Curious, this light
Renders crisp the silhouette
Of transient bloom
Enjoying my first Graham Stuart Thomas blooms (oh, fleeting June, stay a little longer!)
Curious, this light
Renders crisp the silhouette
Of transient bloom
Enjoying my first Graham Stuart Thomas blooms (oh, fleeting June, stay a little longer!)
‘Well, she had everything that she had wished for on that wet February day in the library. Money, leisure to be pretty, a husband whom she “didn’t have to associate with much,” rest, if she ever gave herself leave to take it, and the rose garden. She had her wishes, as uncannily fulfilled as if she had been ordering her fate from a department store, and had money to pay for it.’
That may sound like an odd recipe for happiness, but, for me, The Rose Garden Husband was a particularly good choice of novel to read on a fine day in this first of June, with my roses blooming abundantly in the garden.
The novel of choice having been written in 1915, it also had fair chance of being endowed with a fairytale happy ending. And that also sounded very nice.
The book was a recent gift to me from a sweet friend who knows I like ‘old books and obscure authors’. And indeed, this writer is new to me, but I was delighted to see some lovely reviews of her work online.
Margaret Widdemer was prolific in output. Her writing career spanned from 1915 to 1968 (or so), and during this period she produced a whopping forty novels, plus many other works such as poetry (winning an early Pulitzer Prize), children’s stories, and essays. The Rose Garden Husband, published in 1915, was her first novel, and it continues to be a fan favorite.
Just say ‘Victorian era romance’, and it might bring to mind selfless heroines who go into declines, a room stuffed with horsehair sofas and stiff conversation, and, oh yes, maudlin sentiment. Widdemer’s novel brings some fresh air to this genre, and while the ending is predictable and a bit neatly packaged, it still delivers on charm and surprisingly humorous narrative. The heroine is every bit as selfless and full of New England backbone as we might have foreseen, but she is also energetic, witty, and comes with a few surprises.
‘I’d marry anything that would give me a rose garden!’
I liked this character a great deal, particularly when I read her list of things she wanted. I took a picture of the page (my copy is a 1915 reprint) because I was charmed by the neat little notes a former reader had written in to accompany the list. Likely the same former reader who had written her name ‘Harriet Rose’ in the flyleaf. Obviously, a desire for jewelry, poetry, and a plethora of shoes will charm ladies of any generation.
Phyllis’ wish for ‘Ever so many Maxfield Parrish pictures full of Prussian blue skies’, and ‘A room big enough to put all father’s books up’ resonated with me.
Phyllis Harrington gets all this and more, though in the beginning she had only wished for a rose garden with a gentleman husband she wouldn’t have to ‘have any association with’.
She laughs at herself for this wish, however, and pulls herself together from her reverie. (Phyllis does not go into declines but she does go into reveries now and again.)
This sweet story is all about wish fulfillment, but there is an amusing curiosity not lost on the modern reader. Volumes of feminist erudition have been written on the plight of a young woman’s prospects in the fiction of Jane Austen and others of her era and beyond. To marry was a career move, and often the only way to advance in one’s life.
“Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business.” ― Jane Austen
Margaret Widdemer puts it baldly in this story, and in more modern terms—Marriage is a job opportunity.
In the narrative, Phyllis has resigned herself to becoming a careworn spinster. Although she loves her career as a librarian, she has no time for social outings or opportunities to meet men. She also sees no way out of her constrained circumstances in life.
“I’m just a battered bisque doll!” she repeated to herself, bitterly.
(This struck me as a bit odd, to tell the truth, as Phyllis, though tired much of the time in the beginning, is described as very pretty with masses of honey blonde hair…more of ‘a pretty bisque figurine’ than a ‘battered bisque doll’, the author wants us to know… surely someone would have noticed her getting on or off the trolley on her way to and from work? Men are so resourceful that way… I would think potential suitors would have been lining up at the library feigning an interest in Modern Literature.)
A visit from a lawyer friend, Mr. De Guenther, sets the stage for a surprising offer for Phyllis.
“I have—we have—a little matter of business to discuss with you tomorrow night, my dear; an offer, I may say, of a different line of work…” [Mr. De Guenther hems and haws around the matter for a bit more, finally concluding, inconclusively: ]“Because the line of work which I wish, or rather my wife wishes, to lay before you is—is a very different line of work!”
