me, was in a different league. My father had told her what had happened.

Earlier that day, it seemed, my mother had got out of the chair she now rarely left and made for the front door. Once in the street, she’d stood outside the house, motionless, frozen to the spot, until a concerned neighbour approached her.

‘There’s a man in the house,’ she hissed angrily. ‘He wants to kill me. I can’t go back in there.’

I sat holding her small fragile hands, fighting back the tears. I could see in her eyes that something had switched off inside her brain

There was indeed a man in the house: my father. The most patient man in the world and her companion of 50 years, now the object of her hatred and distrust.

Rooted to the ground, she could not be persuaded to budge. My father brought a chair out for her to sit on in the street as puzzled neighbours passed by, but it was to be hours before she could be induced to go back inside with ‘that man’.

Me, my husband and our two younger daughters were all flying back that day anyway, but this time the flight seemed to take for ever. I drove straight round to my old family home, thankfully just a couple of streets away.

My mother’s relief at seeing me was palpable, but she had no memory of what had gone on the day before. She wasn’t even really aware that I’d been away for a week.

I sat holding her small fragile hands, fighting back the tears. I could see in her eyes that something had switched off inside her brain. I knew I’d never be able to reach her again.

My mother’s mental deterioration had begun insidiously about two years before, but this was different. Yes, gradual memory loss had been followed by anxiety and mild agoraphobia, but she’d never taken out her anxieties on anyone else — and never on my father.

My mother was an intelligent woman who had been a ballet dancer in her youth and was painfully aware of her changing condition. She had watched her own mother disintegrate with senile dementia in her 80s, and although it was never talked about, she knew that this was most likely what was happening to her as well.

As for me, I didn’t need a doctor’s diagnosis to know that she was changing.

For she and I had a common interest — gardening — that had bonded us for years, and when she lost interest in her plants, I knew that something was deeply wrong.

There is something about tending a garden that is enormously comforting.

It aligns you with the rhythm of the seasons; it disciplines you to do the necessary jobs at the right time of the year. It brings solace from stress and, best of all, it brings the deep satisfaction of nurturing plants and flowers into glorious life.

Funnily enough, I never thought I was going to be interested in gardeningwhen I was growing up. Having to endure my mother and my aunt always comparing notes on roses and clematis, I’d innocently thought as a teenager: ‘I’ll never be like that!’

But as soon as I got a garden of my own, of course I was.

Even the rigours of looking after a young family didn’t stop me escaping into the greenhouse whenever I could. Soon sandpits and climbing frames were being edged out by herbaceous borders and vegetable patches.

Joy: Catherine's mother Clothilde pictured at a public garden in 
1992. The mother and daughter spent years discussing their love of 

Joy: Catherine's mother Clothilde pictured at a public garden in 1992. The mother and daughter spent years discussing their love of gardening

And the loveliest part was that I could talk to my mother about it. We visited gardens together, went on day trips to nurseries, returning with a car laden with plant purchases — and often with two of everything because we both wanted the same rare claret-red astrantia or silver-edged hosta.

Phone calls between us would always start with a catch-up on the granddaughters, but then immediately turn to discussion on some new seed discovery or garden worth visiting.

While I was competitive (the gardening bug had truly taken hold) and entered local horticultural competitions, Mum wasn’t at all. But it was no surprise to me when I heard that she’d won a competition organised by a local newspaper where the judges pick their favourite gardens ‘seen from the street’, without the owners even knowing they’ve been to see it.

Her front patch had a magical air, looking more like the kind of cottage garden you’d expect to stumble over in the country than pass in a busy London suburb.

Plants toppled over the low fence, alchemilla seedlings and lily-of-the-valley popped up between paving stones, and the scent of shrub roses stopped passers-by in their tracks.

It was not unusual to look out of the front window and see someone just standing and staring at the wild beauty of it all. Sometimes, my mother would surprise them by popping up from behind the plants she’d been weeding to chat or press plant cuttings on them — cuttings they often helped themselves to on passing anyway.

