Queen Lucia; Miss Mapp, E.F. Benson

I was reading Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perenyi when I came upon a reference to Lamb House at Rye in Sussex. E. F. Benson lived there from 1916 until his death in 1940. In his comedy of manners Mapp and Lucia novels, Benson made Lamb House and its garden-room the fictional residence of Miss Elizabeth Mapp, calling the house Mallards in the fictional village of Tilling.

 

Lamb House

When Perenyi quoted Benson’s description of the Lamb House garden, I had to look up Mapp and Lucia. I was not disappointed.

Queen Lucia, the first novel in the series, introduces Emmeline Lucas, aka ’Lucia.’ Calling her pretentious, is being very kind. Here is Benson’s description of her garden in the village of Riseholme where we first meet her.

 “A yew hedge, bought entire from a neighbouring farm, and transplanted with solid lumps of earth and indignant snails around its roots, separated the small oblong garden from the road, and cast monstrous shadows of the shapes into which it was cut, across the little lawns inside. Here, as was only right and proper, there was not a flower to be found save such as were mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare; indeed it was called Shakespeare’s garden, and the bed that ran below the windows of the dining-room was Ophelia’s border, for it consisted solely of those flowers which that distraught maiden distributed to her friends when she should have been in a lunatic asylum. Mrs. Lucas often reflected how lucky it was that such institutions were unknown in Elizabeth’s day, or that, if known, Shakespeare artistically ignored their existence. Pansies, naturally, formed the chief decoration – though there were some very flourishing plants of rue. Mrs. Lucas always wore a little bunch of them when in flower, to inspire her thoughts, and found them wonderfully efficacious. Round the sundial, which was set in the middle of one of the squares of grass between which a path of broken paving-stones led to the front door, was a circular border, now, in July, sadly vacant, for it harboured only the spring-flowers enumerated by Perdita. But the first day every year when Perdita’s border put forth its earliest blossom was a delicious anniversary, and the news of it spread like wildfire through Mrs. Lucas’s kingdom, and her subjects were very joyful, and came to salute the violet or daffodil, or whatever it was.”

Tell me that garden is not pretentious.

We meet Elizabeth Mapp in the second novel, aptly titled Miss Mapp.

 “She sat, on this hot July morning, like a large bird of prey at the very convenient window of her garden-room, the ample bow of which formed a strategical point of high value…This she did from a side window of the garden-room which commanded the strawberry beds; she could sit quite close to that, for it was screened by the large-leaved branches of a fig tree and she could spy unseen.”

These two outrageous women are brought together in Mapp and Lucia when Mrs. Lucas spots an advertisement for a house for rent in Tilling. Miss Mapp shows her the garden.

“’My little plot,’ said Miss Mapp. ‘Very modest, as you see, three quarters of an acre at the most, but well screened. My flower beds: sweet roses, tortoiseshell butterflies. Rather a nice clematis. My little Eden, I call it, so small but so well beloved.’ ‘ Enchanting!’ said Lucia, looking round the garden before mounting the steps up to the garden-room door. There was a very green and well-kept lawn, set in bright flower beds. A trellis at one end separated it from a kitchen garden beyond, and round the rest ran high brick walls, over which peered the roofs of other houses. In one of these walls was cut a curved archway with a della Robbia head above it…..’My little secret garden… When I am in here and shut the door, I mustn’t be disturbed for anything less than a telegram. A rule of the house; I am very strict about it.’”

 Both Mapp and Lucia have an insatiable need to conquer and command.  They are petty, snobby, gossipy and thoroughly entertaining.

Though based on 1920’s British society when the upper middle class had time for tea, golf and garden parties, these novels are timeless.  Benson is a genius at skewering his characters with his poison pen, creating ludicrous and hilarious results.

Sadly, a year after Benson’s death a German bomb destroyed the garden-room. Now Lamb House is part of the British National Trust and open for visitors. Besides being home to Henry James and E. F. Benson, it was Rumer Godden’s home while she wrote over 30 books.

Advertisements

An Episode of Sparrows, Rumer Godden

 

 

 

“The Garden Committee had met to discuss the earth; not the whole earth, the terrestrial globe, but the bit of it that had been stolen from the Gardens in the Square.”