The Different Line of Work, as Phyllis comes to realize, is a proposition of marriage from a future-mother-in-law, who is dying. The marriage, as old Mrs. Harrington hopes, will secure the compassionate care of her invalid son after she is gone. Phyllis may have only five or so years of ‘work’, supervising Allan Harrington’s care; then, it being likely he will die by that time, Phyllis will inherit the plump retirement of his entire fortune.
From rags to riches, from spinster to bride. From tweeds to satin, from sturdy librarian’s brogues to satin slippers. A career move, indeed.
Phyllis—a practical girl who is organized and makes lists—has few reservations. Likely she will need to interact with him very little, he has a fleet of servants and caregivers; her only responsibility is to see that they all do their job. Her career as the serious Miss Braithwaite, “Assistant for the Children’s Department, Greenway Branch, City Public Library“, with a background as manager of the Circulation and Cataloguing Departments, has equipped her admirably for this job.
‘It feels partly like going into a nunnery and partly like going into a fairy story,’ she said to herself.’
And what of Allan Harrington, the invalid with a death wish who is about to become the hero of the story?
The ‘scientific’ explanation of his condition, as expressed in 1915, was this:
“You see, it was found that the shock to the nerves, acting on an already over-keyed mind and body, together with some spinal blow concerning which the doctors are still in doubt, had affected Allan’s powers of locomotion.”
Ah, we get it. His paralysis isn’t an inability to walk. He just has no incentive. He wants to die. But Allan is about to meet his new incentive, and find his ‘powers of locomotion’ are capable of being revived.
Phyllis first meets Allan in his darkened sickroom. Her impression is:
‘A Crusader on a tomb. Yes, he looked like that. In the room’s half-dusk the pallor of his still….face and his long, clear-cut hands was nearly the same as the whiteness of the couch draperies. His hair, yellow-brown and waving, flung back from his forehead like a crest, and his dark brows and lashes made the only note of darkness about him.’
In spite of his obvious invalidism and tremulous voice, Phyllis finds him quite beautiful as a man.
‘Somehow she could not think of Allan Harrington’s dying. He was too beautiful to be dead, where nobody could see him any more….He must have been delightful,” she thought, “when he was alive!”
You might guess what is about to happen. We know it as soon as she sees him, and the next scene has her out shopping with Mrs. De Guenther buying:
‘… a heavenly white crepe thing with rosy ribbons and filmy shadow-laces—the negligee of one’s dreams.’
Oh, yes. Phyllis has plans. Plans that involve ‘a heavenly white crepe thing’. Her dream of a rose garden is about to come true, but that dream of ‘a husband whom she “didn’t have to associate with much”—? Dashed forever.
Oh yes, good things happen in this story. Good things delightfully told.
Many of Margaret Widdemer’s books are available as ebooks, or can be read online. Other than that, I don’t know if she is actually ‘in print’, except perhaps print on demand copies.
I enjoyed Jane’s review of this book; as usual she describes the story in thoughtful detail, and I love her comment: ‘If you’d like to be captivated, if you have an uncynical heart that needs lifting…this is the book for you.’
I can only add to that it is nice to read a book that highlights unselfishness and kindness in people.
A nice article here, that gives us more insight into the character of Widdemer via her poetry–Read more about Margaret Widdemer as a poet here (Widdemer was one of the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry before it was known as the Pulitzer Prize)
For a possible likeness of the ‘Crusader on a tomb’ here is a fascinating account of one–and this particular knight ended up in New York at the Met Cloisters, oddly enough…but I’m thinking that Margaret actually saw this knight (a year before she published this book in 1915) and was taken by his quiet strength in death’s repose, for the website of the Cloisters gives us this tidbit on the history of the collection:
‘Much of the sculpture at The Met Cloisters was acquired by George Grey Barnard (1863–1938), a prominent American sculptor, and an avid collector and dealer of medieval art. Barnard opened his original Cloisters on Fort Washington Avenue to the public in 1914.’
‘To John Borie, still at Allways’
Is John Borie still at Allways? I have always wondered…
In his curious dedication to A Thatched Roof, Beverley Nichols infuses a sense of timelessness. At Allways, a rambling old Tudor cottage in Huntingdonshire, nothing will ever change. The fifteenth century low lintels will still bang heads, bees are still gathering nectar, the roses drug the air with perfume, the grapevine is still scratching at the window—wanting in, the graceless Undine is dancing on her lawn, and John Borie is still there.
Speaking of timelessness, in my side bar, it has had showing, for some time, the book ‘Currently Reading’ as A Thatched Roof. This was true then, when I posted it, and it continues to be true, as I am still reading it.
