Novels about gardens

Kirsty from The Literary Sisters recently reposted one of their pieces with the title Books about Gardens, which I was so taken with that I’m going to do my version, now, at the height of summer.

As the title suggests, I’m going to refer to books I’ve read, with links to any reviews, that have dealt one way or another with gardens in the modern era. I could have included references to gardens in the wider sense — the Middle Eastern concept of the paradise garden, or Thomas Browne’s 1658 overview The Garden of Cyrus, or turf mazes and labyrinths and the wildernesses of landscape gardening — but I’ve chosen to limit myself mostly to fiction, with just a couple of excursions beyond the paling.

Additionally, I note that these are in the main the grand gardens of English country houses or urban mansions rather than the more modest domestic examples of town terraces and the suburbs or examples from abroad. It’s something I need to address in a future post, whether they exist, say, in Mesopotamian mythology, in Chinese culture, the global tradition of public open spaces or Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories.

I shall start with two of the children’s novels possibly most cited in reference to gardens, Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. The first is based on the one Pearce knew when she lived in Cambridgeshire and which still exists more than sixty years after the novel was written; the second is a composite of several gardens FHB had been familiar with during her lifetime but principally that at Rolvenden in Kent (despite the novel being set in Yorkshire).

The next couple of gardens are also based on English houses or mansions. Anne Fine’s The Devil Walks is a YA horror tale in the best Gothick tradition, set in a fictional creepy country house with a garden labyrinth known as the Devil Walks which harbours a sinister reputation. Joan Aiken’s The Haunting of Lamb House is based on a real house and garden in Rye, Sussex; her novel has ghosts haunting the garden and the alleyways around the town, and it even features historical figures such as Henry James and E F Benson. Speaking of Henry James, his novel The Aspern Papers is centred on a Venetian palazzo, in the midst of which a largely untended garden stands as a metaphor for an undergrowth of lies and secrets.

The climax of Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock occurs in a garden where the borders with Faërie are very thin: two stone pedestals have the enigmatic phrases NOW HERE and NOWHERE carved onto them. Another garden with strange properties is found in the pages of Sarah Singleton’s The Poison Garden: space and time become malleable in the green spaces featured here.

Edith Nesbit’s Long Ago When I Was Young is a series of short memoirs originally appearing as ‘My School-Days: Memories of Childhood’ in The Girl’s Own Paper in 1896 and 1897. The darker incidents of the first few chapters eventually give way to a brief childhood idyll associated with a garden in France. Nesbit was to be an influence on a number of later writers including Joan Aiken, whose short stories about the Armitage family (the surname inspired by her stepfather Martin Armstrong) frequently featured gardens, including the one that gave its title to the collection called The Serial Garden, which I’ve yet to review.

I’ve rather neglected non-fiction, of which I could witter on a bit about books on gardening and illustrated coffee table titles. Instead I’ll conclude with two off-piste books. Simon Winchester’s The Alice behind Wonderland explores Lewis Carroll’s relationship with the Liddell daughters, whom he photographed in the Christ Church cathedral Dean’s Oxford garden. No doubt that particular garden with his favourite model Alice is not unrelated to scenes in the fictional Alice books, such as her famous conversation with the Queen of Hearts in the painted rose garden. Then there is the famous New York museum The Cloisters, filled with treasures from medieval Europe. Timothy B Husband’s monograph Creating The Cloisters mostly describes the building of the structure to house the religious art and architecture, but of course cloisters were the medieval equivalent of the Middle Eastern paradise garden, and the site of the cloisters — on a wooded hill overlooking the Hudson — teems with green spaces and tranquil planting, as photos of the 20th-century development illustrate.

Finally, I come to the popular meme misquoted from Cicero: If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. He actually meant “If you make a garden of your library — a place to sit and ruminate, or chat with friends — then you’ll want for nothing.”

As readers this may be as near paradise as one could hope for in this world — especially if the French windows open out onto a real garden where colours abound and scents fill the air and birdsong lulls the senses. Do you have favourite novels evoking gardens?

Wild and cultivated roses: images from our own garden

32 thoughts on “Novels about gardens

  1. I completely agree with Cicero– I’ve read very few of the books on your list, but since books and gardens are my favourite themes, I’m adding most of these.

    I guess The Enchanted April would also fit your list–wisteria and sunshine. (lots of other flowers too). A lot of time spend in the garden and amidst nature in that one.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There is something about wisteria that always uplifts the senses — where we live now there are a few examples we see on our walks that seem to have two or even three blooms through the year. Here’s a local example I posted a couple of months ago: https://wp.me/sbtT6N-wistful

      As for my titles I hope you aren’t put off by how many are in the fantasy and children’s genres!

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      1. Not at all– I love children’s books, in fact Secret Garden is one of my favourites. I am yet to get my hands on Tom’s Midnight Garden which I’ve been wanting to read for ages. Fantasy I enjoy as well but have had a mixed experience with them as some seem too much to get one’s head around, if that makes sense.

