“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.
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.