I am still at Allways.
‘Therefore this book is not a sequel to an early love, it is rather the other half of the same love. The first book was about a garden; this one is about the cottage which stands in that garden.’ —Beverley Nichols, A Thatched Roof
How could one want to leave? A delightful reminiscence, as with Nichols’ other books of gardening and house-keeping, A Thatched Roof is of the sort that can be picked up and put down, re-read, mulled over, glossed over, chuckled over, and generally be quite useful when the mind needs to be somewhere else, but the body and brain need a safe place to rest.
This is not to trivialize Nichols’ writing. I have quite enjoyed his books related to home and garden, and some of his asides, commentary, and psuedo-factual characters are extremely funny. Who can forget shy and anxious Miss Mint, whom Nichols obviously adored, or gimlet-eyed Mrs. M, whom Nichols obviously detested…?
‘Then loathsomely refreshed, she sat up, and fixed her gimlet eyes upon me.’
As charming as it is, A Thatched Roof sat neglected on my bookshelf for years. I kept beginning it, then putting it down. Why? It was simply too powerful. Surely an odd thing to feel from a writer whose output has been described as ‘rather twee’? Yet Nichols writes with such sprightly reminiscence, with such warm gushes of affection and affectation about his experience with home and garden, that in my situation for five years in a city condo, without either, it was too difficult for me to read.
‘It is always next year when you have a garden.’
It is a book that provided the perfect accompaniment to our recent move, dovetailing here and there in a surprising twist. In it, we experience Nichols’ pure joy in home ownership, his adventures with a dour Scottish housekeeper and the hilarious shenanigans he goes through in an effort to keep her from having to work, we thatch a roof, dig a well, stock the pantry, move in the piano with great ceremony (‘I always feel the piano is a living thing and I hate to see it with its legs wrenched off’), agonize over proper window placement, decorate The Garden Room, discuss with catty delight ‘how white has been done to death’, fall quite terribly in love with Bristol blue glass, and enjoy a host of other waftings into the winsome world of Beverley Nichols, 1920’s Bright Young Thing and fey man about town.
This is the first of what may be a series of posts featuring A Thatched Roof. It is appropriately named for, with all its lightness, few things are more important in a frail human’s life than the acquisition of a roof. Even the determinedly anti-materialist Thoreau began his transcendental, life-changing Walden experience by an old fashioned roof raising.
My new roof from under which I write is not so thatched as Beverley Nichols’ quaint cottage existence, living on a different continent, in a different time and generation as we are. (And I’m quite convinced, with a touch of Nichols’ own querulousness, I would not want anyone but the Duke of Wellington to thatch my roof. Mr. Penrose, that is.)
But that’s getting ahead. It’s easy to do when reading daffy darling Nichols, who has a tendency to rush giddily into everything from philosophical grape tending to the perfect ethereal blue to poetic bee keeping. It is one of the secrets of his charm. His humility is another.
‘I wanted music. I had music….but it would not flow through my pen. It is a terrible thing to be filled with an emotion that one cannot express. People are always telling you, in these days, of the danger of suppressed sex. The dangers of suppressed poetry are surely greater. For the room was charged, drunken, electric–any word you care for–with poetry. The white walls were thick with images….
Yet with all this tolling, this fainting, this sadness among the blossoms, with all this shadowy drift of beauty to the grave, I could make no poem….that is the ultimate bitterness…to put a pen in a man’s hand, and then to freeze his hand, so that he cannot write.
Well, at least you will admit that I have been honest about it.’
Nichols has a way of saying more when he is not trying, and those moments come flitting throughout his prose. I have already mentioned the roses in my new (old) yard—two neglected bushes, giving me flowers of delightful beauty and sweetness. No better ‘welcome to your new home’ could there be. Yet, if you could see the sorry looking bushes they came from, you would wonder how on earth these blooms came about.
After Nichols has saved an ivy with gentle watering and ‘kind words’ he writes the following:
‘I feel at liberty to ask you a question.
Have you this same odd affection for things, like my ivy, which show tremendous courage in the face of adversity? For plants, and animals and people, even if they are common plants…It may be a purely personal weakness, but I feel that somewhere there must be someone who shares it with me.
Often, in the garden, I have found some plant that has seeded itself in a spot where you would think its frail roots could not possibly gain a hold. Perhaps it is only a common rock-plant that has pitched its gay camp on some wind-swept, barren wall, and is flying its yellow flag in the teeth of every wind. But though it is ‘common’, the miraculous courage of such a plant defeats me. I I could no more destroy it, even if it is an intruder, than I could tear up a rose tree that was decked in all the crimson regalia of July.’
