In Which I Look for Ethel, and Find Her Not

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The cross-pollination of ideas is always fascinating to me. This post has so many disparate ideas criss-crossed and be-sprinkled and tossed about on erratic breezes that I hardly know what it is about. Perhaps by the end I will have figured it out. Or you will have figured it out, and kindly tell me.

In the process we will have landed on such flowers of thought as Persephone (Books), the American Dionysius, the mysteriously disappearing Ethel, tiddlywinks—(new and improved); we will have buzzed lightly over the far-sighted Mrs. Peasgood, Johnny Appleseed’s hidden agenda, pippins without peer and love-struck carrier pigeons, then we round off the whole with some triumphantly brilliant comments from an author bearing the fortuitous name of Pollan. His book The Botany of Desire, is on my to-be-read list.

It all began with the news this morning that Persephone had just issued The Cookery Book, by Ambrose Heath. (I just love the fact it is called a ‘cookery book’) I am ordering it, thank you.

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Persephone showed a picture of the old edition on their Facebook page, which reminded me that the magazine Country Life didn’t just issue ‘cookery books’, but garden books, as well. I have a treasured copy of an old Country Life book in my library.

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This book, while valuable in its own right, is something of a curiosity. It is written by a clever, witty woman named Ethel Armitage. The publisher’s forward reads:

‘The publishers believe that in this volume they have found a gardening classic and moreover, a book which will appeal to generations of garden and country lovers as Gilbert White, Cobbett and other countryman’s books still do today.’

Well, you know what I think of Gilbert White!  You know what the entire country of Britain thinks of Gilbert White!

But wait, there’s more. There is the significant detail that this book by Ethel Armitage has been masterfully illustrated by none other than John Farleigh. His woodcuts are highly collectible. Any book that has been illustrated by John Farleigh is usually considered valuable. He illustrated for writers such as George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, and Sacheverall Sitwell. As an antiquarian book collector, I am keenly interested in woodcut illustrative art in particular. The name of John Farleigh is associated with the best, and it is likely because of John Farleigh that this book by Ethel Armitage is in my collection.

What happened to Ethel?

Ethel is a conundrum—I can find nothing else about her. This twentieth-century echo of Gilbert White has faded into obscurity. No face, no bio. No pictures of the lovely garden she wrote about with such wit and tenderness. No reprints by Persephone. (yet…?) The internet is silent, except for  the fact that she wrote two other books that are also out of print. As far as I can discern, Ethel Armitage wrote a total of three books:

A Country Garden (1936)

Garden and Hedgerow (1939)

Flower and Leaf (1946)

Perhaps she wanted to remain obscure. Yet it is only natural to want to know more about the woman who wrote:

‘Early in April a carrier pigeon was found, in a very exhausted state, in the orchard, and after being given some food, recovered enough to be taken to the loft, where he remained for two days in a more or less invalid state. He then took a little flight round the garden, which seemed to completely restore him to health, for he became quite perky, following us down the grass path and gobbling up any wood lice found for him, though he resolutely refused to have anything to do with slugs.’

‘One morning he failed to appear for his breakfast, but three days later turned up very tired, and from then remained with us…we hoped he had forgotten all about his birth-place and had really adopted us. But an even stronger instinct than the homing one came over him, for the last week he collected a companion—a wife, we suppose. She was a strange-looking bird, and with a dingy white head and drab colouring, not the least sleek and beautiful like our pigeon. Perhaps she was the only spinster left over in the marriage market, for it was certainly rather late in the season. She showed, at once, that she did not care about us or about the place, for after remaining half a day, they both went off, never to be seen again, as if she had said to him: ‘This is not nearly good enough for me.’.

In the process of finding out nothing about Ethel Armitage, I did manage to find out something about Mrs. Peasgood.

Mrs. Peasgood of Grantham, Lincolnshire, sounds like a remarkable woman. In 1860, at the tender age of 16, she received five pippins and knew what to do with them. (It’s stories like hers that make me realize how dull my teen years were) She planted them. And waited. And waited.

She got married, and waited some more. Finally, one of those pippins, or the seeds therein, became a tree and bore fruit.

John Farleigh engraving

John Farleigh engraving

Somehow she knew this was no ordinary apple, and entered it into a competition. It won, and the rest is history. A single apple of Peasgood’s Nonsuch, as it became named, can weigh over one pound. The Peasgood name is all over the world now; the apple having been presented to the Royal Horticultural Society, who then presented one to the Queen. It has been described as ‘the most handsome apple in the world’. It is also very good in a pie, as well it should be. This apple has even been known to change otherwise indifferent apple eaters into madly keen pippin aficionados.

You may be wondering how this all relates to the notion of an American Dionysius. Or not. And let’s not forget Ethel, of whom we still know nothing. Except for the curious note, on page 145 of her book, that in October, sometime during the 1930’s, they planted in their orchard a ‘Peasgood Nonsuch’.

As it turns out, there are Peasgood family legends that hint at a curious story regarding America’s own emissary of the apple— Johnny Appleseed; that he was actually a Peasgood, and went about America sowing seeds of the Peasgood fortunes.

Well, guess what? That can’t be true, because everyone knows (well, okay, I didn’t know until just this morning) that apples can only stay true to type if you graft them. Every single seed in an apple, if planted and productive, will result in a different kind of apple. Random apple seed scattering just results in confused, mushy little apples of no distinction. Except in those rare cases of Mrs. Peasgood who hit a sort of apple lottery with her pippins while her husband was inventing tiddily winks. (He patented his new design in 1891…true story; you can’t make up this stuff)

But here is the good news. Those genetically confused, random apples grown from seed produce wonderful cider that sweetens with age. Suddenly we—meaning me—are now on familiar territory, being both geographically and chronologically fixed in apple cider land. (We—meaning me—love cider. We just toured cider country where the bottling and tasting is going on; in case you missed it, here is a picture or two.)

In this NPR interview with author Michael Pollan, (and in his book The Botany of Desire), he states that Johnny Appleseed had very strong views regarding the proper way to apple propagation, and it was not to be done by grafting. Only by seed sowing. This would make Johnny Appleseed, in effect, the American Dionysius. According to Pollan, he was bringing the gift of booze to the frontier with his little pocket of seeds, because the apples he planted would have only been fit for cider.

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All very interesting. Because I took this circuitous route to cider, and back home, by way of Ethel Armitage, (of whom I know nothing).

Even now, as I write this, I have the picture in my mind of Ethel planning for the next spring. It is laced throughout her book–this happy notion of spring. It’s a powerful notion, and no doubt one that carried her through to somewhere. I know not where, but I hope it all ended well for her.

Now it’s time to go curl up by a warm fire, listen to the rain pelt the windows outside, drink a cool cider fresh off the local orchards, think about the power of words and the fragility of flesh, and read what Ethel was writing about on October 24th, 1936:

‘Most of the fruits of the earth are now gathered in, and the loft is full of a delicious smell of apples. From the cross-beams hang strings of bean and pea pods, and alongside them range huge sunflower heads and parsley, all ripening their seed in preparation for next spring’s sowing.’

7 thoughts on “In Which I Look for Ethel, and Find Her Not

  1. Whimsical journey you took us on. Loved how you tied in all the little straggling vines of thoughts to serve us up something to whet our appetite. (Though I’m still wanting more and may take up the unresolved quest for more on Ethyl.)

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