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Review in The Sunday Times

From The Sunday Times


May 9, 2010

Gardening Women: Their Stories from 1600 to the Present by Catherine Horwood

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The Sunday Times review by Frances Wilson


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These days you can’t throw a stone without hitting a woman in her greenhouse. So why is it, Catherine Horwood asks, that women are not more celebrated in the history of gardening? There were green-fingered goddesses long before Gertrude Jekyll gave our borders “flow” a century or so ago, or Vita Sackville-West transformed our flowerbeds into swathes of purple and pastel.

For ages, “gardens have been important to women and women have been important to gardens,” Horwood writes, and her book tells the stories of the maids who made their gardens, and ours, grow. Many turned to the soil when they were banished from society. Henrietta St John, exiled to the wilds of Warwickshire following a “platonick” extramarital relationship, made gardening history in the 18th century by being the first person to use the term “shrubbery” for flowering plants. Lady Dorothy Nevill, who made a “fatal mistake” in her youth when she spent half an hour in the summer-house with the wrong sort of rake, was banned from Queen Victoria’s court and hastily married off to an ageing cousin. In her new home at Dangstein in Sussex, Lady Dorothy ran 13 greenhouses, irrigated by an elaborate system of aqueducts and heated by enormous stoves. Here she grew 300 varieties of fern and every species of orchid known at the time. When Charles Darwin was working on orchid reproduction, it was Lady Dorothy’s collection he turned to.

Lady Anne Hope-Vere (née Monson), deposited in the country following a marital “misdemeanour”, discovered a new plant that the 18th-century Swedish botanist and taxonomer Carl Linnaeus named Monsonia speciosa. In a wonderfully odd letter to Lady Anne, whom he’d never met, Linnaeus declared his devotion and asked “but one favour of you: that I may be permitted to join with you in the procreation of just one little daughter to bear witness of our love — a little Monsonia, through which your fame will live forever in the Kingdom of Flora”.

Women who remained faithful to their spouses also played their part, and colonial wives returned from tropical climes with an abundance of plants and seeds. Sarah Archer, Countess Amherst of Arracan and the wife of the governor-general in Bengal, introduced the pale pink climber, clematis ‘Montana’ to early 19th-century Britain, thus smoothing rough walls everywhere. Others, such as the intrepid Mary Ann Robb, preferred to travel alone. On a journey through Turkey in the 1890s, she spotted a euphorbia and brought it back in her bonnet.

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Good gardeners need money as well as land, which is why most of the women mentioned in this book have titles or stately homes. Queen Caroline lavished funds on the development of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, while her daughter-in-law, Princess Augusta, built up the plant collection of what would become the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The tough Hanoverian princesses, Horwood says, laid the foundation “for Great Britain to become the leading nation in the world for gardens and horticulture”. In order to grow the 600 varieties of narcissus she displayed on her magnificent estate at Warley Place, the beautiful Ellen Willmott — an unmarried heiress and the first woman to be made a member of the Linnean Society in 1904 — employed 104 uniformed gardeners. She funded plant-hunting trips to China and the Middle East, planted gardens in Italy and France, and was patron to the collector Ernest Wilson. One year, Willmott grew every available variety of potato in search of the best. When the cash ran out and her gardens fell into ruin, it took auctioneers three days to get through her vast collection of horticultural books.

Why do women garden? Jekyll believed the appeal lies in its giving “happiness and repose of mind”. For Beth Chatto, who replaced “the serried ranks of scarlet geraniums and hybrid tea roses” with the natural cottage look, gardening was about maternal instincts: “You can’t go on having babies, but you can nurture life.” These explanations make gardeners sound like nursemaids, when what is striking about this book (which also covers the history of flower embroidery and flower arrangement) is the cut-throat ambition that distinguishes the real garden lover. Flowers, it seems — grown, stitched, painted, or in vases — are a competitive sport.

Chatto won 10 consecutive gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show from the late 1970s on, a record broken only in 2006 by Jekka McVicar (previously a singer in a rock band called Marsupilami) and Rosie Hardy. When Julia Clements, doyenne of the formal arrangement, called for women in austerity Britain to get competitive with their table designs — “We can’t get new curtains, we can’t paint our house, we’ve got nothing…except flowers!” — the entrance halls of 1950s homes became battlefields of colour and shape.

Women, like weeds, are everywhere in gardening history. In gathering their stories and describing their influences and achievements, Horwood has done a terrific, pioneering job. Beautifully structured and cogently written, Gardening Women is as rich, full and lasting as potpourri. Neither gardens, nor women, will seem quite the same again.

Gardening Women by Catherine Horwood Virago £17.99 pp436

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