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 Pearse’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. The first is based on the one Pearse 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?