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  2. I was reminded by your post that the gardens figure in the work of MR James quite a lot: the ghostly figures in Lost Hearts; the apparition in The Rose Garden; the maze in Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance…

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  3. I’m sure I must have several favourites but the only one in my mind at the time of writing is The Glass House by Susan Fletcher which features a glass house based on Kew and a garden based on Hidcote. The dearth of other examples results in part from my appalling memory but also because I’m busily noting the titles you’ve included. The tbr grows ever weightier …. 😨

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    1. I would recommend you cease following review blogs like mine if you seriously wish to limit your virtual pile of wishlist titles, Sandra! Mind you, not all the titles noted are of equal worth, which is partly why I’ve included links. But excuse me, I now have to go investigate the Susan Fletcher… 😁

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      1. 😆 I know! I do think all decent book blogs should come with a financial health warning! If I could only keep all in the realms of the virtual, but alas, I have not the strength to resist!

        (The Fletcher is very good btw… 😉)

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  4. Perhaps an odd choice, but one book I think of that involves gardening is Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa at Sea. When the Moomin family attempt a new life on a tiny, isolated island, Moominmamma tries to grow roses, making flower-beds out of sea-weed, but the harsh weather and sea defeat her. Instead, she draws pictures of roses on the walls of their lighthouse and disappears into them, where she can roam in her rose garden at home. It so poignantly evokes not just her homesickness, but the whole human project of making a garden to establish a “home” and how futile that can be sometimes in the face of nature.

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    1. Not so odd, Debbie — I’ve only read Comet in Moominland but I think a number of readers have recommended this one to read next, so I may get to enjoy this garden description sooner rather than later!

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      1. If you haven’t read all the Moomins, I actually wouldn’t recommend this one next, as the tone is quite different – her books become more melancholy and philosophical as they progress (and this is the second-to-last). I’d recommend at least reading Moominland Midwinter first (not just because it’s my favourite lol).

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  5. What an interesting post. The first books about gardens that come to mind, other than the ones you’ve listed here, are Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim and The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng, both of which I can highly recommend if you haven’t read them. I was also going to suggest The Glass House, but I see Sandra has beaten me to it!

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    1. I’ve had Elizabeth von Arnim already recommended to me, Helen, and I’ve promised to keep an eye out for it! The Tan Twang Eng title is new to me, though, so thanks. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for these additional titles, Emma, the Morton especially looks to be something special! I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a copy in the local bookshop so I’ll look it out. First, though, I have to read FHB’s A Little Princess!

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  6. My two favourite pastimes are reading and gardening. What a lovely post Chris, and I shall forgive you for encouraging me to buy yet more books! I think I would add The Children of Green Knowe to the list. Helen Dunmore and Kate Morton are others already mentioned that I’ve enjoyed too. I associate Rebecca with gardens a little too. The house and garden together are so important to the story. I’ve reviewed some lovely picture books with gardens as a setting recently. Mrs Noah’s Garden is gorgeous and extremely cheering.

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    1. Oh, I’d forgotten the Green Knowe title, and I’ve even got a copy of The River at Green Knowe to read! And there must be loads of picture books about gardens and spaces around houses — I’ve a soft spot for The Lion in the Meadow

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  7. I love most of the novels you mention and must read the ones I haven’t already. This post makes me think, perversely, of the other sometime meaning of garden as it’s used in a novelistic book that I loved when it came out, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, where the “garden” is a graveyard.

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    1. Had to look up that title you mention — by John Berendt — and I see it’s classed as a non-fiction novel because of the liberties it takes in the telling of a real case. But do like the notion of a graveyard as a garden, as not all are the sinister places represented in horror movies!

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  8. What a fabulous idea this is — fiction about gardens. One of my favorite Latin American novels is “The Garden Next Door,” by José Donoso. It’s the self-reflexive tale of an author spending the summer in Madrid. He can see a mansion’s garden and a beautiful woman from his apartment, etc. You may enjoy it.

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  9. There’s something truly special about a garden that is…hmmm. That isn’t just setting, but a character in a story. When nature’s presence cannot be ignored, and even when tailored by man’s pruning shears, it is unique and unpredictable day to day. I suppose I say this because I myself could NEVER keep a garden, but living so much in the farming country I see struggle and harmony between man and land season to season.

    So many wonderful recommendations here, too. Hope you’re well, Friend! xxxxxxxxx

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    1. I am, Jean, thanks! And ogling the dramatic and ongoing news about volatile US politics! Hope Wisconson turns blue and helps bring your country out of his benighted state. We’re currently stuck with the most corrupt government I’ve known in my lifetime, which is nothing to be proud of.

      So, yes, gardens. We have a sheltered garden, enclosed by hedging, wall and fencing, but which manages to ‘borrow’ the surrounding hills with their green fields, woodland and moorland. So even when the weather’s foul (as it has been this weekend) we can look out the windows and take pleasure in the verdant peace.

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      1. That sounds lovely, Chris. We drove by one of my childhood homes yesterday, one where my mom had worked hardest on her garden. Now, that garden is completely gone and replaced with a giant shed and some goofy Halloween decorations.

        We also stopped by Dad’s old church and the play yard there. A tree, tall and turning, grew where an old merry-go-round once grew. I noticed a plaque by that tree, and saw the tree had been planted by the school in honor of an eight-year-old classmate who had died of leukemia. The memory of the boy rushed back, of helping his mom with Sunday School, of Dad visiting the boy at the hospital and the boy choosing the hymns for his own funeral…a boy planning his own funeral…an eight-year-old…my own sons are eight now.

        It was beautiful, difficult day.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Those are some bittersweet moments, aren’t they? I’ve rarely visited former residences because of likely changes, it’d just be too painful to see aspects of them altered or removed — I’d rather keep them in my memory as they were, even if that memory was slightly false.

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