Who doesn’t respect a survivor?
It’s unlikely we’ll name them Hoover and Al Smith, as Nichols’ named his ivy plants, but they will certainly get the benefit of every ‘kind word’ I can give them. And Nichols’ hoped for ‘somewhere there must be someone who shares it’ has struck a chord with likely more than just me.
A Thatched Roof begins, in the Foreword, with the lovely lines of Cowper:
‘Time as he passes us has a dove’s wing,
Unsoiled and swift and of a silken sound.’
Like the rustle of a dove’s wing, or the fragrant floating path of rose petals, let us continue enjoying these silken sounds floating to us through time.
In an upcoming post–more about my odd pairing of Thoreau and Nichols.
Beverley Nichols: 1898-1983
Books by Beverley Nichols related to gardening and household lore (via wiki):
Gardening, homes and restoration
• Down the Garden Path (1932) ISBN 978-0-88192-710-8
• A Thatched Roof (1933) ISBN 978-0-88192-728-3
• A Village in a Valley (1934) ISBN 978-0-88192-729-0
• How Does Your Garden Grow? (1935)
• Green Grows the City (1939) ISBN 978-0-88192-779-5
• Merry Hall (1951) ISBN 978-0-88192-804-4
• Laughter on the Stairs (1953) ISBN 978-0-88192-460-2
• Sunlight on the Lawn (1956) ISBN 978-0-88192-467-1
• Garden Open Today (1963) ISBN 978-0-88192-533-3
• Forty Favourite Flowers (1964)
• The Art of Flower Arrangement (1967)
• Garden Open Tomorrow (1968) ISBN 978-0-88192-552-4
“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” ― Thomas Gray
Today we take a short excursion of thought whereby Gray’s Elegy, Mrs. Elton, and my roses will be connected for the briefest of time.
You see, I can now say ‘my roses’. They are my cherry on the top of what has been a long —and long hoped for—move.
(The WordPress photo challenges are always fun to try and incorporate into a literary theme. This week’s challenge relates to ‘the cherry on the top’ motif; in other words, some extra nicety that makes a good thing even better.)
The 1959 home we just moved into came with a garden that someone…years ago…once tenderly cared for. Sweet old shrubs and cherry trees; a plethora of apples and dreams of apple pie. This house would have been wonder enough. But the cherry on the top? Two little bedraggled rose bushes. In the words of the beloved garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder, my ‘thoughts are alight’ with them, my heart aglow with a surge of motherly feelings toward my new charges. They shall be given a bath, some nourishment, and a nice pruning. (I will also be adding to their ranks!)
These roses, blooming alone and lovely on neglected bushes for who knows how many years, brought to my mind the well known verse of Thomas Gray, quoted above from Elegy In A Country Churchyard.
One thing leads to another. As I can never think of those lines without thinking of Jane Austen’s character Mrs. Elton, there is another, even more subtle ‘cherry on top’ with this post.
We have, in large part, the memorable Mrs. Elton to thank for bringing Thomas Gray’s poetry into modern circulation.
In her novel Emma, Jane Austen created a small masterpiece within a masterpiece in this characterization. Every time Augusta Elton opens her mouth, she relates far more about herself than she intends.
‘Miss Woodhouse, we must exert ourselves and endeavour to do something for her. We must bring her forward. Such talent as hers must not be suffered to remain unknown.—I dare say you have heard those charming lines of the poet,
‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
‘And waste its fragrance on the desert air.’
We must not allow them to be verified in sweet Jane Fairfax.”
The intent of Mrs. Elton, as she addressed these words to Emma—her greatest rival for power in the social arena of Highbury, has been seen by scholars as a pointed insult. A slight taunt, a challenge, as it were, borne along by dulcet tones speaking ‘those charming lines‘. Of course there was nothing charming about Mrs. Elton, and of course Emma, as a cultured young woman of her day, would have been quite familiar with Thomas Gray. By Austen’s day he was considered The Poet of the English. And Emma the novel, is essentially, Austen’s paean to all English-ness.
The fact that Mrs. Elton mis-quoted (did Austen intend butchered?) such a well known, beloved poem of England hands the veiled insult right back to the giver. Jane Austen’s brilliance in characterization extended to even the slightest nuances of conversation.
