When the publisher offered to send me a copy of The Writer’s Garden: How gardens inspired our best-loved authors by Jackie Bennett, how could I possibly say no? When the large-format book arrived with a full-color glossy cover I thought, uh-oh, it’s just going to be all photos. So I was pleasantly surprised to open the book and discover good text too.
The gardens in the book belong to the likes of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling and more. In all, twenty writers and nineteen gardens are represented and what glorious gardens they are. Some of the writers were themselves avid gardeners. George Bernard Shaw died at the age of ninety-four after falling while out in the garden pruning a tree. Of course, Beatrix Potter was a very hands-on gardener and sometimes it is hard to tell which parts of her stories were inspired by her garden and which features in her garden were reproduced from her stories. Thomas Hardy, who grew up farming, was also very hands-on as was Robert Burns who would work on his farm and garden all day composing poems in his head which he would then write down in the evenings.
There were plenty of writers who had beautiful gardens but hired other people to take care of them. Henry James knew absolutely nothing about gardening when he moved to Lamb House. While he eventually learned the names of flowers and trees, he left the actual work to someone else.
Walter Scott knew plenty about gardening, he designed his house and most of his extensive gardens, but other than lending a hand planting trees and doing a few other chores now and then, he left the actual work to his hired gardeners.
A common theme among many of these writers whose gardens were all at minimum an acre and often larger than that, is some sort of shed/hut/cottage/house located somewhere in the garden, usually amidst the trees, where they would go and escape the house to write. Roald Dahl had an actual Gypsy caravan that he bought and installed in his garden. For the few writers who did not have a writing hut, they all had studies, generally on the second floor of the house, that looked out over a part of the garden.
Some of the gardens were purely ornamental, but a good many included large kitchen gardens that helped feed the household. Most of the gardens also had orchards as well with apple, pear, cherry and plum trees. All of the writers had woods, either as part of the garden or, for the smaller estates, wooded common areas just over the fence that provided quiet, shady walks.
I found myself supremely jealous of all these gorgeous gardens. When I finished the book it seemed that writing and gardening went hand in hand that one could not possibly be a writer without garden acreage. No wonder I am not an author, I only have a small city lot and there is no chance of a writing hut. I might be able to build a small closet big enough for a chair but I would not be willing to give up even that small spot of soil. I do have a room with a window that looks out onto the garden but the cats get the window and me and my desk are left facing the wall. All of the gardens in The Writer’s Garden are in the UK so I also suffered from a bit of envy over what could be grown in some of the gardens that I could never grow in my own.
The book itself is beautiful. The pages are thick and glossy and the photos are all in color. For each writer there is a list of the books written while in residence at the particular house/garden and Bennett is kind enough to provide an update to the current state of the garden. Many of them are now owned by the National Trust but not all. At the end of the book is information on how to visit most of the gardens as well as a short list of further reading.
The holidays are fast approaching and this book would make a wonderful gift for the reader-gardener in your life. Or perhaps it might be one you yourself should put on your list for Santa. I’ll be keeping my copy handy to browse through in the winter months when my eyes need bright color and my spirit needs to imagine itself in a snug writing hut beneath the leafy green trees.