After a quite spell, I am delighted to chat to Jackie Bennett who has just published a book I just love on writers' gardens including many women. Jackie is the former editor of the Garden Design Journal and a regular writer for The English Garden Magazine. Her previous books include Wild About the Garden (Channel 4) and Your Wildlife Garden (2011). In 2009 she was awarded Column of the Year by the Garden Media Guild. She also co-edited the collected biographies of well known women in Covent Girls (Virago 2003 pbk). Scroll to the bottom of our Q & A for a special offer from her publishers for readers of this blog.
I started by asking Jackie what sparked the idea for the book?
As a garden writer I visit and have visited a lot of gardens over the years. Knowing a garden belonged to a writer gives it an added dimension: it tends to be more atmospheric because of the people who lived there. So, I wanted to explore these literary writers and understand what part their own garden had played in their life and their work.
How did you make your choice of writers?
I focused on real gardens that the writers themselves had played some part in and where they had added to the history of those gardens. Researching the book was an exciting journey for me, so I wanted people to be able follow in my – and the writers’ – footsteps, so mostly the gardens in the book are open to the public.
How did gardens inspire the work of the female writers in the book?
Some used their gardens as a retreat – as somewhere to find a quiet space, including Virginia Woolf, whose writing ‘shed’ is probably the most famous. Agatha Christie, on the other hand, used her garden at Greenway in Devon as a location for her crime stories. It’s obvious in at least three of her novels (Five Little Pigs, Dead Man’s Folly and Ordeal By Innocence) that she’s writing about Greenway.
With other writers, such as Jane Austen, it’s more difficult to pin down exactly which gardens are which in their work. Scholars have endlessly debated about which garden is Pemberley! I can’t actually say, but what I do explore in the book is the gardens that Austen actually spent time in.
Did you have a favourite from the book?
A favourite author is probably different to a favourite garden. One of the nicest gardens I visited – and I went to every one – was Shandy Hall in the village of Coxwold in Yorkshire. It’s full of wildlife and has such great atmosphere. It belonged to Laurence Sterne author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – a book which, quite honestly, I’ve never been able to read from cover to cover, despite the fact that lots of people find it brilliant and funny. In terms of author and gardens together, I would probably go for Jane Austen – her life in Chawton in Hampshire is fascinating – and of course Chawton House is now a library of women’s writing.
Is it more difficult for a woman to find time to write and garden, than a man?
Truthfully, neither Jane Austen nor Virginia Woolf did much actual gardening – luckily, Austen’s mother loved gardening – and so did Leonard Woolf. We should perhaps be grateful that they didn’t get their hands dirty! But all the writers in this book had struggles with their homes, money and families. It made me realise that as a writer you have to transcend these concerns and distractions and somehow make a space for your work.
Thank you, Jackie!
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