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Gardens of the imagination: gardens and gardening in literature

25 March 2020 by Rolawn

Woman reading a book in garden
After a busy day in the garden it’s not unusual to head indoors, wash the dirt off your hands, and open up a book. You might have a favourite spot in your garden where you like to read; a seat in a shady corner or a pretty summer house. Alternatively, you might use an hour diving into literature or the latest best seller as the chance to peacefully soak up some rays of sunshine.

Books transport us into different worlds but surprisingly often when you start to delve, those worlds involve stepping into other people’s gardens. These literary gardens can be heady and filled with exotic plants and flowers or they can be more like the familiar outside spaces that we lovingly tend to ourselves. Gardens in books can be wild or suburban, gentle or foreboding. They can be the setting for romance or the backdrop for murder. 

Gardens in literature are often not just a simple backdrop or setting for a story to take place. Writers use gardens in their work in many ways. 

Gardens in literature can provide a sense of place

Daphne Du Maurier memorably opens her gothic classic Rebecca with the line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. The scene is set with the narrator telling the reader “rhododendrons stood fifty feet high” along the abandoned drive to the house, perfectly creating a sense of a formal garden gone native and the feeling that something terrible may have happened there.

The extensive gardens in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are used to set the scene for its characters’ wealth and social standing. The Bennets’ garden is not large and has few pathways for Elizabeth to walk on and escape her overbearing family. Lady Catherine’s garden has extensive walks and landscaping to demonstrate her wealth. Mr Darcy’s estate at Pemberley is a display of vast riches.

Austen makes a lot of the fact that Pemberley is maintained in a much more natural state and is less formal than many gardens of its time. This fact is not lost on her heroine Elizabeth and this provides the right setting for her unconventional courtship with Darcy.

Gardens in literature can be devices

In the children’s classic Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, the exquisitely described garden acts as a bridge across the decades and allows its young hero to seemingly travel through time. On a different level, it is also one of the most realistically written gardens and so easy to ‘see’ and experience as you journey with Tom towards the novel’s moving resolution.

A garden that acts as a bridge between different dimensions also features in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. A bench in the Oxford Botanical Garden is a parallel location in the two different worlds that the main protagonists Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry exist in. At the end of the books, they pledge to sit on the bench at noon at Midsummer every year in their own worlds to keep the connection between them alive. Interestingly, the Oxford Botanical Garden also features in or inspired settings in other novels as diverse as Brideshead Revisited and Alice in Wonderland.

Gardens in literature can be symbolic

In Coleen McCullough’s colossal novel The Thorn Birds, the very suburban European garden with its roses and barbered lawn at the heart of the vast sheep station of Drogheda serves as a metaphor for wealthy Mary Carson’s battle to dominate the harsh Australian landscape.

From the Aussie Outback to the city of Verona or the Forest of Arden, scholars of Shakespeare will advise you never to take mention of flowers and gardens in the Bard’s work at their simple face value. 

When Hamlet rages that “tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed” he is not critiquing the slack work of the Elsinore’s latest groundsman, he is describing the way his murderous uncle has wooed his mother into marriage and corrupted the Danish court. 

Garden flowers have long had a multitude of meanings. Some are tied to their medicinal uses and others to more metaphysical associations. Also in Hamlet, a confused Ophelia doles out blooms to her brother, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts...” 

The Garden of the Selfish Giant (a short story by Oscar Wilde) is a metaphor for the redemptive power of love. The garden was trapped in a perpetual winter because no one else had been allowed to share its joy. Only when the once beautiful garden was allowed to be viewed by a child’s innocent eyes was it free to bloom again.

Gardens as places of hope and recovery

Beautiful outdoor spaces have a powerful, positive impact on wellbeing, this is evidenced by a growing use of healing gardens in hospitals and places providing rehabilitation or mental health support. Those who love gardening have understood the magic of fresh air and newly turned over soil for a long time. British-born American novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett describes the restorative and even redemptive power of a garden in her classic children’s book The Secret Garden.

Set in the Yorkshire countryside, The Secret Garden sees sickly Mary Lennox blossom as she solves the mystery of a locked, walled garden in the grounds of her absent and embittered Uncle’s isolated home. The garden not only works its magic on Mary but also brings confidence and hope to her cousin Colin who has been considered disabled and locked in the house for all of his life. The final recipient of the garden’s healing power is Archibald Craven who returns home to find the walled garden he locked following his wife’s death in full bloom once more and his child and niece in full health.

And sometimes gardens in literature are just gardens

Literature, like gardens, can be appreciated on all sorts of levels and sometimes the gardens that feature in works of fiction are just that, often inspired by very real places that the author has visited, tended or loved.

Virginia Woolf wrote many of her greatest works in her converted tool shed and later in a purpose-built writing lodge tucked in the orchard at Monk’s House in Sussex. Woolf’s short story The Orchard was inspired by their glorious country garden whose creation was overseen by her husband Leonard.

Seminal children’s author Roald Dahl also wrote in his garden. Tucked away in a Dylan-Thomas inspired writing hut at Gipsy House in Buckinghamshire, the garden was the force behind many of his greatest works of fiction. The Gipsy House garden was important to Dahl but clearly not taken too seriously with his own children waking to find their name spelled out in weed killer on the lawn to celebrate their birthday.

A non-fiction work The Writer’s Garden by Jackie Bennett describes how their gardens inspired many of our greatest writers from Agatha Christie to William Wordsworth. Some of these writers were fortunate enough to grow up in or near the gardens that became very important to their writing. Others, like Beatrix Potter and her beloved Hill Top House, were able to purchase their properties from the financial fruits of early literary success. 

One thing is sure, the joy that came out of creating, tending to or simply enjoying a wonderful piece of earth lives on in the pages they created and in the minds of readers around the world.

Many of these books are available as audio books or in downloadable formats from your local library, or via sites such as Audible and Amazon.


 

Guest Author: Melanie Hannam
With an Honours Degree in Psychology from Durham University, and a qualification in journalism through the NCTJ, Mel draws on her knowledge of and experience in Journalism and Communications as well as her love of literature, travel and adventure to write on a range of subjects. Mel is an award-winning writer who specializes in health sector communications, but her primary passion is sled dogs and she often writes for canine-related publications and blogs. Follow her exploits at Mystic Charoite Racing.