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Taking cuttings, potting on

Thoughtful Gardening: great plants, great gardens, great

gardeners Robin Lane Fox PARTICULAR BOOKS, 368PP, £25 ■Tablet Bookshop price £22.50

from 1600 to the present Catherine Horwood VIRAGO, 448PP, £17.99 ■Tablet Bookshop price £16.20

H 01420 592974 Gardening Women: their stories 01420 592974

uman beings have gardened for millennia, inspired by thought and

heartfelt memory. Robin Lane Fox evokes the Chinese “scholar-gardeners”, whose poetry shaped their gardens’ names and designs, and Erasmus, who described a sixteenth-century garden through association with the plants acquired from his reading. Yet this lifelong gardener, garden master, fellow and tutor in ancient history at New College, Oxford, believes that “thoughtful gardening has yet to dig itself deeply among the thinkers round me”. Incredibly, in 35 years of teaching, Lane Fox has not yet met an undergraduate who could recognise a primrose. His colleagues are not much better; they are “paid to think”, but remain “unwondering” about the marvellous gardens around them. Perhaps his four decades of writing about gardening for the Financial Times have brought him into contact with a few thinking gardeners; one hopes so, for gardens offer such scope to people living otherwise humdrum lives. Catherine Horwood’s book shows the truth of this, for women, in the last 500 years. She has dug up dozens of stories showing how women turned to gardening when the whims of men, disastrous marriages or other cruel misfortunes cast them into exile from the great flow of life. If they were rich enough, many found solace not only in creating lovely gardens, but in examining, exploring, discovering, studying and painting plants, to an astonishingly high standard, long unrecognised. In the naming of so many forgotten women, Horwood tells a cracking good story. Her book is well illustrated, and full of admiration for the energetic, intelligent characters who developed a passionate, scholarly interest in gardening, while getting their hands and feet thoroughly muddy.

And here the two books, so different in other ways, find common ground, for the “great gardeners” of Lane Fox’s title are often women and he writes about them with dry wit and vividness. Like many of Horwood’s characters, the deposed Thai

22 | THE TABLET | 29 January 2011

Princess Chumbhot’s exile “turned her to gardening”, and her English-influenced garden, “among allotments on a Bangkok lane”, is bursting with colour and ideas. He describes Nancy Lancaster, creator of the notable walled garden at Haseley Court: “Gardening, she would say, is best done on your stomach, weeding with your teeth.” It is fun to bump into some of his

gardeners in Horwood’s chapters too: Valerie Finnis, the photographer and gardener who married late in life (she and the “supreme gardener”, David Scott, were weeding their rockery within an hour of their wedding; there’s a photograph to prove it). And there is the most extraordinary of all Lane Fox’s gallery of characters: formidable, trilby-wearing Beatrix Havergal, who founded Waterperry Horticultural School. Lane Fox’s book ranges far and


Land of the midnight haunting

Dark Matter: a ghost story Michelle Paver

ORION, 256PP, £12.99 ■Tablet Bookshop price £11.70

Miller, the wireless operator, on a doomed Arctic expedition to gather meteorological data. Such an optimistic belief in science and progress has often been central to the ghost story where the narrator reflects the reader’s transition from a state of healthy scepticism to one of terror and incredulity as the irrational is reasserted. Exploring the journey from light into dark and the fragility of man’s quest for enlightenment, Michelle Paver transports three men to the deep Arctic in 1937, and plunges them into polar darkness. The book takes the form of Jack Miller’s journal entries. A grammar-school boy with a flair for experimental physics, he is wary of the Oxbridge toffs who have organised the expedition. The smugly corpulent Algie

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othing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood,” repeats Jack

Beatrix Havergal lecturing at Waterperry Gardens, Oxfordshire

fascinatingly across the world of gardening, its people, plants and fashions, but his main focus is on flower gardening. He gets his hands and feet as muddy as any of Horwood’s lady gardeners: “The practising gardener is always a Martha,” he writes, quoting Vita Sackville-West. “Mary can just sit. Martha, if she can spare the time for it, can and must sit and think.” There are many chapters devoted to individual species, and the enthusiastic gardener finds practical, detailed and thoughtful help. Whether they are the Chinese garden scholars of history, or ordinary people taking cuttings from their grandmothers’ roses, gardeners’ own gardens are packed with allusions, as both these authors show. Gardens evoke earlier gardens, and so it goes back as well as forth: both these books beguilingly and hauntingly evoke the ghosts of bygone glories. Horwood describes the regatta garden made by the herbalist and garden historian Eleanour Sinclair Rohde. Although it has long vanished, nonetheless “one bush of rosemary remained in 2004”. This is almost too tantalising to bear, for it came from a cutting from the garden of Mary Ann Cross (George Eliot), who in turn took it from a slip from Shakespeare’s garden at Stratford: a lovely, fragrant example of the way gardening links lives and ideas across the centuries. Mary Blanche Ridge

Carlisle soon spots that Jack is not out of the top drawer. However, expedition leader Gus Balfour, a blonde adventurer who excites Jack’s homoerotic tendencies, is more democratic. He finds Jack endearing and encourages his scientific ambitions. Tension is cranked up on board ship when the skipper shows an unwillingness to talk about their destination, Gruhuken, and refuses for a while to disembark there. The mining ruins and smashed up old hut, with its sinister bear post, is avoided by the Norwegian crew while Jack is keen to clear away the relics and make Gruhuken his. With a nod to M.R. James, the ghostly visitant intrudes upon the story a little at a time, sticking out a slippery seal head from the water, appearing by the bear post. All this is well handled and the Arctic details are brilliantly evoked yet the story lacks the complication and intricacies of an M.R. James plot. The ghost is simply not frightening enough. No matter how detailed all the research is, it appears like padding before the next supernatural encounter. When Jack, through a series of disasters, is left alone to confront his inner as well as outer darkness, the story falls flat. It lacks the metaphoric resonance and delicious tingle of a truly frightening ghost story which attaches itself to us because of its peculiarities, as well as satisfying the demands of the genre. Daniel Jeffreys

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