In reading Jane Austen, there is always deliciousness to be found. Sometimes, though, she gives us that extra little cherry of genius on top.
And my two rosebushes will no longer blush unseen.
‘All seasons, and their change; all please alike.’ Milton
The roses of June are now gone.
We’re moving rapidly through July, with all its over-blown, heat saturated splendor. Soon this blog will be checking in with the seasonable Mr. White of Selborne to see what he’s doing with his whortle-berries in late July of 1781.
But that’s for later. Now it is still roses, a book by Diane Ackerman, and a Curious Word courtesy of Charles Lamb (‘sciential’).
The garden, where I took these pictures, is Heirloom Roses, of St. Paul, Oregon.
Heirloom Gardens is no ordinary rose garden. It’s a wonderful resource for the rose connoisseur. For one thing, space isn’t really an issue. There are acres of roses to be seen in their display gardens. For anyone with a garden of normal proportions, who has ever wanted to see an old rambling species rose take over a pergola, or allow the mighty Kiftsgate to swathe an entire evergreen in its thorny embrace, you know that space is an issue. Few gardens have the room to indulge the passionate rose enthusiast with all the abundance of shape, size and drapery the world of roses can boast.
Thus, it is exciting to see species roses allowed to be all they can be.
I say that in all sincerity. It really is exciting. ‘Here be fountains’, cascades, waterfalls and mountains of roses. The air is perfumed with a fragrance that the likes of Cleopatra might have worn.
The digital memory of my rose garden tour is now stored on, and perilously afloat, what I call the If and Ineffability of iCloud data storage. Download-able at any moment, and lose-able more often than that.
Just as precariously, the memories of my June rose adventures are now packaged in little quivery bundles of ephemera I house in my neurons. The wafting esters of scent, the tactility of petals, the rustle of sound as I moved my dreamlike tread over freshly mowed lawn; these impressions have been shelved in my mind alongside the enormous database of other neurons of memory.
Fragrance, though, is the great fixative of memory. Scent fixes memory to an emotion and pins us to that place in time. It is the download button for instant retrieval of data, and an instant rush of accompanying sensations.
What is fixative? It is a term used in the perfume and fragrance industry. Every famous, lingering scent has a fixative. These began as natural substances—often animal derived, such as musky civet oil— that will preserve and stabilize that which is volatile. Fragrance on the skin can be volatile, as the accompanying look in the eye may well be. But the fragrance can be released into the air where it will dissipate quickly unless it is given staying power with a fixative.
In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman wrote:
‘Nothing is more memorable than a smell… [they] detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.’
Ackerman is called ‘the finest literary interpreter of science and nature’, and for good reason. Her work, A Natural History of the Senses is my go-to book whenever I want scientific answers to questions I never thought of asking, and poetic descriptions I never thought of writing.
Another great thinker, Virginia Woolf, wrote, in her ground-breaking work A Room of One’s Own:
‘We think back through our mothers, if we are women.’
This, in the light of current science and the unfolding mysteries of mitochondrial DNA, is a potential powerhouse of possibility. ‘A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth…’
For surely there is a dimensional quality to scent and fragrance that goes far beyond the physical aspects of touch or sight. There is so much in the physics and neuroscience of smell that scientists still don’t understand. It is likely that our mothers, and all the mothers of distant mothers who stretch back through the centuries, loved roses.
Is it possible that our own deep inhalations takes us back through those centuries of memory? Some roses are centuries old. We may not realize the process that is at work every time we take a breath, swill it through our own essence, and exhale it ‘gently altered for having known us‘; but our inner selves remember moments most vividly through the medium of scent.
Diane Ackerman, not surprisingly, would reference Marcel Proust, ‘that great blazer of scent trails through the wilderness of luxury and memory’, as an example of a writer who captured ‘flights of comprehensive remembrance’ based on the power of a chance encounter with a smell.
Ackerman writes evocatively of the Song of Songs–The Song of Solomon–‘the most scent-drenched poem of all time’.
She relates her adventures tagging Monarch butterflies, studying Indonesian flying foxes in Texas, and interviewing that brilliant prodigy of noses, Sophia Grojsman— “For a world-class nose on a deadline she seems relaxed and alert”.
She takes us on an imaginary tour to the boudoir of an ancient Egyptian beauty, mixing and applying her fragrant unguents in preparation for a dinner party.
