Green England

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Sketch of Miss Gertrude Jekyll with sunflower. Doodle by Sir Edwin Lutyens

CHAPTER 50

The Secret Garden

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Most houses in England possess a small garden; it is part of their natural state or, even, of their national inheritance from the prehistoric inhabitants of England whose small plots of cultivated land “may be considered the first gardens of Britain”where henbane and the opium poppy flourished.

The reconstruction of medieval settlements reveals peasant cottages with small back-gardens as well as streets of thatched houses with strips of garden “all with private space fenced from their neighbours.” 2 The small Elizabethan garden is of the same lineage, and the study of local court records reveals many cases of trespass upon a neighbouring garden; it becomes the very image of defensive privacy which is so congenial to the English mind. The earliest maps of London reveal a city of gardens, each one carefully delineated. It has been remarked of the “small seventeenth-century garden,” also, that it exhibited “a sturdily independent glory.” 3 “Capability” Brown, that epitome of native ingenuity and practicality, was employed to create landscapes “of privacy and seclusion.”The same pattern of enclosure is repeated on the large, as well as the small, scale. That is why the walled garden became the model of secrecy and enchantment; the English imagination can grow only in a confined space. In the words of one historian of gardening, Jane Brown, “the little garden becomes the key to a world of wonders and delights, of fabulous riches and wealth”5glimpsed in the pages of children’s literature no less than in the myths and legends of the English. Gardens are places of safety as well as of delight, of security and privacy as well as of pleasure. As one early gardener put it, “A garden is a sort of sanctuary, a chamber roofed by heaven . . . a little pleasaunce of the soil, by whose wicket the world can be shut.” This defines a native mood. The reclusive and unremarked spot of soil guards the genius loci. It is an image of self-sufficiency, and it is perhaps significant that “garden”—otherwise “garth,” “yerd” or “yard”—itself springs from a root-word suggesting enclosure and protection.

Another historian of the garden has remarked in this context that the medieval garden, with its alleys and hedges, “reflected in no small measure the sense of security of a walled town.”It has always been considered an aspect of national sensibility that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” but the truism can be applied to the adjacent property. Jane Brown has suggested that “the British taste for gardening has a great deal to do with a warlike past”and that “so many garden terms come from the art of warfare”; thus we have trenches and pallisades, cordons and covered ways. These are the insular gardens of an island race, complete with defensive fortifications, walls and outer ditches. We do not need the example of Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, with the fortified towns of France laid out on his bowling green, or of Mr. Wemmick in Great Expectations with the battlements of his Walworth garden. Kensington Gardens itself was designed to resemble “the lines, angles, bastions, scarps and counter-scarps of regular fortifications.” 8 Many plants have been granted military names, such as “Blue Ensign” and “Old Bloody Warrior”; the ubiquitous allotments of England, where vegetables are grown, are preserved in “miniature parade-ground proportions, everything in impeccable rows.”Several forces are at work here. The love of the small scale, of the miniature, is aligned with the need for seclusion and for privacy; but this may become a fierce protectiveness, with the English love of warfare somehow domesticated or displaced. But is there not also a trace of irony, a suggestion of self-mockery, in this mimicry of battle conditions among the lawns and flowers?

In the late eighteenth century Gilbert White remarked that “every decent labourer also has his garden,” and the brick cottages of the early nineteenth century were built with plots 45 feet wide and 225 feet long. In the same period there emerged the “villa garden” as well as the “cottage garden,” the harbingers of the ubiquitous suburban garden. In News from Nowhere William Morris celebrates a future state enjoying a “delicate superabundance of small well-tended gardens” just as Thomas More, in Utopia, reports that the inhabitants of his idealised community “attached the greatest importance to their gardens” with “keen competition between streets as to which has the best kept garden.” It is also worth observing that More’s dialogue is set within a well-kept garden. It is a charmed space of the English imagination.