So begins An Episode of Sparrows. It might make you cry. But this book is about hope and about things coming to an almost fairy godmother conclusion.

This is post WWII bombed out London. Elegant Mortimer Square has lost its polish to the ravages of war. Angela and Olivia Chesney, two sisters, live on Mortimer Square which borders much poorer Catford Street, full of large families with boisterous children. Angela categorizes them as hoodlums and Olivia sees them as sparrows. The gardens in Mortimer Square are off limits to the children of Catford Street. Olivia can’t fathom why they shouldn’t enjoy the garden. Angela, the Garden Committee’s chief gun, is vigilant and of the opposite opinion.

Ten year old Lovejoy Mason is one of the children of Catford Street. Her mother, a “coloratura” has left her in the care of Vincent Combie and his wife Ettie. All the characters in An Episode of Sparrows have a backstory that’s a little bit heartbreaking. Vincent dreams of running a restaurant of great quality but Catford Street just doesn’t draw the clientele he wishes for.

“Our linen must be white and glossy, starched, perfectly white and glossy.”

Ettie sighs and strives against all odds to keep it so in the dirty air of London.

Sparkey, an asthmatic five year old, longs to be in a gang with the big boys. Tip Malone, thirteen, is the soft-hearted leader of the gang. He’s part of the nine children Malone family – all handsome, curly haired, blue eyed Irish.

Lovejoy’s mother barely sends enough money for necessities and nothing else.

“I can’t go without everything, forever,” said Lovejoy.

So the little girl has gotten very good at taking, not money which she thinks is wrong, but any other small thing.  She snatches a packet from Sparkey who will never forgive her. Sadly she’s disappointed it’s only seeds – Cornflower (Cyanus minor). The directions say to sow in good garden soil in March or April.  That’s now, she thinks. But what is good garden soil? She asks everyone she knows.

“But under everything,” Tip was to argue, “under everything’s dirt.” Tip called earth “dirt”.  “Under the houses and pavements and the road, there’s dirt.”

Thinking about the cornflowers made Lovejoy forget a little that her mother wasn’t coming to visit.

Missing her mother, Lovejoy searches for earth, rich earth to make a garden grow. Lovejoy’s story is a modern version of Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden. She’s also like Liesel in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.  She covets a garden the way Liesel covets books.

The bombed out sites, especially the one where the Catholic Church once stood, were perfect for growing a garden, hidden by boulders and hard to climb into. All they needed was good earth like the earth in the Gardens in the Square. Neither Tip nor Lovejoy nor Sparkey thought taking earth was stealing. Doesn’t earth belong to everyone?

In the author’s preface, Godden talks about how she came upon the idea for An Episode of Sparrows when she moved back to London just after the war. She was surprised by all the weed flowers that had sprung up in the rubble of the bomb sites.

“But what really planted the seed was when that summer I had my window boxes filled by a jobbing gardener; they were my only garden and looked fresh, as pretty as the house in that rather squalid mews. A few days later I had a call from two ladies who lived in the square. “Not a social call,” they told me because, did I know, that the earth in my window boxes had been stolen from the gardens in the square? It was the first time I knew that earth could be stolen. The elder of the two ladies, who wore a hat with blue feather wings, spoke those, to me, memorable words. “If you want earth you can buy it from the Army and Navy Stores, seven shillings and sixpence the carton.”

Bless those two women. They may never have known they sowed the seed of a beautiful novel.

Old Herbaceous; A Novel of the Garden, Reginald Arkell

 

 

What a pleasure to come upon this quiet garden novel published in 1950. It was re-issued in 2002 as part of the Random House Modern Library Garden Series. Michael Pollan, the series editor, explains his raison d’etre for the series.

 “I’m thinking of the power of plants to change us in mind and body, the gratuitous beauty of a flower, the moral lessons of the pest, the ancient language of landscape design, and the endlessly engrossing ways that cultivating a garden attaches a body to the earth.”

The moral lessons of the pest? That’s a mouthful of food for thought.