And of course she writes about roses. In all of this she gives forth her observations and understanding in the most lyrical prose. It’s a beautiful book to read, whether you are strolling a rose garden with a parasol or striding about the Giza plateau in a pith helmet.
Since the time worn cliché has become more of dictum that resembles ‘call your Mother’.… We shall, instead, linger in our perambulations and breathe deeply of Milton’s roseate dews.
But go ahead and call your mother.
‘For we think back through our mothers if we are women’….said Virginia.
(began here, and to be continued)
“All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn-owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight – the pale garden that I am now planting, under the first flakes of snow.” Vita Sackville West
Can you feel the closeness of spring? Do you feel the energy stirring in the soil? Does the ‘great ghostly barn owl’ sweep silently across the pale shadows of your winter garden? I am thinking of gardeners everywhere, in this time of sweet madness, for I remember being held in the same thrall. Plans for new beds get drawn on graph paper, notes are made for new color combinations, plant and seed catalogs are lingered over with a lover’s eye, and the all important shade of butter yellow blooms to pair with violet clouds of campanula is looked for with the intensity of a newly crowned prom queen shopping for shoes.
Louise Beebe Wilder, writer and gardener extraordinaire, would become particularly giddy this time of year, writing, in 1918; ‘we can resist no longer, but rush recklessly hatless to the garden, feeling, if not actually repeating, Lowell’s lines: “Every clod feels a stir of might, An instinct within it which reaches and towers.”
“I cannot help hoping…” said Vita Sackville-West, echoing this sentiment, albeit in a much more restrained style.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed over the years almost as much as gardening is reading about other gardeners and their various trials and successes; even rambling, prosy, moralizing essays written by gardeners from the Victorian past can be fascinating. The articulate minds, the liquid prose and warmhearted lore of the gardener/essayist has helped to pass many a winter day, when the garden was sleeping, the birds were still and the ground was frozen.
“It is a pleasure simply to read a list of the titles of their books.” Nan Fairbrother
In a sense, the writing gardener of the ages has kept all of our collective flowerbeds thriving over generations, continents, and even social boundaries. ‘They have such enthusiasm,’ writes Nan Fairbrother, in her book ‘Men and Gardens’, in discussing the garden writers of the seventeenth century; ‘such curious and enquiring minds, they ride their hobby horses with such zest. It is a pleasure simply to read a list of the titles of their books.’ A pleasure, indeed. I look forward to reading her recommended ‘Cornu Copia, a Miscellanium of Lucriferous and Most Fructiferous Experiments, Observations and Discoveries Immethodically Distributed to Be Really Demonstrated and Communicated in All Sincerity’ (1652).
Yet, today, and for reasons that I suspect I know; I am thinking of Ellen Willmott.
You’ve seen her name, I’m sure. If you garden, or have ever bought a packet of seeds, you have come across some form of her name. If you love flowers, plant lore, history, and crusty old umbrella-wielding spinsters with an attitude, then you have already likely found Miss Willmott’s story interesting.
When I first began to search for information on this mysterious lady who was so apparently dear to the plant hybridizers of the Edwardian generation, the internet was young. Google was woefully inadequate as a resource for my esoteric pursuits of knowledge. Wiki was not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Then I stumbled across—amazingly enough—one of my favorite resources in which to find credible information.
A Book! An actual biography. ‘Hardcover with dustjacket’’; (words that I still find thrilling). ‘Miss Willmott of Warley Place, Her Life and Her Gardens’, was written by Audrey Le Lievre and published by Faber & Faber in1980. *
(Since then, the internet has many more gems to offer on the legacy of Ellen Willmott. Here are just two I have enjoyed:
I suppose there are greater heights to be scaled by one who is truly ambitious, but to have one’s name immortalized by a hybridizer is a pretty heady prospect. Think footnotes, indexes, and Hortus Third. Ellen Willmott enjoyed this sensation many times over.
Other ladies that have been so endowed aren’t as clingy to our curiosity. The beloved ‘Miss Lingard’ of garden phlox fame has brought a moment or two of wonderment. I’ve spared a thought for ‘Nelly Moser’ as I enjoy her clematis, and I had long attributed a doting hybridizing husband to ‘Mrs. Moon’. But Miss Willmott had spawned almost an entire plantsman’s catalog. Was she that beautiful? Was she a femme fatale? Or were her graces of the saintly type, inspiring plant breeders to devise ways to honor her memory?
I pictured Miss Willmott in the latter category. Demure, kindly; no doubt tending one of those ethereal cottage gardens idealized by the painter Claude Strachan.
