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Book Review: The Writer’s Garden

Writers GardenJackie Bennett with photographs by Richard Hanson The Writer’s Garden: How gardens inspired our best-loved authors (Frances Lincoln, 2014) £25

This collection of descriptions of gardens lived and worked in and enjoyed by some of our favourite writers, all within England or Scotland, requires more than one read. It is filled with facts and reflections that can be inadequately appreciated during an initial perusal. The text is complemented and intelligently interspersed by colourful photographs of how the gardens are today with a black and white photograph or other image of each writer but very few other types of illustrations.  Although the photographs try to capture the gardens synoptically as well as in detail, some of the chapters would be better served also with maps to help describe the larger and more complex gardens.  In the chapter on Batemans, reference is made to a map of part of the garden drawn by Kipling himself on display in the house. What an opportunity missed!

I would question the accuracy of the subtitle since Bennett shows that inspiration was a two way process: the writers in many cases created, extended or transformed their gardens, especially the larger ones, using influences from elsewhere, even if amended and applied to the specific demands of the site. G B Shaw, Winston Churchill, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling were such owners. Henry James was served by the design advice of Alfred Parsons when laying out the garden of Lamb House in Rye.  John Ruskin used Brantwood as a laboratory for some of his ideas.  Moreover, not simply is the garden but also, sometimes more powerfully, its setting and the much wider landscape revealed as having had a creative force on several writers, especially on those brought up in an agricultural or rural environment: Ted Hughes, John Clare, Robert Burns and Thomas Hardy. True to the title the author includes many cases where the garden or elements of them are borrowed for scenes or events or plots in the writers’ works. The poem written by Rupert Brook in Berlin, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, is a eulogy to his garden and way of life in Cambridge. The Battery in Agatha Christie’s garden became the setting for several scenes in her novels. James and the Giant Peach developed from a study of the microfauna in Roald Dahl’s garden.

The book reveals that the process of garden creation or the peace derived from a garden is succour to those who needed to lead a passive and sometimes secluded period of their lives in writing. Leonard Woolf was the gardener but Virginia benefited from wandering in it as she moved from writing hut to house and back again. The writing retreat, whether in the garden or in the house with views over, seems to have been of major significance to the writing process.  Some writers did indeed become dependent upon their land. Scott pined for Abbotsford when abroad. Indeed the estate absorbed just about all of the income that he made from his novels after his bankruptcy and the need to continue to draw an income from the place probably obliged his heirs to open it to the public soon after his death.

The National Trust emerges as a star in the preservation of many of the gardens for us to visit today. As early as 1939 Batemans was gifted to them by Kipling’s wife while Wordsworth House has an 18th C garden recreated by the Trust and growing the plants that the Wordsworth children are likely to have known in their parents’ home before family misadventure forced them to move. Many writers lived in a variety of gardens at different times in their lives but the reverence we have for these grounds of literary association have motivated a range of loving carers with a mission to share them with other enthusiasts. Laurence Sterne’s garden at Shandy Hall has been recreated with specific allusions to aspects of his writing. Only Roald Dahl’s house and garden is out of bounds but there is a neighbouring museum dedicated to him.  Rupert Brook’s Grantchester Old Vicarage, the current home of a present day author, is occasionally open for charity.

The status of having been lived in by a best-loved writer seems to be the criterion for inclusion in the list. The introduction draws attention to those which might have been included had they still existed.  In the knowledge that many gardens have competent and well illustrated guide books available for sale on site, this book can best be treated as a taster for those deciding which admired authors have gardens that can be visited and to what extent they will find a truthful representation of it or merely aspects of where a writer worked and played.  A conclusion to draw the threads of the different chapters together would have been welcome but information about visiting the gardens is a useful addition at the end. 

Robert Peel

1 December 2014