Think of Old Herbaceous as Downton Abby from the point of view of the formidable head gardener at a great manor in an English village.  The story of Herbert Pinnegar begins at the end of the Victorian Age and spans 70 years to post World War II. All the changes those years brought about are seen through the eyes of this kindly curmudgeon. He starts out as a foundling with uneven legs who has the good luck to be mentored by a wise teacher who schools him in growing things. He enters the annual flower show competition and wins with his artistic collection of wildflowers. This catches the eye of the lady of the manor who hires him as a garden boy, saving him from becoming a farm boy as was expected. He rises slowly to head gardener and acquires Lady Charteris’ lifelong affection along with the nickname “old herbaceous.”

Not a lot happens in this novel except a lot of changes in the world of gardening. In war years Pinnegar watches his flowers dug up and replaced with potatoes and the manor’s beautiful iron fencing melted down for the war effort. The enormous body of laborers needed in the Victorian age is no longer needed and no longer available. Some estates are demolished because of high inheritance taxes and others fall into disrepair.

From the beginning of his employment as a shy fourteen year old, Pinnegar was always on the lookout to please his lady. He devised a foolproof way to coax strawberries into April fruiting, earning her praise. As a little girl she loved morning glories. Traveling on the French Riviera she spotted this tropical dawn flower.

“It rioted over everything, as though someone had torn great masses out of a morning sky. It was so blue, so blue that it positively hurt. She felt that her heart was being drowned in loveliness, and she could scarcely breathe.”

Mrs. Charteris told Pinnegar of the fabulous sight she couldn’t forget. Secretly he wrote to the Curator of Kew Gardens. He received a reply that it was the lovely Ipomea Leari. A few seeds were kindly enclosed. Of course Pinneger managed to grow them under glass and surprise his lady one morning after her early cup of tea.

Over the years the owner of the garden and the head gardener had their ups and downs. When Mrs. Charteris pushed to be mistress of her own garden she had to deal with Pinnegar who felt he knew better.

“There is something about a garden that brings out a fiercely competitive streak in the best of us. All our triumphs, to be really satisfying, must stem from our own individual efforts; and we look with a cold eye upon innovations for which we are not personally responsible. Even a suggestion, however tactfully introduced, is not always taken in good part. “Alone I did it,” is the motto of all really keen gardeners.”

After their long years of sharing the planning and tending of the British great house garden, Mrs. Charteris’ fondness for Pinnegar is truly authentic. Will she think to provide for him after her time as matron of the estate is over? What will happen to “old herbaceous” in his twilight years is the most riveting part of the story.

Some Buried Caesar, A Nero Wolfe Mystery, Rex Stout

Summer seems like a good time to dip into a fast paced Rex Stout mystery and the heat of July merits a quick trip to the country. That’s what you’ll get when you open Some Buried Caesar.  Only orchids can get Wolfe out of the comfort of his special chair in his Manhattan townhouse and into rural upstate New York. There’s an orchid exhibition at the Crowfield county fair and he’s showing off his albino orchids in pursuit of the top prize.

“Shanks knew that the reason Wolfe had busted precedent and come to Crowfield to exhibit albinos which he had got by three new crosses with Paphiopedilum lawrwenceanum hyeanum was to get an award over one Shanks had produced by crossing P. callosum sanderae with a new species from Burma; that Wolfe desired and intended to make a monkey of Shanks because Shanks twice refused Wolfe’s offers to trade albinos; and that one good look at the entries in direct comparison made it practically certain that the judges’ decision would render Shanks not only a monkey but even a baboon.”

Archie Goodwin is driving Wolfe to Crowfield when the sedan has an unfortunate altercation with a tree. Wolfe has never liked vehicles, but the situation turns him philosophical.

“It has happened, and here we are. I presume you know, since I’ve told you, that my distrust and hatred of vehicles in motion is partly based on my plerophory that their apparent submission to control is illusory and that they may at their pleasure, and sooner or later will, act on whim. Very well, this one has, and we are intact. Thank God the whim was not a deadlier one.”

Archie and Wolfe are in a pasture that houses a bull. They have a devil of a time evading his wrath. When they escape they are unhappily stranded in the middle of a feud over that very bull. A famous restauranteur has bought him with plans to turn him into barbeque for publicity. That has infuriated the local ranchers. Within a day the son of one of the hostile parties is found dead in the pasture.