In indirect homage to Utopia the “garden city” movement was essentially English in inspiration and, under the tutelage of Ebenezer Howard, developed an ethos in which “the small garden, now so exceedingly worthy and desirable as almost to be sacred, reaches its apotheosis.” 10 One commentator of 1913 remarked that “however various our occupations and tastes, however conflicting our opinions, in the garden we are united.” The popularity of gardening itself was markedly increased by the development of the “semi-detached” house, within whose relatively secluded bounds emerged the English “happy medium” 11 of a small front-garden and a large back-garden. The suburban phenomenon has been described as evincing “the native urge to return to the land,” 12 further imbued with an atavistic remembrance of the Tudor cottage garden. The resurgence of interest in allotments may owe something to the “green” movement, but it is also part of a larger awakening. Bede possessed a copy of Pliny’s Historiae Naturalis.

There are other specific examples from this long tradition. The contemporary revival of herb gardening has its “roots” in the Laecboc or “Leech-book” of Bald, composed in the tenth century, and in the Old English translation of the Herbarium Apuleii where 132 different plants are described. One of the earliest gardening legends concerns St. Maurilius, who in the fourth century worked the garden of an English prince. The knights who came to murder Thomas Becket in the cathedral of Canterbury “threw off their cloaks and gowns under a large sycamore tree in the garden.” And then there are the flowers. In the first century Pliny was unsure whether England had acquired the name of Albion “from the white roses with which it abounds.” A fifteenth-century poem celebrates “the white rose of England that is freshe and wol not fade.” A prose text of the early seventeenth century, entitled Paradisus, extols roses white and red as “the most ancient and knowne Roses to our Countrey.” Ancient, too, are the tools of the trade. They have changed very little from the rakes and spades employed by Celtic settlers to the shovels and lattices of the seventeenth-century gardener. In medieval illuminations Cain and Abel are shown with spades, picks and hoes, digging and delving after the Fall; a misericord in Lincoln Cathedral has the carving of a gardener carrying an unmistakeable spade.

Gardening, then, is a national pursuit with truly native characteristics. Thus Jane Brown celebrates “our national preference for homelike rather than princely gardens”13 and notes the fact that wherever the English go “they establish gardens and always gardens of the type they left in the old country.”14 The world itself is sometimes understood in this context. John Winthrop recorded in his diary, before he set foot upon the soil of Massachussets, that “there came a smell off the shore like the smell of a garden.” The Indians of that region named plantain “Englishman’s foot” as if the race had an inalienable link with horticulture. In that sense “the English garden was a nationalist icon,”15 with its disinclination for magnificence and its almost homely presence. The English have eschewed “the frigid grandeur of Versailles”16 and have avoided “any hint of Mediterranean drama or French extravagance.”17 The country has produced enthusiastic amateurs rather than botanical theorists. Practical men and women, such as “Capability” Brown, Joseph Paxton and Gertrude Jekyll, are the epitome of the English gardener. “Capability” Brown was self-made, and rose from gardening boy to companion of princes and statesmen. Joseph Paxton modelled his celebrated design for the glass hall of the Great Exhibition from the glass-houses that he had constructed for the Duke of Devonshire’s tender plants. Gertrude Jekyll trained to be an artist but fading eyesight sent her into the nurture of gardens, where she delighted in broad sweeps and banks of colour—particularly in the wild gardens which she rendered fashionable.

The garden displays all the fruits of the English imagination, including the passion for intricacy and the love of the miniature. So it will not be wonderful to learn that the gardens of England have been described as “jewelled miniatures.”18 One history of gardening has concluded that the cottage garden of many centuries “has much in common with hand needlework, for there is always the individual touch and lack of regularity”; 19 here is an interesting confluence of taste. Anglo-Saxon embroidery, renowned for its intricate variety, was also recognised for its pattern of interlace, a native tendency which may help to explain the “knot gardens” of the sixteenth century so curiously varied and with so many “enknotted” flowers “that the place will seem like a piece of tapestry of many various colours to encrease every one’s delight.” Various plants “were interlaced so that they were seen to weave in and out of each other,” and these gardens were copied in sweetmeats to produce the “marzipan knot.”20 It is also worth noting here that the “knot garden” displayed “abstract and geometric designs” 21 and may in that respect also claim Anglo-Saxon ancestry. The English affection for “medley” and heterogeneity is also evident in the range of gardens which proffer intricacy and variety in an enclosed or intimate space. John Aubrey described an English garden as “full of variety and unevenness.” The Theory and Practice ofGardening, published in 1712, declared that “the greatest beauty of gardens consists in variety.” In Humphry Clinker a garden is described as “exhibiting a wonderful assemblage of the most picturesque and striking objects, pavilions, lodges, groves, grottoes, lawns, temples and cascades”; to use a phrase of Pope’s, all is “harmoniously confus’d.” In Stourhead, Wiltshire, we may admire “the eclecticism of the English landscape school: the classic style side by side with English cottage ‘Gothick.’ ”22 It may also be remarked that many fine English gardens “grew piecemeal”23 by that process of organic accretion which has been noticed elsewhere in this study.