For such dainty visions I blame Miss Mint and Miss Wheeler. These delightful ladies of gardening literature could certainly be blamed for little else, save for lulling myself and others into the comfortable notion that all vintage flower-loving spinsters smell like lavender and murmur things like ‘goodness’ as they stoop over a plant in distress.
Miss Mint, you’ll remember, is of Beverley Nichols’ Laughter on the Stairs fame. She was a rare little creature in that she aroused Nichols’ most ardent protective instincts–a distinction usually reserved for cats and neglected plants. This retired governess, described as ‘short and grey and mousey’, but also shy and endearing, was known particularly for her use of the three letters N.W. H. on all of her correspondence. ‘Nothing Wrong Here’, was her earnest message to the world. She wanted to save others the same agonies of anxiety she suffered when watching the postman approach. Thus they could open a letter from her without the least threat of imminent doom. (Once, the comforting acronym was missing from her letter–adequately explained in time by the fact that Miss Mint’s morning glories had come up all wrong.)
I met Miss Wheeler through the pages of Mirabel Osler’s A Gentle Plea for Chaos. There, we take a cozy tour of Miss Wheeler’s cottage garden, full of old-fashioned treasures that she cares for as lovingly as if they were precious family mementoes–and in some cases they are. Primulas, wallflowers, penstemon, and tender gentian all crowd together like scraps of fabric in an heirloom quilt. A lovely specimen of Hardy Plumbago has an honored place–“My mother’s favorite flower”, along with an enduring agapanthus handed down from her great-aunt. The agapanthus brings on a tender sigh from Miss Wheeler; “I love having something belonging to my great-aunt because she was so lovely.”
Wait–! Let’s get back to that Hardy Plumbago, and look at it more closely. It’s a Ceratostigma willmottianum! And moving down the herbacious border, what do we see growing in Miss Wheeler’s garden but–“Miss Willmott’s little rose”–(rosa willmottiae)!
You see, a gardener is never far from Miss Willmott.
After several encounters with Miss Willmott’s name and Latin versions of it during my armchair tour of Louise Beebe Wilder’s gardens at Balderbrae, my search for Miss Willmott began in earnest. Mrs. Wilder particularly enjoys the Tulipa willmottiae, as it turns out. And after reading about Lathyrus odoratus “Miss Willmott”–a sweet pea described as an “enchanting boudoir pink”, and “compliant enough to bloom” in warmer weather than most–I was hooked. I was already beginning to picture Miss Willmott having tea with Miss Mint and Miss Wheeler, touring their herbacious borders together and cooing in unison like small gray doves.
But wasn’t there a sassy coral potentilla named ‘Miss Willmott’? And a tall other-worldly Verbascum “Miss Willmott’, known in its common form as Witches Candles? And a forbiddingly spiky Eryngium giganteum named ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’?
Hmmm. ‘S. W. H.’ (Something Wrong Here).
Take the Eryngium giganteum-Sea Holly, for one. (please!) The story has oft been told of how this plant, ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ received its name. Miss Willmott, as the story goes, liked to surreptitiously sow seed of this vigorous, thistle-like plant whenever she was a visitor to a garden, thus leaving her hosts with a gift that would most assuredly keep on giving. To further stir the imagination, the plant looked ghostly and spectral in the twilight. A mischievous joke? A way to ensure the immortality of a favorite plant? Or perhaps to ensure her own immortality? Eryngium flowers are considered everlastings, so perhaps the gesture was more a pathetic wish than a roguish trick. The famous plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas, intrigued by the tale, asked readers of a popular gardening journal if anyone could confirm the story, and thus the origin of the name. By that time in the mid-1960’s, no one could.
The image of the accommodating sweet pea had long since faded from my hopeful view, as well as the shy wallflower, and I was beginning to think more of the tenacity of a weedy thistle, springing up everywhere from Aethionema to Zinnia.
The real Miss Willmott was beginning to emerge out of the sentimental mists of my wishful thinking. Yes, she was prickly. Yes, she was tenacious. She could be exasperating, and was even once described as ‘the cankered Ellen’. She was also one of the most respected women in the world of horticulture. There was no romantic story behind the seemingly endless catalog of names, merely sense, logic, and a lot of hard work. There was no lovestruck hybridizer desperate to secure her affections; though attractive, Ellen Willmott never married, was never known to be in love, and never inspired love. Her skills were infinitely better in nurturing plants than in nurturing human relationships. To a man or woman who showed a talent for plants, she could be generous. To anyone of dubious gardening credentials, she showed herself capable of withering scorn.