Wolfe, always competitive in his quest for prize-winning orchids, is equally competitive in his quest for the answer to the “who” and the “why” of murder. It seems that rural upstate can be just as vicious as the streets of the city. The young man appears to have been gored to death by the animal in question; another is impaled by a pitch fork. The detective can’t pass up an offer of payment to solve the murders of two men and one prize bull, Hickory Caesar Grindon. There’s not much about gardening in this mystery, only the certainty that the cerebral mystery solver never lets anything get in the way of the best interest of his plants.

“Wolfe had said that when the judging was over he would want to spray with nicotine and soap, and I dug the ingredients from the bottom of one of the crates, went for a can of water, and got the mixture ready in the sprayer. He did a thorough job of it, with Plehn assisting, put the sprayer down on the bench, and stated talking shop again.”

This is the second time I’ve visited a Nero Wolfe mystery. Last December I posted Rex Stout’s Black Orchids which was a bit more intertwined with orchid lore. In Some Buried Caesar Wolfe studies cattle lore to ensnare the murderous villain. Turns out there is more than meets the eye in determining a prize winning bull. Cattlemen know that and have devised a system to identify each animal. When they’re buying and selling cattle they need a guarantee that they get what they pay for.

With his eyes slit and his lips moving in and out, the corpulent detective mentally throws out the usual suspects and devises a scheme to nail the one man who could have pulled off the dastardly deeds.

The mystery solved, his prize orchids boxed up and suitcases packed, Wolfe and Archie quickly speed back to the city and the welcome comfort of their townhouse. Smart aleck Archie, of course, has disentangled himself from another love interest. They seem to pop up in upstate as well as the city.

Night Gardening, E. L. Swann

 

 

Maggie Flaherty is feisty, intelligent and beautiful. She’s a porcelain-skinned, red-headed Irish girl from the Charlestown area of Boston. At Harvard she wins the heart of Adams Welles, of the Brahmin Welles family. They marry and move into the gracious family home on Beacon Hill. Too late Maggie discovers that she has married into a family of perfectly proper drunks who are none too bright after generations of marrying cousins. Distinguished lineage is about all they have left. And, Maggie unfortunately produces two children who follow lock step in that tradition. The only clue to the drinking is that the Welles’ fine, aristocratic noses gradually succumb to burst veins, turning red and lumpy.

“One could almost say that among Welles men their noses often had more personality than any other part of them.”

This is a love story that takes place in an elegant garden. It opens when Maggie is a sixty-one year old widow on the slow road to recovery from a stroke. The old saying, “it’s never too late for love” applies.

Maggie’s beloved garden is in shambles from neglect when Tristan Mallory, a handsome and virile  landscape architect, is hired by her wealthy next door neighbors to create their new garden. He glimpses Maggie through a crack in her garden wall. He is reminded of an experience he had at age thirteen.

“He was in a bog, a bog full of lady’s slippers at the edge of a New England hardwood forest. He had been tramping through deep mud when suddenly he saw near a stand of ferns a bizarre and lovely wildflower. It was not in his guide book. And when he bent down to examine it more closely he was startled and excited to see its parts. Even though he was still a virgin and he had little knowledge of female anatomy, something stirred within him.”

Maggie, her eyes and her hair, stirred that same long ago feeling in Tristan. When they finally come face to face, she is lying on the ground entranced by the full grown flowering trees sailing through the air on Tristan’s cranes. He decides to join her because it is the best way to view the tree parade on the other side of the wall.

Tristan secretly lays down a stone walk to make it easier for Maggie to navigate her garden. Then without letting anyone know, they begin “night gardening.” In a matter of weeks they transform the decaying garden into a lush retreat. The work invigorates Maggie more than all her hired therapists.

“She felt the soft night wind curling around their bodies. They were whales, they were islands, they were underwater meadows of endless colors within an endless sea.”

Maggie becomes stronger, more in balance, and hopelessly in love. Her affection is returned a hundredfold by Tristan. Her moss covered Japanese step garden becomes their love nest.

“A white dogwood spread its blossoming branches like a small constellation over the path, which narrowed at this point. Stepping-stones appeared with wooly thyme flowing between them like calligraphy. To the left was a stone lantern. Tristan knew now that he was carrying Maggie along a classic roji, or dewy path, and it was the way into a garden, often a tea garden, that spiritually prepared the visitor. Mounds of moss began to rise on either side. The occasional trillium quivered in the evening, its white petals like a swirl of butterflies suspended in flight.”