She never minded, always taking it as a compliment.

In the past few years I’ve been researching the links between women and gardening, and unsurprisingly found that gardening runs in families, and often between mothers and daughters.

In the 1820s, Charlotte Marryat — one of the first women to exhibit at the soon to be 'Royal' Horticultural Society - passed her love of gardening on to several of her 15 children.

One daughter, called Fanny (later Mrs Palliser) moved to Italy, from where she supplied her mother with many rarities. I can empathise with their relationship.

In a single year, Fanny sent her mother around 100 plants and seeds, about half of which had never been grown in Britain before.

Imagine the excitement when they germinated in one of Charlotte's many greenhouses at her home in Wimbledon.

Charlotte Marryat had been widowed in middle age and was one of many women I have come across who saw their gardens as a sanctuary from loneliness, bereavement or depression.

Broken marriages, lost children, divorce and death: women who gardened have always seemed to be able to escape mental anguish when working on their plot.

The same happened to me as my mother's mental state continued to deteriorate. Far from being a painful place to be because of memories of our happier times, my garden became somewhere I could stay in touch with the person she used to be. It was the place I'd rushed to on leaving her the day I got back from holiday.

I would have done so anyway to check on my precious plants, but that day they meant more to me than ever. I was trying to hold myself together for the sake of the family, but in the garden I could be myself and cry - which I did

frequently when I came across a favourite rose we'd bought together, or while driving my spade into the ground with a force born out of the unfairness of it all.

Broken marriages, lost children, divorce and death: women who gardened have always seemed to be able to escape mental anguish when working on their plot

It was shortly after the incident in the street that my mother stopped eating and seemed, perhaps not surprisingly, to lose the will to live. Every day was spent trying to coax her to take some food, or drink some revoltingly sweet dietary supplement.

But it was an impossible task and her condition deteriorated. Only in the evening, back in my garden once more, did life seem strangely normal, with birds singing and flowers blooming. It was my sanctuary from the horror we were witnessing.

Few other degenerative diseases strip someone of their personality quite so thoroughly as Alzheimer's. Watching someone you love become so diminished is agony.

At the first signs, there is the denial that this can be happening. Then there is anger with the illness itself; and sometimes even anger with the person themselves for no longer being who they were.

And finally there is the living bereavement: mourning someone who is still alive but no longer with you.

Most forms of dementia can be seen as a reversal of the rapid brain development that happens during childhood. Just as the flower develops and opens in early life, so it slowly shrinks and dies later.

My mother never recovered from that day she sat in the street. She died less than two months later.

We moved her into a nursing home for what were to be the last three weeks of her life, although we didn't know that at the time.

My father protested long and loud, but finally agreed that he could no longer care for her himself. When she needed to be moved he couldn't lift her, although her tiny dancer's body then weighed only 6 stone.

We chose a room for her overlooking the neatly manicured gardens of the nursing home. The garden was not her style at all, but there was a wild hope that it might jog some happier hor t icul tural memories.

Every time I left her bedside, it was torture. I never knew whether I would see her alive again; but also I didn't want her to suffer any more.

And so I retreated to my garden. Here was the peace, calm and continuity which kept me sane. There were always jobs to be done that made no emotional demands on me: plants to be watered, honeysuckle to be tied, roses to be deadheaded.

I filled my mother's room with flowers from both our gardens, told her how my battles with lily beetle continued, and that next door's late-flowering clematis was in full bloom. I was luckier than most, because I'm sure she knew me until the end.

It's been nearly eight years since she died, and like so many people, I could spend hours in the garden. My husband says I must stop calling it 'work' because I enjoy it too much.

In many ways, he's right. But it took this last journey with my mother to make me realise just how therapeutic gardening can be to the soul, as well as the body.

It saw me through my bereavement, and will remain a comfort for ever. But only recently have I stopped reaching for the phone when I catch sight of the first snowdrops in spring or a rare anemone on a nursery shelf.

