Victorian Author Jane Webb Loudon’s Pivot from Sci-Fi to Flowers

Courtesy of the Internet Archive

The Ladies’ Flower-Garden of Ornamental Greenhouse Plants (1848) by Mrs. Loudon.

The 1827 novel, The Mummy: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, was reissued last month as part of the Haunted Library of Horror Classics series edited by Eric J. Guignard and Leslie S. Klinger. Keen readers of FB&C may recall reading about this book in our winter 2020 issue when we reported that a first edition, in triple-decker form, raised a record-breaking $10,205 at auction in England.

Courtesy of Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood

A first edition of The Mummy (1827).

Like Mary Shelley, in whose footsteps she followed, author Jane Webb (1807-1858) was a young Englishwoman with an incredible imagination. The Mummy is now considered a foundational work of science fiction—complete with a reanimated mummy and wild, ‘futuristic’ inventions, set in 2126. As our Ian McKay wrote back in 2020, “Webb did not portray the future as an only slightly modified version of her own day, as do some early science fiction works, but introduces changes in technology, society, and even fashion. Her court ladies wear trousers, but hair ornaments of controlled flame are not yet common, I think. Surgeons and lawyers in her future world can be steam-powered automatons, and a kind of internet is predicted, while the revivification of the mummy is dealt with in scientific terms—galvanic shock rather than incantation.”   

Webb’s novel was praised by the Scottish horticulturist John Claudius Loudon in one of the journals he then edited, The Gardener's Magazine. Loudon then arranged to meet the author, and, within six months, they were married. She assisted him with his botanical publications, such as Encyclopedia of Gardening (1834). When John had financial difficulties, Jane suggested a series of bestselling books on flowers and gardening, which she produced under the name “Mrs. Loudon.” These titles include Botany for Ladies (1842), Gardening for Ladies (1843), The Ladies’ Country Companion (1845), and The Ladies’ Flower-Garden of Ornamental Greenhouse Plants (1848).

According to the Linnean Society, “Jane’s botanical publications were almost like the DIY gardening instruction manuals of their day, making her the ‘Mrs. Beeton’ of the world of Victorian gardening.”

Sadly, her success was short-lived, and she died nearly penniless at age 51.

Courtesy of Poisoned Pen Press

The 2022 reprint of The Mummy.

When that first edition of The Mummy came to market in late 2019, it had been estimated at just $300-400. Still in its original boards, and thus a bit shabby, the book managed to achieve a surprising amount. Had it been a ‘sleeper’? An indication of increased interest in women’s writing or early science fiction? Or perhaps a case of mistaken identity? Since she is variously referred to as Jane Webb, Jane Wells Webb, Jane C. Webb, Jane C. Loudon, and just Mrs. Loudon, mix-ups can occur. As Mrs. Loudon, her botanical books occasionally appear at auction; in 2016, her British Wild Flowers (ca. 1855) sold for $1,000 at Swann Galleries, and in 2017 a six-volume set of her books sold for $6,250 at Sotheby’s.  

Meanwhile, auction records reveal yet another facet of Jane’s creativity. Spurred by the success of her flower books, Jane became adept at botanical illustration, and her illustrations are collectible in their own right, with her hand-colored lithographs selling for a few hundred dollars each. Arader Galleries in New York has several currently listed for sale.