In the midst of Maggie and Tristan’s love affair in the Japanese contemplative garden, her son, Adams Welles V is plotting to take everything away.

How Night Gardening turns out will not be revealed here.

Each chapter begins with a lovely thought about gardening, many about Japanese traditional gardening.

“By evening plants are refreshed. They are busy throughout the night as this is the time they make new growth. Nutrients which were manufactured in sunlight by day are mobilized in the dark and used to make new cells.”    Stephen Dalton, The Secret Life of a Garden

It seems that the night not only nurtures the garden, it gives new life to the night gardeners. In the moonlight they are sustained in strength and love and their precious dreams. No one can take this away.

Radical Prunings; a Novel of Officious Advice from the Contessa of Compost, Bonnie Thomas Abbott

 

Mertensia Corydalis is a garden columnist who doesn’t hold back. She roots for her readers who work with nature, not against it. A gardener is a good gardener only if she composts.

“Every time you run a potassium-rich banana peel through the garbage disposal instead of adding it to your compost pile, I want you to be so wracked by guilt that even an hour is the confessional won’t fix it.”

She tries not to entertain questions on lawn care. But they do slip through.

“Readers, any of you who are curling up with a book on lawn care need to reexamine the meaning of your lives.”

Lawn care companies in their chemical trucks make her fume. She doesn’t like the instant color of annuals like impatiens or flashy colored roses. In general she abhors orange flowers. She answers Lois’ inquiry about purchasing a Tropicana rose with the following observation.

“Lois, Lois. Where is your brain? Why in the world would you crave a rose the color of a vinyl couch in the waiting room of your local muffler shop?”

Through her column Miss Corydalis reveals way too much about her tangled life. Her chief competitor is her celebrity gardener ex-husband, Norton Doyle. She’s blessed with a chic French Maman who flies in periodically to make her feel worthless, a ne’er-do-well little brother Artie who tries her patience with his hair-brained schemes (he once kidnapped her secretary) and a daughter, Astrid who is phenomenally successful at selling Amelia Faye Beauty Products to the female factory workers and party officials of The People’s Republic of China. Her right-hand help is the spitfire Vietnamese secretary, Miss Francine Vong (she was so much trouble, Artie let her go) and her so attractive talented gardener brother, Tran. The Metro Botanical Conservatory is relentlessly trying to lure him into their fulltime employment.

Amidst her witty and sometimes acerbic comments, Miss C imparts lots of practical garden advice. If nature gives you the gift of a low-maintenance soft mossy path, why on earth would you replace it with high maintenance turf? Don’t try to over-winter your Christmas poinsettia. You do not reside in the Yucatan peninsula. Early bulbs can weather the cruelty of a winter freeze. The blooms may shred but the bulbs will rise again next year. Speedily run from a community that requires you to use the services of a chemical lawn-treatment company. Choose hardy native perennials over annuals native to South Africa. Think Impatiens. Willingly share the fruit from your fruit tree with the birds. Guess who pollinates them so you get the fruit. Plant heirloom tomatoes and forgo the engineered “freaks of botanical tinkering” like Big Boy. Guess what, you don’t need to transport your tomatoes three thousand miles, you can eat them in the garden or at most carry them to the kitchen.

At first glance this is a quick, light, entertaining read. Upon reflection, the author has quietly woven the trials of modern life through the narrative. How do you feel when your husband takes flight for another woman? No matter how proud Mertensia is of her daughter, Astrid lives half a world away from her mother. Miss C welcomes the immigrants, Francine and Tran as her substitute family and cheers on her secretary’s quest for citizenship. She not only aces the exam, she nabs a policeman suitor, Officer Steve who falls in love when he stops her for a traffic infraction. Mertensia, Francine and Officer Steve find an unusual bond. They all love the afternoon soap, Sorrow’s Beacon.

When life has gone to seed, there is still pleasure and hope in the world of growing things. Radical Prunings offers bittersweet reflections on affairs of the heart and wise garden advice. By the way, Mertensia is Latin for Virginia Bluebells and Corydalis is the lovely perennial fumewort.

Radical Prunings is Bonnie Thomas Abbott’s only novel.

