If, during these sheltering at home times, you’re lucky enough to have a garden, I’ll bet you’re embracing it. I know I am, with infinite pleasure. Not only in love with my own green space but ever more in love with gardens generally, including those of friends through shared pics and conversations and all the beautiful green energy that gardens generate.
Also books about gardens.
Most recently ‘Life in the Garden’ which is so perfectly titled how could I not be drawn to it given that these past three months it’s been my theme song and even now when the world is slowly opening up and I don’t think that’s maybe the best idea I continue to live, for the most part, in my garden.
A slim thing, 186 pp with not a wasted word, reflections on gardens and how they connect to art, to literature, history, as well as the fashion of gardens (white garden in, wax begonias out, that kind of thing) and the inanity of the Chelsea Flower Show. This last observation especially endears me to the author. The point of it all being that gardens are as individual in appearance and purpose as those who create them and the natural environment in which they exist, and should never be influenced by trends, fashions or other dictates.
Not a new philosophy but what IS new? The writer’s job is not to invent the wheel, but to show it from a perspective that feels fresh, that makes us think differently about something familiar just when we thought we’d thought it all.
“I do not look at [photos[ with the same intensity that I look at a painted garden… The photograph reports; the painting examines, interprets, expands.”
I like how Lively distinguishes between gardening and creating, or allowing a garden to simply be. The former being weeding, etc., the latter everything else. While able to admire aspects of the fancy schmancy spaces with boxwood edges trimmed to mad levels of perfection, she prefers a sort of contrived disarray, enough hands-off so that plants can truly find their own space with only occasional intervention and nudging so that there is fairness to all and a limit on anarchy. This works against the principle of insisting the blue things go here and the yellow there.
“Gardening is not outdoor housework.”
She writes about gardens in various urban and rural settings and how, surprisingly, it’s the suburban gardens (those between city and country) that, despite a devotion to lawns, also tend to have the larger number of green spaces/gardens and the greatest diversity of plants.
There are bits about Virginia Woolf’s house near Lewes, purchased in 1919 when she was thirty-seven and her years of gardening there with Leonard and thoughts on the Garden of Eden and while… “God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth...” she would have been that much happier had there been some second thoughts when it came to creating vine weevil and greenfly.
She writes about The Eden Project, vast biomes housing a rainforest in Cornwall and how Gertrude Jeckyll was THE gardening guru of her time, her books the forerunner to Home and Garden magazine.
She writes about gardens as inspiration for art—German Impressionist, Max Liebermann’s garden at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, Gustav Klimt’s, fin-de-siecle golden ladies, his ‘cottage garden’ flowers of 1905, Munch’s Jealousy in the Garden, (one of eleven Jealousies… including Jealousy in the Bath, etc.)
“Van Gogh said that he discovered the laws of simultaneous colour contrast while studying flowers.”
And she writes about the rhododendrons of Daphne du Marier’s Rebecca. (which Lively personally doesn’t like for their aggressiveness and show-offy ways and which make them perfect for what they symbolize in the book)
Nor does Lively hold back her opinion of A Secret Garden, which she doesn’t love for its sentimentalism and heavy handed approach about the healing aspects of positive thinking which Frances Hodgson Burnett arrived at through Christian Science. (Here I might disagree with Lively. Not on Christian Science, of which I know zip, but that the power of positive thinking itself surely can NOT be a bad message. Though she has other issues with the book and I would need to re-read A Secret Garden to comment further.)
However, Lively (don’t you love her name) IS a huge fan of Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, and references a scene where Tom meets an old woman, Mrs. Bartholomew (once the young girl of the story) who she tells him that “nothing stands still, except in our memory” . The scene goes on a bit longer and Lively shares it all, then adds her thoughts: “For the boy Tom, this is a moment of maturity, a glimpse of the continuity and of growing up, and a reason why [the book] is one of the greatest children’s books of all time. But above all, it is a narrative of great elegance, simply told, and leaving you with insights into the nature of time, and memory.”
The Stone Diaries comes up (when Daisy Goodwill becomes a garden columnist). And Elizabeth and Her German Garden… about living in Prussia and gardening not being allowed for ladies. Which Lively mentions must have been a Prussian thing because it’s long been okay for the upper class to get their hands dirty (but only in the garden, and with help of course).
My TBR list increased a fair bit thanks to Lively. I now need to add Anna Pavord for gardening advice and compost making. Also her book The Tulip.
Also Margery Fish, a pioneer of informal gardening.
And Karel Capek’s The Gardener’s Year (who employs tongue in cheek humour about the ‘joys’.)
I discovered what a landscaping ‘ha-ha’ is (an architectural term for an optical illusion) and that there was a tulipmania period from 1634-37. “…at its height one of the most prized bulbs changed hands for a price equivalent to one of the then finest houses on an Amsterdam canal.” One of the special charms of the book is that every single thing she writes about is interesting and well presented but short. No eternal chapters devoted to just one thing. Tulipmania, for instance, is beautifully explained in a page with a perfectly acceptable sense of if you want to know more about it, look it up.
Where Lively and I disagree to some extent is on the use of the Latin to describe plants. I understand its helpfulness in terms of genesis, but it does take a lot of remembering of syllables and comes off a bit snotty.
“My beloved signature plant, Erigeron karvinskianus,comes from Mexico and is sometimes called Mexican fleabane, tough I wouldn’t dream of doing so.”
But fleabane is SUCH a much lovelier name! Come on now, Penelope.
And then she’ll say something like this:
“The gardener ends up with a head crammed full of names…. but I have not yet stared at a rose wondering what kind of flower this is, and in fact plant names seem to surface more readily than those of politicians or celebrities, which is as it should be, as far as I’m concerned.”
And once again, we agree.
2 thoughts on “this is not a review: ‘life in the garden’, by penelope lively”
Ok, I need to read this. Tom’s Midnight Garden is a beloved book of mine…
It’s pure joy. (And now I have to re-read Tom.)