In Life in the Garden British novelist Penelope Lively addresses many lives, lives of writers who garden and gardeners who write, lives of painters, and TV garden celebrities, too. This is hardly a how-to-garden book, more of a why-to-garden book, and also a why-to-write-about-gardens book. This small volume composed of six very generous chapters focuses heavily on women writers and gardens, but does not overlook men.
Lively is a Booker Prize winner and her writing here attests to her talent with words. Her voice is well ordered and only gently restrained, and her opinions quick and often comic. Though definitely focused on the English and their gardens, she waxes poetic about her childhood garden in Egypt, and pulls in Americans wherever she can. She looks to the prairie gardens of Willa Cather and the Atlantic-spanning career of Edith Wharton.
Several of the chapters are focused on literary gardens. She addresses the importance of the garden as metaphor in the novels of Jane Austin, Virginia Woolf, and many others. She also looks at the writing of gardeners. The famous Vita Sackville-West and Anna Pavord are found again and again in these pages. But she also includes lesser-known garden writers like Elizabeth von Arnim, Margery Fish, and one of my favorite garden writers, Karel Čapek.
This is not only a literary book, though. Lively looks in depth at garden fashion—I’m not talking about muck boots and tool aprons—and garden style. She also takes on the larger subject of time in the garden. She writes, “The gardener floats free of the present, and looks forward, acquires expectations, carries spring in the mind’s eye.” I quite agree. On the matter of space she also has a lot to say. “Never mind taste, what is so intriguing for any garden lover is that there is no end to the possibilities offered by the ordering of space.”
There are many reasons to read this book. For me the greatest pleasure was following Lively’s facile mind as it leaps from country gardens to urban ones, from grand estates to cottage gardens. She could be writing about anything, as far as I am concerned. Her beautiful sentences build thoughtful paragraphs, which extol ideas of even greater beauty. And though many of her experiences are of English gardens, her writing never falls short of expressing the universal.
“To garden is to elide past, present and future; it is a defiance of time,” she writes. Good garden writing too, beyond being universal, must also defy time. Lively has done just that in this book, blending past, present, and future into a contemporary timeless whole.