Penelope Lively was born in 1933. She’s written over fifty books — novels for adults & children, plus some non-fiction. Life in the Garden is a collection of essays very like the series of gardening articles by the American writer Katherine S. White. Originally written for The New Yorker, White’s pieces were collected and published by her husband after her death in Onward and Upward in the Garden.
Both women, or should I say both gardeners, are refreshingly modern in their tone and approach. White wrote an entire essay dedicated to the experience of pouring over seed catalogs, while Lively isn’t above a sly aside on the influence Monty Don and Gardeners World have over the British planting public. I can’t imagine May Sarton ever being so gauche as to discuss the role of commerce in her garden – she never reveals where she bought her plants or what the local nurseries were stocking in their greenhouses that season. Sarton’s garden, we are expected to believe, was grown entirely from the clippings of memory left on the altar of her doorstep by friends and neighbors.
I’m being a bit unfair, but certainly Sarton expressed no interest in “the garden as a social indicator” — an idea Lively explores in suitably lively fashion. 🙂 She was in her seventies when she wrote Life in the Garden and had long since downsized from the Oxfordshire garden she tended with her husband Jack (who died in 1998 and whose memory is everywhere) to the more modest London plot she keeps today. Where before she and her husband employed Richard Taylor, who she calls “friend, collaborator”. “He and Jack would work together, in unceasing conversation; I would come out and find them paused, each leaning on spad or fork”. From Taylor she moves on to consider the preponderance of Scottish gardeners in literature. Wodehouse’s dour Angus McAllister waging war on the Blanding Castle slugs and Beatrix Potter’s fearsome Mr. McGregor, who Jack believed “to be a much misunderstood man”. These days Lively relies on a service which employs immigrant laborers rather than an individual whose calling has been passed down through the generations.
The two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening. And there has been a sense in which the two have meshed: I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden, when gardening becomes an element of fiction. I find myself wondering what is going on here. Is this garden deliberate or merely fortuitous? And it is nearly always deliberate, a garden contrived to serve a narrative purpose, to create atmosphere, to furnish a character.
Lively, more than Sarton and White, connects gardens and literature — something I’d been craving since the start of this project. She opens her essay The Written Garden, with a description of the dreamt garden introducing us to Manderlay in DuMaurier’s Rebecca. She also discusses the fictional gardens found in the works of Elizabeth Bowen, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Carol Shields and several more writers I’d never heard of. Then, in the second half of this same essay, she switches to “the garden writing that is free of fictional purpose, concerned only with discussion, advice, celebration — the writing of those who garden.”
Life in the Garden is a short book, made up of six essays (seven if you count the introduction). Each reflects and is permeated with a lifetime of reading. This is distracting at times. The pages are filled with the names of authors and the titles of books, as well as descriptions of plants and planting schemes. Lively makes a seemingly endless series of connections and it can be a bit like reading a compendium or directory — each sentence opening up a rabbit warren of internet research. So much information comes at you and very little manages to stick. Fortunately, she has written the kind of book which you’ll want to pick up and re-read.
Books on gardening, whether they be practical how-tos, memoirs, or essay collections like this one, age well. Even when some of the advice has gone out of style, the components of the garden change very little over time or across regions — hardscaping, soil maintenance, planting beds, structural trees and shrubs, water features — these are still as much a part of our contemporary landscapes as they ever were. The same can be said of the plants.
Clematis appears a dozen times in Life in the Garden: in T.S. Eliot’s poems, on an Anna Pavord calendar, climbing up one of Vita Sackville-West’s apple trees and planted in a Giverny garden famous for its waterlilies. My clematis, which does not look particularly happy where I planted it (by the way), has inexplicably produced two big and beautiful white flowers. And in a weird way, it forms a tenuous connection between all those other gardeners and me. And when I think about that, about this love for and desire to interact with the natural world, I can’t help but wonder… how did they deal with the aphids?
We garden for tomorrow, and thereafter. We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating. Gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backward, and forward, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next.
Title: Life in the Garden
Author: Penelope Lively
Publisher: Viking (New York, 2017)