The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin

In 1857 Talmadge came into the valley with his mother and sister. He was nine and Elsbeth was eight. His father had died in a silver mine collapse and his mother wanted to get as far away from mining as she could. They walked forever and Talmadge thought maybe they too had died and this was what heaven was like. They settled in a valley of yellow grass and two sickly apple trees.  They tended the trees and planted vegetables.

In the spring of 1860 his mother died of respiratory disease.  Two years later when Talmadge was fifteen, he and his sister harvested two acres of apples and one of apricots.

In 1865 Elsbeth went into the woods to collect herbs. She didn’t return. Talmadge searched frantically as did the neighbors. He even offered a reward.  His Indian friend, Clee found her bonnet and picking basket, but his sister was ghosted away without a trace. For the rest of his life Talmadge would grieve the loss of Elsbeth.

“At times he could imagine her fate matter-of-factly, he could distance himself from it: he had had a sister who had disappeared into the woods, and no one knew what had become of her…. But other times even his flesh was sensitive to the air, and what could have befallen her – and what she had suffered – tortured him. The litany of possibilities always hung about him, and during periods of weakness he turned to it, scrolled through it; amended some possibilities, added others.”

That loss is what molded Talmadge, a solitary orchardist. The story begins when he is forty years old and has grown his orchard to twenty-five acres and his land to four hundred. Two teenage sisters appear and steal his apples as he dozes next to his market wagon. He lets them get away with the theft, noticing their grossly swollen bellies, filthy faces and tangled hair. They turn up in his orchard and like wild strays, stalk him, running when he approaches. He leaves plates of food on his porch. When he’s gone they devour it and raid his cabin for the rest of his food. The girls, Jane and Della, hang out in the orchard, always wary of Talmadge. He and his friend, herbalist Caroline Middey, assist the girls when they go into labor at the same time. Jane has a healthy girl; Della’s child is stillborn.

Gradually Talmadge learns the horrific background of Jane and Della. They have escaped from a brothel staffed with little girls. The owner is searching for them. He gets wind that Talmadge might have them and comes looking. Seeing him from the distance, the girls jump from a tree limb with nooses around their necks. Jane dies. Della must have hesitated for a moment because Talmadge is able to catch her and pay off the brothel owner.

Now Talmadge has a family: Della and Jane’s baby Angeline. With Caroline Middey’s sage advice and support he cares for the two. Angeline is a model child who grows close to Talmadge and Caroline. Della is another story. Her traumatic childhood is a monster that will never give her peace. She has trouble relating to Angeline. The five hundred plus page novel is the love story of Talmadge’s unwavering quest to help Della for the rest of his life.

This is a remarkable first novel. In an interview with the director of the Oregon Humanities Center, Coplin explains the genesis of the story, the literary influences on her work and her thought processes leading to the experimental techniques she employs. There are no quotation marks for the dialog. That takes a bit of getting used to but promotes an intimacy between the reader and the characters.  She was influenced by Virginia Wolfe and William Faulkner who excel in revealing the rich inner lives of their characters. In The Orchardist both the outer landscape of the Pacific Northwest and the inner landscape of the quiet western people are lovingly laid out for the reader to ponder.

Why is this very quiet, very intense book garden-friendly? An orchard is part of the natural world, that is, the natural world influenced by man. Throughout the book each character takes solace and learns from the natural world. The young girl, Angeline dreams of sharing her garden with Della.

“When she knew she was looking for a plant for her very own garden …her interest became singular and almost obsessive. What a delicious feeling to walk through the fair with her own bag upon her arm, driven by her own purpose. Here are my pumpkins, Angeline would have said to Della, if Della came through in the fall.”

Caroline Middey in her garden reflects on the nearness of death.

“But the knowledge seemed new – she was going to die, like all the others, and the knowledge was absorbed by the garden, which simultaneously cradled her and drew her out of herself, into the perfume, into the noise.”

Talmadge, so intimate with the seasons of the orchard, is at one with his plants in his last days.

“The air had something to do with the light and the quality of light – piercingly golden – and also the lives of the trees, exuding oxygen, the air that silently racked the cabin. The air he drew into his lungs still had something of the trees’ inner life about it, the saturated dreams of chlorophyll and sunshine and water, gravity and roots and the roots’ design. Fruit. This was autumn light. Somehow he had always known this would be the season into which he would disappear.”