The curved or serpentine line has also been a feature of this enquiry, and in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” there is a vision of “gardens bright with sinuous rills.” In The Pursuit of Paradise Jane Brown suggests that English landscape gardening was “obsessed with the serpentine line,” in a manner of which Hogarth would have approved; Horace Walpole remarked of William Kent’s landscapes that “the gentle stream was taught to serpentine at its leisure.” Capability Brown’s “curves and serpentines were smooth and suave.”24 The Georgian landscape garden has been described as “enshrining the spirit of England” with “the avoidance of straight lines and their invariable replacement by the amorphous serpentine” in lawns and paths and lakes.25 It suggests a distaste for regimentation and a love of “English liberty—that liberty of which the new [eighteenth-century] gardens themselves were a sort of symbol.”26 Horace Walpole considered the art of the garden to be “totally new, original and undisputably English,” a development which he associated with “English political liberties.” 27 Across the Channel “the compressing geometry and regularity of the French avenues and bosquets had held down the pressure till France exploded.”28 In 1753 Francis Coventry, writing in The World, asks whether “a modern gardener would consent to enter heaven if any path there is not serpentine”;29 thirteen years later, in Garrick and Colman’s The Clandestine Marriage a character revels in the fact that “here’s none of your straight lines here—but all taste—zigzag—crinkum crankum—in and out—right and left—to and again—twisting and turning like a worm, my lord.”

The pursuit of gardening fosters a native individualism; it is pre-eminently a solitary pleasure. It has been well said that “in England we have always preferred high hedges, which make for privacy.”30 A French aristocrat of the early nineteenth century observed that “the English detest being seen and will gladly forgo any prospect beyond their own limited boundaries.” That is why, in coffee-houses of the same period, there were wooden partitions between each “box.” It has been remarked, too, that “secret gardens gain much fascination as remnants of old Catholic England and Scotland, lingering in intangible ways,”31 as if the enclosed and scented air were imbued with time past. The lawn and the gravel path are also ancient features, and gardening does in a real sense touch the genius loci; the gardener makes contact with the soil, which is the ground of our being and becoming.

The garden is also an exercise in utility and practicality; the earliest gardening books were “essentially practical”32 and gardening itself was “purposeful”33 in the cultivation of herbs and vegetables. We may also introduce the English philosophical tradition here, in the words of William Lawson’s A New Orchard and Garden published in 1618. “We must count that art the surest, that stands upon experimental rules gathered by the rule of reason,” under the guidance of “mere and sole experience.” The elements of English diffidence or embarrassment may also be deemed to be present, since gardening may encourage the displacement of passion and even of sexuality itself. In her study of gardening Jane Brown has commented upon the fact that gardens are “constantly demanding sweated exertions and a tender touch” while at the same time “constantly offering sensual arousal.” 34 The innocence of children is therefore often conceived in the setting of an English garden, most notably in the animals and birds of Beatrix Potter. With their tales for children A. A. Milne, James Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and Lewis Carroll also linger in English gardens as if they had escaped into a refuge or a sanctuary.

