The first ever Festival of Garden Literature opened yesterday in Hertfordshire. Ever since I got wind of this event, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I can’t quite understand why it has taken so long for a garden-themed book festival to be organized. Gardens feature in several of the world’s oldest texts, and the Hesperides, the Garden of Eden, or yet again the famed hanging gardens of Babylon, have inspired writers for centuries.
Regarded variously as places of (religious) contemplation, of pre-lapsarian innocence, of awakening sexuality, or yet again, as markers of social status and symbols of man’s power over nature, gardens have been invested with a multiplicity of meanings, and literature has played on all of them.
Just look at what Daphne du Maurier did in Rebecca! One of the most striking features of the Manderley gardens is the dense hedge of blood-red rhododendrons that lines both sides of the great avenue leading up to the house. Visually, those rhododendrons are a stroke of genius – I have pictured them in my mind’s eye fifty times at least, and my hands have itched to try out something similar. The new Mrs de Winter, however, finds them vaguely sinister, and I can’t say I entirely blame her. The tunnel formed by the over-arching branches of the trees, the shadows lurking in the undergrowth, and the startling splashes of crimson, like spilt blood upon the leaves, create an oppressive atmosphere in keeping with the hostile attitude of the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers – as if the garden, like a code that had to be cracked, contained in its various components the truth of Rebecca’s death.
The Manderley garden plays but a small role in the story itself. It is there mainly for atmospheric purposes but in that it succeeds admirably, and I have always been fascinated by it. If truth be told, all descriptions of gardens fascinate me. It is like coming across a description of a library: I immediately picture myself there, and the more details there are, the better I like it. There is a keen pleasure in mentally strolling about a fictional garden, noting a reference to a peony here or the mention of an “Albertine” rose there. It is akin to snooping through a character’s bookshelves and coming across old friends like Little Women and Jane Eyre. And a character who gets up early in order to re-pot basil seedlings wins my instant sympathy.
Sometimes I get a little confused about which I prefer: books or plants. Which is why books about plants appeal to me so much, whether fiction or the kind with complicated Latin names and lots of glossy photographs. Reading one of the latter when actually in the garden is a particularly satisfying experience: you can look up every few minutes, select a portion of the garden in front of you, and mentally replace whatever flowers (or weeds and brambles) were there before with the specimen you are currently studying in your book, say mango-coloured Icelandic poppies, with petals like Japanese rice paper, or an English vicarage border of blue delphiniums and yellow “Graham Thomas” roses. It’s like playing paper dolls all over again.
I spent many such hours last summer, when it was too hot to do anything but sit in the shade and read. While I leafed through a pile of gardening books, my father read The Novel in the Viola with a small frown, and my mother immersed herself yet again in the world of Harry Potter. It was very quiet and peaceful, the only sounds those of pages being turned, the dry rattle of the breeze in the palms, and the occasional plop of a frog diving off a lily pad in the nearby fish pond. At five o’clock, my mother would carry the tea tray out and we would pause briefly to sip green tea out of willow pattern cups.
Garden-themed Reading List:
- An Island Garden, by Celia Thaxter (1894).
- Elizabeth and her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim (1898).
- The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911).
- Down the Garden Path, by Beverley Nichols (1932).
- The Illustrated Garden Book, by Vita Sackville-West (1986).
- The Lost Garden, by Helen Humphreys (2002).
- Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen (2007).
- The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng (2012).
© Florence Berlioz 2013