Spring! It’s always a little iffy, but I think I can now safely declare that it’s here. There are daffodils brightening up my morning commute, and the trees are beginning to bud. At this rate, we’ll have leaves by Mother’s Day (my wish for the past three years, since I first moved to Buffalo). And in the meantime, how better to celebrate spring than by reading books that feature, or somehow involve, gardens?
My first pick, of course, has to be The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. For many of us – me included – it is the definitive spring read. Young Mary Lennox is sent from India, the only home she has ever known, to be ward in the house of a wealthy, but reclusive, uncle. “Mary Mary Quite Contrary” is bored and resentful – until she gets “a bit o’ earth” to nurture. Soon Mary discovers a walled garden, neglected since the mistress of the house passed away. With the help of local boy Dickon, Mary gradually comes out of her own shell and then turns her attention to drawing out her fretful, hypochondriac cousin Colin. Soon the crisp spring air, warm sunshine, cheerful robins and budding garden are working miracles on both lonely children – but what will happen if Mary, Dickon and Colin are discovered in the forbidden garden?
Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote novels for adults as well as two famous “children’s” classics – A Little Princess being the other. I’ve not yet read her adult books, although they are on my list. If they’re anything near as delightful as The Secret Garden, they must be pure magic. I know that many love A Little Princess, and I do too, but The Secret Garden holds a special place in my heart. It has been one of my favorite books since I was very, very small, and it’s a perfect spring read.
In The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim, four strangers (or near-strangers) rent an Italian castle together, and their souls are healed by “wisteria and sunshine.” On a rainy day in Hampstead, Lotty Wilkins spies an advertisement for an Italian castle for rent for the month of April. Dreaming of escaping the cold weather and an even colder marriage, Lotty allows herself to fantasize about a month in paradise – but actually renting the castle seems out of reach. That changes quickly when Lotty sees Rose Arbuthnot, a casual acquaintance, sighing over the same ad. Lotty convinces a reluctant Rose to come along for the ride and together the two women convince Mrs. Fisher, an elderly (and rather grumpy) widow, and young socialite Lady Caroline Dester, to combine forces and funds. At first, the project seems to be going poorly – there is some squabbling, mainly spearheaded by Mrs. Fisher, over garden access. But the Italian countryside soon works its magic over all of the ladies. Lotty and Rose spend hours sitting in one of the gardens that Mrs. Fisher permits them to use, and rambling through the wilderness. Lady Caroline (“Scrap,” to her friends) dozes in the sunshine and soon comes out of her shell as well, and even cantankerous Mrs. Fisher finds herself soothed and calmed by the peaceful retreat.
The descriptions of flowers and gardens in The Enchanted April are truly luscious, but the true magic of this spellbinding book is in the relationships between the four women. A month that begins on the strength of a tenuous, and new, friendship between Rose and Lotty soon sees bonds formed and nurtured, as wisteria is nurtured by the warm Italian sun. I read this for the first time this spring, and it’s going to be an annual tradition.
Henrietta is the wife of a Devonshire doctor, mother of two grown children, and feeling useless when we first meet her in Henrietta’s War, by Joyce Dennys. World War II has broken out and she is generally disqualified from the war work that most other women in the village are doing, as her role is to “take care of the doctor” and she simply can’t be spared for anything else. As a result, Henrietta is bored and embarrassed by her seeming uselessness, and she spends quite a lot of time pottering about in her garden and relating her activities therein to her “dear childhood’s friend” Robert, to whom she writes breezy, newsy letters to cheer up his service at the front. Henrietta is far from useless in the village, but she actually is rather useless in the garden, which is refreshing, and her tribulations are quite funny. Anyone who has struggled to keep plants alive (coughTHISgirlcough) will recognize Henrietta’s frustration, and nod along in relief – we’re not the only black thumbs out there!
Henrietta’s War doesn’t focus on the garden, but Henrietta herself spends a great deal of time in it, trying to get plants to grow and fending off visitors from her garden gate. It’s a joy to read about her day-to-day life in the English countryside, and I can only imagine how cheering such letters would be for a weary serviceman like Robert.
Honorable mentions (fair warning; I haven’t read all of these):
- Elizabeth and Her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim – I’m midway through this diary of a young mother who escapes to her garden in all seasons; her descriptions of her joy in planting and tending are delightful, but her marriage makes me sad.
- Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden, by Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven – I’ve never read any of Vita Sackville-West’s writing, but she’s on my list. She might be the most famous English garden maven, so I look forward to reading about her love affair with Sissinghurst, the lauded English garden she built.
- English Country Houses, by Vita Sackville-West – Another one that I would like to read sooner than later, Sackville-West’s guide to the great houses of her native England ostensibly focuses mainly on the homes’ architecture, history and cultural place. But this is Sackville-West we’re talking about, so I’d bet that the gardens play a major role as well.
What books are getting you in a spring frame of mind?