When a extremely good e book comes alongside, one of many issues it does is to attract consideration to the absence of such a e book in your cabinets earlier than it arrived. I hadn’t actually thought a lot concerning the state of the as soon as venerable artwork of backyard writing till I learn Life within the Garden. It introduced residence to me how few current gardening books come wherever near its type, intelligence and depth. I loved Dan Pearson’s A Year within the Garden; Alys Fowler is at all times value studying; I couldn’t care much less about Monty Don’s gormless retrievers, however he does write fashionable if faintly patrician prose when describing Longmeadow. Other than these worthy exceptions, backyard books have change into, as Penelope Lively herself factors out, nothing greater than “vehicles for lavish photography”.
Lively, now in her 80s, is the one writer to have received each the Booker, for Moon Tiger in 1987, and the Carnegie medal for kids’s fiction, for The Ghost of Thomas Kempe in 1973. She has continued to put in writing since her string of hits within the 1980s; 2009’s Family Album was a memorably sharp novel of middle-class manners and final yr’s assortment of brief tales, The Purple Swamp Hen, garnered glorious opinions. In Life within the Garden, she has given us one thing fairly new; wealthy and strange, it is a e book to treasure, as stunning on the within as its attractive cowl and endpapers (all by the celebrated illustrator Katie Scott).
“The two central activities in my life – alongside writing – have been reading and gardening,” Lively says, and Life within the Garden laces elegantly between the 2. Whatever you’re eager about tends to catch your eye while you’re studying, however there’s a particular relationship between writers and their gardens. “I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden,” Lively writes, “… it is nearly always deliberate, a garden contrived to serve a narrative purpose, to create atmosphere, to furnish a character.” Life within the Garden strikes between Lively’s personal horticultural life and a broad historical past of gardening, with common and illuminating examples from a number of our greatest backyard writers in nonfiction, poetry and novels.
Lively’s work is stuffed with memorable gardens, from the Egyptian oases of Moon Tiger (which drew on her childhood in Egypt) to the nursery at Dean Close in According to Mark. Lively doesn’t quote herself, which is reasonably a disgrace, however chooses to name on others as a substitute, from Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West to her pals Elizabeth Jane Howard and Carol Shields (and it strikes me now what a debt Shields’s greatest novel, The Stone Diaries, owes to Moon Tiger). She is gently dismissive of these writers who offer you a backyard, however don’t know sufficient about it to call names, to distil the summary normal great thing about the place into the specificity of verbena and lily and coreopsis. Proust is available in for explicit criticism right here.
This is a e book that offers phrases to one thing that these of us who backyard know by intuition – how being within the backyard raises the spirits, modulates the seasons. Lively writes of “that enriching lifting out of the restrictions of now, and today” that comes with the planning and retrospection of a backyard. Gardening additionally permits us to “escape winter by swinging forward into spring, summer”. Lively is such a persistently genial presence within the e book, her references pleasant reminders of writers 1 loves (she despatched me straight again to Anna Pavord and Jenny Uglow), of latest names similar to Eleanor Perenyi, and of authors 1 is aware of however not as backyard writers – James Fenton’s gardening columns are a newfound pleasure.
A very zippy and entertaining chapter tells the historical past of panorama gardening. It slips with typical seamlessness between truth and fiction, summoning Capability Brown and Jane Austen, Humphrey Repton and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. This is intelligently wedded to a unique form of landscaping – the imposition of order on the wilds of the American prairie as evinced within the work of Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder. “The garden reorders time,” Lively writes, “and to garden is to impose order … It is the conquest of nature, the harnessing of nature to a purpose, initially practical and later aesthetic.”
Throughout the e book we’re drip-fed scenes from Lively’s life, so it turns into like an autobiography smuggled right into a backyard e book. Now, at 84, time and area have conspired to circumscribe her gardening existence. She’s beset by issues along with her again: “I can’t bend at all now, so my gardening of the London garden has to be restricted to watering, dead-heading, and such operations as I can manage from a folding seat.” Since the demise of her husband, the tutorial Jack Lively, she has given up their residence within the Oxfordshire countryside and tends “a few square yards” of city north London. She writes frankly of the truth that the Hydrangea paniculata Limelight she’s planting will in all probability outlive her, though “I am requiring it to perform while I can still enjoy it”. Lively has made her negotiations with ageing and recognises the small and tentative gestures at immortality that include gardening – her remark on the way in which crops cross down by means of generations prompted ideas of the common-or-garden Alchemilla mollis that traces my patio, a present from my mother-in-law’s backyard that was given to her by her personal mom. I’m certain the Alchemilla, which has seeded itself all over the place, will nonetheless be going sturdy after I’m lengthy gone.
This isn’t fairly an ideal e book. Lively has a tic of too-regular authorial interjections to remind the reader of what’s to return. “I’m getting ahead of myself,” she says, or “more on that later,” or “as we shall see”. It’s a part of the appeal of the e book, this enthusiasm, however the outbursts come too usually and start to clunk. In her diaries, Virginia Woolf describes coming in from the backyard with Leonard and discovering the “chocolate earth in our nails”. It’s a phrase Lively clearly admired – she makes use of it twice in 3 pages and thrice within the first chapter.
There’s a typical theme that hyperlinks most of the authors Lively mentions – they’re infuriatingly privileged. You might hardly assist writing nicely about gardens in case you grew up at Knowle, or lived at Sissinghurst, or Monk’s House. Lively herself is from blue-blooded inventory – her grandmother’s place in Somerset had a sunken rose backyard, a ha-ha, a splendid-sounding yew-lined water function. Few of my writer pals have been fortunate sufficient to inherit castles with 750 acres of grounds to be tended, as Perenyi did, or choose up a Prussian aristo with a sprawling property, like Elizabeth von Arnim.
And but, for all of the shortage of actually good modern backyard writers, there are nonetheless many who, like Woolf or Elizabeth Bowen, use gardens to highly effective impact of their novels. I’m pondering of Amanda Craig in The Lie of the Land, Alan Hollinghurst in The Stranger’s Child, Melissa Harrison in At Hawthorn Time, Lucy Hughes-Hallett in Peculiar Ground. They recognise the reality that shines brightly from Life within the Garden – that our gardens assert a strong maintain on our collective imaginations; they’re reflections of our secret selves, locations of reminiscence and nostalgia during which we carry out advanced rituals of hope and stewardship. Our lengthy historical past of gardening deserves a e book as stunning as Life within the Garden.
• Life within the Garden by Penelope Lively is revealed by Fig Tree (£14.99). To order a replica for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or name 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, on-line orders solely. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Alex Preston from theguardian.com