Scottish plantswomen of note may be a rare species but they have certainly made their mark

Down the centuries, Scotland has had a reputation for producing many of the world's finest gardeners. William Aiton, from Lanarkshire, became the first superintendent at the Botanic Gardens at Kew in the 18th century. In the 19th century, famed Chinese plant hunter Robert Fortune was from the Borders, and Charles M'Intosh, horticulturalist and author, who became gardener to European royalty and aristocracy, originated from Crieff in Perthshire.

What is not so well known is the contribution that Scottish women have made to all areas of horticultural history from garden creation and plant collecting to botanical art.

In 1954, two women were awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's Veitch Medal, one of the highest awards given to gardeners. This was doubly unusual: they were only the seventh and eighth women to receive the award since its instigation in 1869; that they were both Scottish women was an extra cause for celebration. One medal went to Dorothy Renton, who, with her husband John, created the beautiful gardens at Branklyn now run by the National Trust for Scotland. The gardens are famed for their displays of peat-garden plants, in particular the illusive blue Himalayan poppy, meconopsis.

The other Veitch medal went to Mrs Mary Knox-Finlay, who again with her husband Major WC Knox-Finlay grew unusual plants superbly at their home at Keillour Castle in Perthshire. Rare nomocharis flourished in their woodland garden, which they started in 1938, adding to the original late-19th century garden. One variety is named for them, Nomocharis finlayorum, a fitting tribute to this passionate gardening couple, part of that elite club of both husband and wife having been awarded the RHS's Veitch Memorial Medal.

Both these women helped create great gardens in the 20th century. But when Lady Haddington was later awarded her Veitch medal in 1973 for the development of the gardens at Tyninghame in East Lothian, she was making a link with another less well-known ancestor who also contributed to Scotland's female horticultural heritage.

Helen Hope, Countess of Haddington, gardened in the fierce conditions of Scotland in the early 18th century. She was reputedly the main force behind the tree-planting programme at Tyninghame. In addition to the 800-acre estate being planted with more than 50 species of tree, the countess oversaw the development of a "pleasaunce" or wilderness area, and a bowling green that had 14 walks emanating from its centre.

This arboreal lust had not won immediate approval from her husband, who was her first cousin. But eventually he was won round and became a tree expert himself and supportive of the vast planting schemes proposed by his wife. Writing to his grandchildren in 1733 not long before his death, he admitted that in the early years of their marriage, he "took pleasure in sports, dogs and horses but had no manner of inclination to plant, enclose or improve my grounds."

His wife, however, had other interests. "Your grandmother was a great lover of planting, (and] she did what she could to engage me to it, but in vain. At last she asked leave to go about it, which she did, and I was much pleased with some little things that were both well laid out and executed."

But it wasn't just at home that Scottish women made horticultural inroads. Christian Ramsay, Countess of Dalhousie, came from a family of Scottish lawyers, and not long after her husband succeeded to his earldom in 1815, she went with him to Nova Scotia where he had been appointed Lieutenant-Governor. Once in Halifax, Lady Dalhousie became involved with horticultural organisations. She learned about native plants, and sent seeds and living plants back to the gardens of Dalhousie Castle, near Edinburgh. She became so knowledgeable that she presented a paper on Canadian plants to the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec.

On their return to Scotland in 1824, the countess made elaborate plans to redesign the gardens at the castle. She won praise from her head gardener, a breed notoriously difficult to please, who wrote in The Gardener's Magazine in 1826, that "few…attained such proficiency as her ladyship in the science." Later, the family moved to India, when the Earl became Commander-in-Chief of the British Army.

While they were there, the countess did some serious plant collecting in and around Simla, and on their final return to Britain, she presented her complete Indian herbarium of some 1,200 specimens to the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. This gesture resulted in William Hooker dedicating a volume of Curtis's Botanical Magazine to her, and Robert Graham, Professor of Botany at Edinburgh then named the genus Dalhousiea for her.

