There are any number of interpretations as to what this all means, but I see it mostly a reminder that poetry does not necessarily have to make sense.
Joanna here, talking about Regency oranges.
Those of us with a keen interest in botany will have noticed that oranges -- not to mention lemons -- don't thrive in the British climate. Well, maybe down in south Devon where hopeful souls sometimes plant palm trees. But citrus isn't plucked off the tree on Hampstead Heath or in the Welsh mountains.
What is an orange doing in an old, old counting rhyme?
Not to mention lemons.
Because the Regency and Georgian folks imported their oranges (and lemons) enthusiastically or grew them enthusiastically in greenhouses.
I'll just wander off track for a minute to point out that greenhouse in the Regency didn't mean a building all made of glass with a roof of glass panes. That's Victorian. In the Regency a greenhouse was a tall room with high windows, like this to the right.
Sometimes, they called them orangeries.
I think not.
In the Regency we're talking about three different species of oranges, just because life is complicated.
Our first guest orange . . . the bitter one.
The orange is another of those marvelous botanical productions of the Orient, like lychees and tea and peaches. They've been cultivated in China for four thousand years, in several varieties. The bitter or sour orange, Citrus aurantium-- what we'd call a Seville orange -- made a complicated journey overland to Europe, piggybacking its way from the Middle East to Italy and Spain with the returning Crusaders.
Here's a picture of an early orange in Van Eyck's Amolfini Portrait of 1434. This picture records a marriage and it's just bristling with nifty references faithfulness and fertility.
See those those oranges in the Van Eyck painting, over next to the window? Symbolic as heck.
Oranges were symbolic of marriage, maybe because the plant bears its flowers and its fully ripened fruit at the same time, thus being both the potential fertility of the innocent flower and the fecundity of the plump fruit.
Queen Victoria wore orange blossoms in her hair at her wedding. Maybe some of the folks reading this today wore them too. You can look at that Van Eyck and know the symbol is more than 500 years old.
As a totally unrelated side comment, Isobel Carr points out that the little dog in that picture might just be the earliest depiction of a pet animal in a European painting.
Its name is Max.
. . . Okay. I'm kidding about the name.
They called the bitter orange a 'Seville orange' because that's where they were grown and shipped from in Tudor times and beyond. Our English, French and other European folks used skin, juice, root, leaf and branch in medicine and for making cordials and syrups and orange-water for scent and flavoring.
"Nor can I blame you, if a drop you take,
of orange-water, for perfuming-sake."
Seville oranges nowadays are used about exclusively for making that wonderful marmalade you can still pick up in the grocery if you go searching a while for the authentic stuff. It's the same marmalade they made in Regency times. When you spread it on your toast, you can think about Elizabeth Bennet doing pretty much the same, except she's sitting across the breatkfast table from Mr. Darcy.
Looking next at . . .
. . . Ahem.
Eyes off Mr. Darcy, if you please. Thank you.
Turning to this second type of orange, I hear you saying, "What about the sweet orange, Citrus sinensis, my supermarket orange, the ones that the lack of is like a day without sunshine, the ones Nell Gywn sold at Drury Lane?"
I will pause an instant to offer Samuel Pepys' take on orange juice:
"and here, which I never did before, I drank a glass, of a pint, I believe, at one draught, of the juice of oranges, of whose peel they make comfits; and here they drink the juice as wine, with sugar, and it is very fine drink; but, it being new, I was doubtful whether it might not do me hurt. "
Anyhow, these newcomer sweet oranges showed up in the 1500s. They were called sweet oranges because, well, they were sweet, and China oranges to distinguish them from the Seville oranges which were not so sweet. 'China' because, unlike their bitter cousins, they didn't migrate slowly overland. They arrived in style by ship, brought by Portuguese and Italian merchants directly from China.
This is when the orange became a hand-eating fruit, sold in baskets on the street. Nell Gywn, before she became mistress of King Charles II and presumably went out of the retail fruit business, was one of the scantily clad young women who sold sweet oranges in the Drury Lane Theatre (sixpence apiece,) for the refreshment of the patrons and as a handy means of expressing dissatisfaction with the performance.
In case you were wondering -- as who has not -- whether the orange fruit was named after the color,
("Oh look! There's a whole bunch of oranges up in the tree, and some reds over on this tree and look at all those blues down here on the bushes.")
or the color was named after the fruit. I can set your mind at rest.
The color is named after the fruit.
The word orange meandered into English from the Sanskrit word for the fruit --nāranja -- through Arabic, Old Provencal, Old French and Middle English.
Before the Fourteenth Century, folks had to refer to the color as geoluhread. As in, "Wow. Love your geoluhread i-pod!" Geoluhread would roughly translate as yellow-red and I am sure we are all grateful to Sanskrit for its intervention into what would have been a dismal shade with a long name.
How common were oranges in Georgian and Regency England? How expensive?
In the mid-1700s oranges sold on the street four a penny when hot cross buns were 'one a penny, two a penny'. That doesn't seem outrageously expensive, does it -- two oranges for the price of a bun?
By 1828, one could speak of "The China, or sweet oranges, with which this country is now so amply supplied, and at such moderate prices that all classes of society enjoy them as perfectly as if they had been indigenous to the climate." John S. Skinne
And our third orange?
It was almost the blood orange. I mean, there the blood orange was, in Italy, as a
mutation among sweet oranges in the 1600s. Really no reason it couldn't have been a trade item.
I'd love to add it to the Regency table.
But it looks like they weren't imported. Mention is made of blood orange trees brought into England as greenhouse curiosities in the 1820s. I suppose some intrepid traveller might have brought back a box of fruit for friends any time.
Must have been a shock when that first blood orange was cut open at the table for everyone to see.
But the third of the Regency orange trio turns out to be the mandarin orange, the tangerine, our friend Citrus reticulata, which is technically a kind of orange rather than a separate fruit altogether, if we listen to those tricky botanists who dabble in such matters. Trees were brought to England direct from China -- the word mandarin is a dead giveaway -- in about 1805. It settled into the greenhouses of England. Not a fruit for the street crowd. An exotic treat. As late as 1817, a botanist could say it was a pity none of the countries exporting citrus to England had established the tangerine as a crop.
After 1805, your Regency heroine might be offered a mandarin, sensuously peeled, by someone who owns a very fancy greenhouse. A spiffy little factoid.
COME buy my fine oranges, sauce for your veal,
And charming when squeez'd in a pot of brown ale;
Well roasted, with sugar and wine in a cup,
They'll make a sweet bishop when gentlefolks sup.
The world would be a poorer place without oranges -- and I happen to notice I've got a half-eaten clementine beside me as I write this post.
What's your favorite oranges recipe? I used lemons to make a fancy syllabub not so very long ago, but I bet it'd be equally good with oranges. And I love me some orange cake. Also Benedictine-just-abour-anything.
One lucky commenter gets to pick a copy of any of my books.