Life in the Garden: Penelope Lively

“There is always this sense that the garden is a living entity with its own agenda.”

Penelope Lively’s non-fiction book, Life in the Garden, quickly drew me in with the author’s explanation that:

The two central activities of my life–alongside writing–have been reading and gardening. And there has been a sense in which the two meshed: I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden, when gardening becomes an element of fiction. 

I too love reading and gardening, and the days are best when it’s possible to read in the garden; what better surrounding? And with that thought in mind, I managed to read most of Life in the Garden outside.

I am never going to have the talent/money/time to be one of the legendary gardeners mentioned in these pages, but in common with many people, I appreciate the labour of love a garden represents. And that love of gardening extends to Lively’s book as she explores her subject: this is part memoir, part meditation on the use of gardens in literature & art, aging, and in part a history of landscape architecture.

Life in th garden

Lively explains how she “grew up in a garden. Almost literally, because this was a hot, sunny garden in Egypt and much of life was lived out of doors. Our home was one of three houses built outside Cairo in the early twentieth century, a sort of alien enclave amid fields of sugarcane and clover, canals, and mud-hut villages.”

I immediately pictured a white house plonked on the desert sands with a pyramid in the background, but I was wrong. Penelope Lively’s mother created a garden “very much in the spirit of the English garden, with lawns, rose beds, lily ponds, pergolas walks, and with a necessary nod to the climate and what would grow there by way of poinsettias, Latana, zinnias, cinerarai and bougainvillea.”

The description (longer than quoted here) is certainly enough to evoke an image of the garden the author enjoyed as a child, and it’s also easy to imagine how a child who grew up in Egypt, yet lived somewhat incongruously in a lush green “English” garden, valued gardens for her entire life. But then as the author explains gardening runs in the family.  There’s a poignancy when Lively describes how she moved from a large garden to a small area in London, and that aging, naturally has “restricted” her capabilities.

Lively expounds on the temptations of garden centres, how gardens impacted the lives of several writers (including Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vita Sackville -West, Elizabeth von Armin,) the use of gardens in authors’ work (Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, Daphne du Maurier, Beatrix Potter, Angus Wilson, Edith Wharton etc.,) the gardens of artists, the merging of art and gardens, gardens and literature.  Lively admits that she pays attention when gardens appear in books, so for example, “as soon as ivy sneaks in you know it is there with possibly sinister intent.” Lively’s observations are, as always, intelligent, marvellous and graced with a gentle whisper of wisdom.

Initially I thought this book would appeal to any book reader, regardless of whether or not one has a passion for gardening, but my opinion shifted as the book continued and the author steps into some of the history of gardening, famous gardens and some names and periods associated with landscape architecture. Ultimately, IMO the book’s best audience is for fans of Lively and anyone who loves gardening and reading.

Review copy.



Filed under Lively, Penelope

18 responses to “Life in the Garden: Penelope Lively

  1. I agree. It is delightful to spend a warm afternoon in the garden with a book. Or in my case in a basket chair on my veranda with a view over leafy hills and church spires. But wait! This is Australia. Did you see that mosquito as big as a butterfly? Time to beat a retreat. Defeated by nature yet again. This book does sound delightful, though.

  2. It’s a book I’ve looked at a couple of times in bookshops – the UK cover, with its black background, is particularly gorgeous. While I’m not a gardener myself, I do enjoy reading about gardens and beautiful landscapes in novels, so the sections on the significance of gardens in other authors’ work certainly appeal. Bowen, Cather, du Maurier and Wharton – a great selection of authors there. I loved the descriptions of the lush gardens in Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted – they appeared like a burst of colour at the beginning of spring.

  3. Then you might like this Jacqui. I found some parts riveting and others didn’t quite have much appeal.

  4. I’m not a gardener but I love visiting gardens. I can only imagine all the work and patience behind the beautiful grounds.

  5. I juts got this two days ago. My cover’s very different though. One of the most beautiful I’ve seen in a long time. I love plants. Since I live in the city center and in Switzerland, a garden isn’t something that’s within reach at the moment. But I know I’d love gardening. I have a green thumb, the apartment looks like a green house in some rooms and the balcony too is doing well.
    No sitting outside at them moment it’s way too hot.
    The garden is one of the reasons why I often think of moving to another country.
    I’m glad you liked it. I have a few other writer’s books about gardening. Vita Sackville-West, of course, and others. Lovely topic.

  6. I’m not a gardener, but I love visiting gardens too. Mr Gums and I are in the process of completely re-doiong our front garden, and I’m enjoying that but I don’t itch to get out into the garden every day. What sort of garden to you have Guy? Like Gert I love to lie on the daybed on our verandah to read.

    Anyhow, I reckon I’d like this book – I like Lively (and of course Moon Tiger is a lot about her time in Egypt) and I think I’d like to read what she says about gardens and gardening, though I’m not necessarily drawn to reading specifically gardening books.

    • Native plants in the front as a Hummingbird attraction. The back is at the start of a rehaul. Too many plants (non native) died during the headwave, so I am replacing them with hardier/natives.

      • Ok, so next question, what is native to you? I guess I know some North American wild-flowers/native flowers but not much about the sorts of native plants people put in their gardens. I am in the process of identifying more native plants for our front garden to attract more birds.

        • Native Ca. plants. Is there an ag college/school near you? You might be able to find a local native plant society. They often have plant shows and sales. I actually have an endangered plant (!) growing nicely.

          • Sorry Guy, I’m not in CA… But Australia. I know our naive gardening plants well. Am just interested in what you’d plant as native. I never really saw much discussion over there about native plants the way we’ve had here for decades.

            • II didn’t know you were into native plants, but I remembered you are in Australia.
              I don’t know about the history of interest in native Ca plants or when it intensified–perhaps with the drought. I’ve several varieties of native fuchsia, many types of sage, native lilac, hummingbird sage, snow berry, manzanita , deer grass, some berry bush I can’t remember the name of now.

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