There are two sorts of plant collectors: those who visit distant countries to find species that have never been seen before, and those who relish the satisfaction of hunting down a supplier for that rare variety no-one else has. One prime example of the latter group was the consummate Scottish plantswoman, Frances Jane Hope, of Wardie Lodge, near Edinburgh. "To very many gardeners," Gardeners' Chronicle wrote in their obituary of Hope in 1880, "the garden is everything, the plants are mere accessories.

This was not Miss Hope's way of viewing things; for her, the garden existed for the plants not the plants for the garden." Her collection of hellebores was reputedly larger than in any public garden and she supposedly visited every nursery garden "of importance" in England and Scotland, and one suspects never came away empty-handed.

She would have loved the nursery of plantswoman and artist Mary McMurtrie. A wife of the manse, Mrs McMurtrie began it at her home at Skene in Aberdeenshire in the 1930s where she happily propagated saxifrages, primroses, pinks and auriculas, in between looking after her husband, the parish minister, and four children. When they moved to Balbithan House, Kintore, not far away, the stock came too.

Mrs McMurtrie began producing small plant catalogues and, having been to art school, accompanied these with delicate and highly-prized watercolours which she exhibited along with her plants at the Scottish Rock Garden Club's shows. Fortified by a "dram of sherry" from the bottle kept in her library desk, she gardened throughout the year, braving Scotland's coldest days to be outside watching over her precious plants.

In her eighties Mrs McMurtrie moved in with her daughter but continued gardening enthusiastically for another 15 years. Her artwork remained more in demand than ever, and in 1975 Roy Genders asked her to do some illustrations for his book, Growing Old-Fashioned Flowers. She began writing and illustrating her own books, and just before she died in 2003, aged 101, she was given an award by the charity, Counsel and Care for the Elderly, for being the oldest British working artist on the publication of Old Cottage Pinks in the same year.

This article was first published in The Scotsman on 15 May 2010.

Gardening Women ... as rich, full and lasting as potpourri

Review of Gardening Women in The Sunday Times

... Women, like weeds, are everywhere in gardening history. In gathering their stories and describing their influences and achievements, Horwood has done a terrific, pioneering job. Beautifully structured and cogently written, Gardening Women is as rich, full and lasting as potpourri. Neither gardens, nor woman, will seem quite the same again.

Frances Wilson

For the full review:

The Sunday Times, 9 May 2010, Culture, p. 41

One million tulips at Alnwick Castle

You may be surprised to see a link to the Financial Times' Business Diary here on Gardening Women but it's a piece on Jane, Duchess of Northumberland, who does appear in the book. The garden that she has created at Alnwick has been controversial but it has helped push Alnwick up near the top of the most visited (and enjoyed!) gardens in the UK. The Duchess has had planted 350 Tai Haku Japanese cherry trees with one million, yes, that's not a misprint, one million pink tulips below - and they are just about to bloom.

Have you been there? What did you think of the garden? Is it one of the UK's great gardens? Do let me know your thoughts on it...

Financial Times Business Diary Tuesday May 4 2010 - Duchess of Northumberland, Alnwick

Important Publication Day


Today is the day that Gardening Women is officially published. This doesn't mean a great deal since it's been available for several days from Amazon and 'all good bookshops'. But I did get a beautiful bouquet of flowers from my brilliant publishers, Virago.

So I thought I'd mark the day by posting the frontispiece from a little-known nineteenth-century book, Every Lady Her Own Flower Gardener, by another 'gardening woman', Louisa Johnson, who is, of course, mentioned in the book. This title was originally published in 1839 (my copy is from 1851 so it remained in print for quite a while!). We know very little about Louisa Johnson but in her time she was a rival to the most successful nineteenth-century female horticultural writer, Jane Loudon, whom she had a dig at for using too many Latin words and technical terms.

However, as useful and compact as Louisa Johnson's little books were (she also wrote one on greenhouse gardening), it was Jane Loudon, wife of famed horticulturalist John Claudius Loudon, who triumphed in sales. Let's hope Gardening Women follows in Jane's footsteps!