Penelope Lively

Life in the Garden

“Once a gardener, you look around you differently; you notice more, you pay attention to the mundane, and you pounce at once on anything unfamiliar.”

I often feel that the pairing of writers and their subjects should be open to suggestion. What I wouldn’t give to have Oscar Wilde opine on Brexit, for example.

Occasionally, writers anticipate us: Stephen Fry writing about poetry or Dorothy Parker’s rough, familiar essay about sleeplessness.

Or, in this case, an apposite pairing: British novelist Penelope Lively on gardens and gardening.

Gardening and writers go hand in hand perhaps, Lively supposes, because:

Once a gardener, you look around you differently; you notice more, you pay attention to the mundane, and you pounce at once on anything unfamiliar.

In both professions, there is a clearing of anaemic waste, a celebration of triviality, and a trenchant observation of detail. There is also, as creative writing teacher Dorothea Brande put it, “a cultivation of temperament.”

My garden in May featured in
My may garden. Euphorbia, hebe, sedum, and one remaining tulip. Like Lively, I believe the love for gardening might well be genetic. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In a rich chapter about the metaphor of garden, Lively digs deeper than an assumed “gardening is about life” and stirs up examples from ancient times to Jacobean to modern day obsessions with orderly plants. Language scholar James Geary wrote that metaphor is a way to speak to that which is less understood or better unmentioned. If that is the case, gardens have provided us ways to communicate about all and sundry pretty much as long as there have been humans cultivating (read more on the nature of gardening).

She was a real gardener, Virginia Woolf; she planted, she weeded, she knew the chocolate earth. But now, here she is when the garden becomes a fictional device: ‘Flower after flower is specked on the depths of green. The petals are harlequins.’

Lively wrote Life in the Garden in the last decade (she is in her late 80s). The viewpoint is highly retrospective. Lively does not structure the book chronologically, but her memories and first love of gardening formed in the “intimate paradise” of their Cairo gardens feature strongly.1 As do her early influencers:

Way back, I remember relishing James Fenton’s newspaper gardening articles. Fenton is, of course, an eminent poet, and I doubt if there have been many, or any, other poets with such a depth of practical horticultural knowledge. The articles were engagingly witty and nicely instructive.

Lively, like most curious, eager, energetic individuals drawn to gardening, writes about our human need for meaningful work. She exemplifies the need to garden rather than the need to have a garden. A distinction echoed in Robin Lane Fox’s Thoughtful Gardening.

Gardening, we step beyond the dictation of time. We create order. We design and direct. We get right in there with the plants, escape worldly worries, do in our knees and our backs, set spinning our circadian rhythms, jack up our immune systems, and possibly live a few years longer. When hard at it, none of this is relevant; it is simply a matter of intense engagement with cutting back, taking out, putting in, with this rose, that weed, these seeds, bulbs, tubers.

I’m curious about the things we do that are not our stated professions, things that give succour and devour our resources. Lively gives us many reasons for our complex relationship to hobbies and insight into our common human need to balance and create.

I’ve mentioned Fry’s love for poetry. Also try Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a story of travel and wanderlust that beset Steinbeck throughout his life. Or learn more about America’s Founding Fathers and how the love of agriculture and gardening clasped their hearts and tilted their gaze.

Penelope Lively © The Examined Life