Literature and Gardens Article

I wrote an article for the Spectator Life on Literature and Gardens in light of the Chelsea Flower Show.

Literature is full of gardens. At the gates of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the narrator, in her dream, sees unruly, angst-ridden plants and shrubs growing out of control over the long winding drive to Manderley. The love between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester blossoms in the gardens of Charlotte Bronte’s novel. Sarah Waters uses the garden to plot trickery in Fingersmith.

The use of flora in literature is as well-worn as the path Mary Lennox treads at Misselthwaite Manor in The Secret Garden. Novelists relish horticulture as symbolism, as plot progression, as a way of capturing the internalised thoughts of their characters. One has only to thumb through an anthology of Romantic poetry to find William Blake, for example, beautifully expounding the virtues of nature in verse. 

Today, we are just as likely to find gardens inspired by literature as literature inspired by gardens. At this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, gardener Fiona Cadwallader has based her beautiful ‘The Poetry Lover’s Garden’ show garden on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’. Trained lime trees and an ivy-clad dry stone wall reflect the garden’s poetic source and create a romantic space, tucked away in the secluded woodland area with other Artisan gardens, behind Chelsea’s main thoroughfare. 

In 2015, garden designer Lorely Forrester received a gold medal at Ireland’s garden festival ‘Bloom’ for her garden inspired by W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. Last year at Winterbourne, the Arts and Crafts house in Birmingham, a new garden was opened containing plants mentioned in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

There is seemingly a strong correlation between owning a beautiful garden and becoming a successful writer. It was in her enchanting garden at Old Thatch, her house in Beaconsfield, that Enid Blyton began her Brer Rabbit books. Agatha Christie sought inspiration from the 30-acre garden at Greenway, her holiday home in Devon, when writing Dead Man’s Folly. Gipsy House in Great Missenden was Roald Dahl’s home for 36 years. Dahl based the character of his Big Friendly Giant on the warm-hearted builder he commissioned to construct his garden path and writing shed. The painted gipsy caravan in his garden ignited images for Danny Champion of the World.

Many a writer has been a keen gardener. Who wouldn’t want to look out onto a garden plucked straight from one of Vita Sackville-West’s novels? Sackville-West famously designed her romantic gardens at Sissinghurst with her husband Harold Nicolson. One can look to Rudyard Kipling’s garden at Bateman’s for reassurance that one writes what one practices. ‘Gardens are not made by singing “Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade’ – surely a line written from experience. Kipling’s lawns, rose garden and sheltered Mulberry Garden are still to be admired today. These gardens influenced his writing, too: Rewards and Fairies was set at Bateman’s. 

Should inspiration strike, there is a box to post poetic musings prompted by the Coleridge-inspired garden at this year’s Chelsea. Pencils at the ready.

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