Travel has also been seen, in this study, as a form of escape. The English gardener may also be a traveller, and has ranged from Japan to Central America, from China to Australia, from Borneo to South Africa, in pursuit of new or rare species. The Michaelmas daisy comes from Virginia, the convolvulus from Barbary, the tulip from Turkey. The fact that they have now been thoroughly acclimatised, and treated as native plants, is farther testimony to the assimilative power of the English genius. It may be that the language of flowers takes as its model the English language itself. At Fulham Palace, for example, there are “more than a thousand tender exotics”35 which like the importations into the language flourish in a mild and accommodating climate. Jane Brown’s insight into botanical practice uncannily echoes most other commentaries upon the English imagination itself. “All plants and ideas which came home,” she writes, “became instantly English, transmogrified as if they had no native roots at all: conversely le jardin anglais was exported and mysteriously became the rage.”36 No better or more significant example could be found for the essential unity of English cultural practice. In the gardens of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries “we modified the new French style . . . in accordance with our traditional custom we adapted them to our insular taste.”37 The emphasis rests upon a pattern of immigration and adoption, succeeded by ever renewed diversity. The Elizabethan chronicler William Harrison remarked that “strange herbs, plants and annual fruits are daily brought unto us from all parts of the world.” A more recent commentator, Miles Hadfield, has remarked in his Gardening in Britain that “our island was rapidly and readily absorbing theory and practice, as well as material, in the form of plants, from overseas. Thus it came about that our gardens, which we like to think of as singularly British, are in fact the most cosmopolitan in the Old World.”38 The appetite for variety, and diversity, is thus very strong. One history of English gardens has in fact claimed that “there is no part of the earth’s surface as small in area as these islands where such a diversity of plants can be grown”39—smallness, heterogeneity and temperate accommodation have also been the grace notes of the present study.

It is therefore natural that the literature of gardens, and the gardens of literature, should be harmoniously united. Some of the best English prose has been preserved in gardening books, where communion with the spirit of place releases a note of native lyricism. William Kent in turn declared that “he caught his taste in gardening from reading the picturesque descriptions of Spenser”; yet Spenser derived his plant names from The New Herbal or History of Plants, translated by Henry Lyte in 1578. The pre-eminence of translation, as an aspect of the English imagination, has already been outlined; it need only be noted that the first gardening book in English, A Most Briefe and pleasant treatyse teachynge how to dress, sowe and set a Garden . . . by Thomas Hyll, Londyner (1563), was a translation and compilation of classical or continental European sources.

The legend of the twelfth-century “Rosamond’s Bower,” described by Addison as a sacred spot where “Amaranths and Eglantines with intermingling sweets have wove the particolour’d gay Alcove,” evokes the enchantment which the English garden has cast upon poetry and prose. “Of Gardens” is one of Francis Bacon’s longest essays, with its delighted litany of plants and perfumes in “gardens for all the months in the year.” He extols the delights of the English lawn, too, since “nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass kept finely shorn.” In this setting Pepys remarked that “the green of our bowling alleys is better than any they have.” This native pride, asserted here against the French and the Italians, is complemented by an instruction in The Solitary Gardener that “A Bowling Green should be incompassed with Great Trees” to ensure privacy and seclusion. The sports and pastimes of the English—among them bowling itself as well as cricket and snooker—take place upon “greens,” where an intricate game is played in a confined space.

It is the hortus inclusus of Chaucer’s poetry—“A gardyn saw I ful of blosmy bowes”—and in The Legend of Good Women he extols the virtues of the simple daisy “of alle floures flour.” Violets scent the poetry of Shakespeare, and it has been calculated that the dramatist dilates upon the fairness of roses in some sixty separate passages. It has been asked of the Elizabethan poets, “in what foreign literature can one gather such handfuls of flowers?”40—through the cowslips of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the “daffadowndillies” of Spenser. There were so many garden publications in the seventeenth century that one might conclude that England itself was one large garden. Abraham Cowley’s “The Garden” celebrates the “blessed shades” and “gentle cool retreat” of a secluded place, and much of Marvell’s poetry is of course set among the prospect of flowers and gardens:

Annihilating all that’s made To a green Thought in a green Shade

Thus the English imagination is forever green.

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