Gardens of the Imagination: Penelope Lively on her Favourite Fictional Gardens
A book that celebrates the allied pleasures of reading and gardening, Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden is a memoir of a life through gardens both real and vividly imagined. Here, taking readers from the heady scent of Manderlay’s azaleas rhododendrons to the orderly vegetable garden of Mr McGregor, Penelope Lively discusses her own favourite gardens in literature exclusively for Waterstones.
When a writer includes a garden as fictional backdrop it is usually with intent. The garden is an essential feature of the story concerned; it is there to create atmosphere, climate, the narrative would be deficient without it. The best literary gardens have an immediacy, an intensity, that remains in the reader's head, and will forever conjure up that piece of fiction.
I must start with what is, for me, one of the most resonant of fictional gardens, and that comes from Beatrix Potter - the garden that is the scene of the action in the several Tales of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny and the Flopsy Bunnies. For any child whose earliest reading experience is the work of Beatrix Potter - as was mine - that garden remains vivid, thanks to Miss Potter's brisk and uncompromising use of language, let alone her superb illustrations. The garden pertains to Mr McGregor, and I have always imagined him as the gardener employed at some big house - it looks too large for a mere cottage garden. Primarily a kitchen garden, it is raided by the rabbits, who purloin lettuces (which make them soporific - intriguing and arresting word for a four year old to encounter) and other vegetables, with dire consequences. Who could forget the "scr-r-ritch, scratch,scratch, scritch" of Mr McGregor's hoe, making the sound of a hoe for ever after loaded with significance.
Still in the territory of children's books, we move on to Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden. Here, the exquisitely imagined garden appears every night for a boy who is staying with his aunt and uncle, transforming a space that by day is just a back yard furnished with dustbins. There is a great lawn, bordered by yew trees, secret hiding places in a box bush, and between a wall and a tree trunk, hyacinths and wallflowers in spring, geraniums, poppies and roses later on, evening primroses that "glimmered like little moons". Tom is joined in the garden by a little girl, Hatty, and the beautiful theme of the book is the passage of time, the mesh between past and present, for which the garden itself, wonderfully evoked, is the crucial backdrop.
For Virginia Woolf, the garden in To The Lighthouse becomes again a signifier for time passing, but in an utterly different way. The Hebridean garden of the Ramsay family - their second home, as we would call it today - is revisited by the children who holidayed there, now adults, and is made to speak for the passage of time: "Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias; the lawn waved with long grass; giant artichokes towered among the roses; a fringed carnation flowered among the cabbages. . ." Neglect, the ravages of untrammelled growth, and the garden is summoned up with Woolf's eloquence - language that is emotive, evocative. Elsewhere, too, she conjures up gardens - in The Waves, in the short story Kew Gardens, but these in that exaggerated "stream of consciousness" style that makes them too elusive, for me. Interestingly, Woolf was herself a practical, hands-on gardener, and the garden that she and Leonard Woolf created at Monks House, in Rodmell, near Lewes, survives today, owned by the National Trust.
I have reservations about that classic garden book, Elizabeth Von Arnim's Elizabeth and her German Garden. It is not a novel - an account, rather, of the author's experiences trying to make a garden in the estate of her Prussian aristocrat husband, a difficult man who leaves her alone with her children for long periods. Her tone is tiresomely arch and whimsical, a voice perhaps appealing in the early twentieth century but which jars today. But her gardening taste is impeccable, and way ahead of its time. She had an eye for planting spring flowers in drifts, for irregularity at a time when gardening practice favoured straight lines, she wanted a white garden (long anticipating Vita Sackville-West's at Sissinghurst). It is this discerning enthusiasm that does earn the book classic status, that, and her description of the bird-cherries (Prunus Padus) that filled the estate, her ransacking of old rose catalogues.
Few readers of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca will forget the Cornish coastal garden evoked there, with its rhododendrons fifty feet high: "crimson faces, massed one upon another in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red." This is the fictional garden designed to supply atmosphere, to suggest the hidden secret of the place, the threatening climate that confronts Maxim de Winter's young bride. And, for me, it is a perfect instance of the written garden that is both vivid to the reader and an essential ingredient of the story.