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Ms Jekyll and her Garden

I decided that in 2018 my decades project will explore non-fiction by women and immediately landed myself with a problem. Women’s non-fiction writing in the first decade of the 20th century has left very little impression on our available electronic databases. One can explain this: the world of non-fiction was the exclusive world of men; women by and large were still excluded from higher education, and their knowledge and experiences were not valued. If women wanted to write they were expected to produce fiction.

There is an exception. Gertrude Jekyll began to publish her influential gardening books when she had reached the age of 55. By the turn of the century she had an unrivalled reputation as a garden designer, developed over many years of experience and commercial success. And once started she published 13 books, no less than 7 in the decade 1900-1910.

Home and Garden

From all the possibilities I chose Home and Garden. Its subtitle is: Notes and thoughts, practical and critical of a worker in both. I found a second hand copy of a Macmillan edition published in 1984. The original was published in 1900 with 53 photographs by the author. 16 colour photographs were added to the later edition.

Gertrude Jekyll uses the style of writing based on the belief that there is no need to use just one word when a whole paragraph will do much better to convey the full nuanced meaning intended. The subtitle suggests a certain lack of structure and rigour in the writing. This is a miscellany.

The chapters cover a wide range of topics, in no sequence that I could divine. Roses and Lilies, Large and Small Rock Gardens, these are to be expected and instructive. But we also have Gertrude Jekyll’s thoughts on a medley of other topics: the Workshop, the Kinship of Common Tools, the Making of Pot-Pourri, the Home Pussies, Things Worth Doing. The opening chapter is long and is called How the House was Built.

Some heavy oak timber-work forms the structural part of the inner main framing of the house. Posts, beams, braces, as well as doors and their frames, window-frames and mullions, stairs and some floors, are of good English oak, grown in the neighbourhood. I suppose a great London builder could not produce such work. He does not go into the woods and buy the standing timber, and season it slowly in a roomy yard for so many years, and then go round with the architect’s drawing and choose the piece that exactly suits the purpose. The old country builder, when he has to get out a cambered beam or a curved brace, goes round his yard and looks out the log that grew in the actual shape, and taking off two outer slabs by handwork in the saw pit, chops it roughly to shape with his side-axe and works it to the finished face with the adze, so that the completed work shall ever bear the evidence of his skill in the use of these grand old tools, and show a treatment absolutely in sympathy with the nature and quality of the material. (15)

This is not so much about gardening as about building a house to her own specification in a beautiful setting, with an award-winning friend who happened to be the architect Edwin Lutyens. The extract illustrates her style, but also the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement.

There is plenty in the book of what one might call gardening advice. In the chapter on Midsummer, having listed the advantages of many types of Iris Gertrude Jekyll then broadens her comments to include other flowers and combinations.

One of the happiest mixtures of plants it has ever been my good fortune to hit on is that of St Bruno’s Lily and London Pride, both at their best about the second weeks of June. The lovely little Mountain Lily – fit emblem of a pure-souled saint – stands upright with royal grace and dignity, and bears with an air of modest pride its lovely milk-white bloom and abundant sheaves of narrow blue-green leaves. …

The well-grown clumps of this beautiful plant (it is the large kind and nearly two feet high) are on the narrow west-facing bank that slopes down to the lawn. The place would be in the full blaze of the late afternoon sun, but that it is kept shaded and cool by a large Spanish Chestnut whose bole is some ten yards away. Between and among the little Lilies is a wide planting of London Pride, the best for beauty of bloom of its branch of the large family of Saxifrage. Its healthy-looking rosettes of bright pale leaves and delicate clouds of faint pink bloom seem to me to set off the quite different way of growth of the Anthericum so as to display the very best that both can do, making me think of any two people whose minds are in such a happy state of mutual intelligence, that when talking together bright sparks of wit or wisdom flash from both, to the delight of the appreciative listener. (112-114)

You will notice that only lengthy quotations do justice to Gertrude Jekyll’s style, her mixture of knowledge about plants and observations of humans. Her painterly approach to gardening, to the pleasure of being in the garden (rather than the show gardener might put on) is evident here. This was the essence of her skill as a garden designer. And she has included a photograph of the St Bruno Lily planted with London Pride to add to her case.

But I am wondering for whom this book was written. The style suggests that the reader needed leisure. And they needed disposable income for they were expected to have gardeners to do the heavy and dirty work.

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)

Miss Jekyll’s Boots by William Nicholson, 1920

Gertrude Jekyll is credited with a new form of gardening, one that combined the experience of being in a garden with knowledge about the soil, aspect and combinations of plants. She brought a painterly approach, appreciation of texture and structure that have influenced so much in modern gardening. While she did not invent the herbaceous border she brought her own knowledge and eye to her guidance on this most English garden feature.

Her first ambitions were in painting, and she went to Art School before developing her career in garden design. During her long career she designed 400 gardens, mostly in Britain, but a few in the USA and Europe. Sadly most of her gardens have disappeared, although her own garden at Munstead Wood in Surrey, where she lived, has been reconstructed and is open to visitors. She advised on the planting of the gardens at Castle Drago in Devon a National Trust property, which is currently undergoing restoration.

She was a prolific writer, contributing more than 1000 articles to Country Life, besides her 13 books.

Gertrude Jekyll Rose

Her influence on gardens and gardeners has been recognised in two notable ways:

  • A rose has been named after her, which has twice been voted the nation’s favourite rose.
  • The googledoodle for 29th November 2017 celebrated her achievements.

She never married and had no children. You can find more about Gertrude Jekyll and her gardens at the official website.

The Decade Project in 2018

This year I plan each month to choose a non-fiction book written by a woman and review it here. Next month, February, I plan to read and review My Story by Emmeline Pankhurst, published in 1914. Suggestions for further decades are welcome, especially for the 1930s.

To read more about the Decade Project in 2017 please follow the link to the final post here The Decades Project one year on. This post listed all 11 choices of novels.

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