Though born to wealth and privilege, and in the rosy days of Edwardian England, Ellen Willmott was first and foremost a gardener. She just gardened on a grand scale. At its height of production, her gardens at Warley Place grew over 10,000 species and varieties of trees, plants, and shrubs. Thriving there were ferneries, orchid houses, palm houses, orchards, an alpine garden, and ponds. Ellen Willmott had the distinction of being among the first female botanists to be admitted into the erudite Linnaean Society, and her great wealth funded many expeditions for botanical explorers such as E.H. Wilson. Thus many of the plants discovered on these expeditions came back bearing her name in some form. Some of these she expected to have named for her, not unreasonably, and others were voluntarily given as a mark of tribute.
Her gardens at Warley Place were much more than the pristine and park-like grounds of just another wealthy Edwardian gentlewoman with a hobby. They functioned as an extension of such valued institutions as Kew Botanical Gardens (then Royal Botanical Society of Kew), and Arnold Arboretum. Through letters of introduction from Kew, Ellen Willmott was able to make connections with the Botanical Gardens of Munich and Vienna. Thus, a rich exchange of horticultural information and plant material flowed from these institutions to Warley Place and back again.
Ellen Willmott was meticulous and unstinting in her plant propagation techniques, and had oversight of all stages of work done in the gardens and greenhouses. As a laborer, carrying trug and trowel, clad in working clothes and large floppy hat, she was a familiar figure in her own gardens, and often surprised her staff by showing up to work beside them. This, besides demonstrating her own conviction that she knew best how to get the job done, also ensured quality control amongst her hired help. Thus it was well known that she was often able to successfully grow a rare or capricious new plant, seed or bulb where others, such as even Kew, had failed.
Ellen Willmott was accomplished in many areas–woodworking, music, singing, and in fact her enthusiasm for the organ led her to travel regularly to London for lessons. Yet it was no secret as to the true passion of her life. “Do you play the organ?” asked a curious acquaintaince. “No,” she retorted, inexplicably. “But I can handle a spade.”
Yes, she could handle a spade. But now we come to the part where we, like Miss Mint, dread the postman’s approach for fear of receiving bad news.
The story of this remarkable woman is one of decay, as well as triumph. As her biographer La Lievre wrote, ‘Money in itself was of no interest to her: she cared for it only in its creative capacity’. Thus, with no practical skills in money management, Ellen Willmott’s great wealth dried up. Without money, there were no gardeners. Without gardeners, Warley Place became a ruin, defenseless against neglect and vandalism. Sadly, the once great gardens at Warley Place would not be able to survive for generations to enjoy.
Ellen Willmott had once carelessly remarked about a colleague that “his character was as ugly as his garden.” Her own judgement of another was coming back to haunt her. With her beloved Warley Place slowly sinking into ruins, she seemed to have no defense, or no desire for defense, in presenting a more pleasing aspect to the world’s probing gaze. This is all the more poignant when we consider what she wrote to a friend long before her losses occurred: “As you know, my plants and my gardens come before anything in life for me, and all my time is given up to working in one garden or another, and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves I read or write about them.’ *
Thus, like the Eryngium she had made famous, Ellen Willmot became hard and spiky with age. Hers was not a graceful exit. She became suspicious, cantankerous, even malicious, her eccentricities legend. She delighted in alienating people. “Has the old devil kicked the bucket, yet?” called out one passerby, as Ellen Willmott lay sick and alone. No, she had not, as it turned out. She lived to attend another flower show–showing up like a ghostly Sea Holly in the twilight gloom–wearing a sprig of Pentapterigonum rugosum in her buttonhole.
What’s in a name, indeed? Who would have thought, on my lavender and old lace-inspired journey, that I would find ‘an old devil’ at the end of it? As picture postcards and sprigs of carefully pressed flowers only capture the wistful nuances of a journey, and rarely tell the whole truth of it, so the name ‘Ellen Willmott’ means much more than a ruffled petal, a double white scented lilac, or a rare seed brought from the misty hills of China.
She was not a cozy stereotype, or a pretty paper doll to add to our mental scrapbook. She was a real human being, with all of the flaws, perhaps more, that we usually attach to that designation. But it is a tolerable truth; a bit ragged, to be sure—like a garden just hit by the first frost; still there are preserved within those enduring elements of beauty.
The gardener today has reason to be thankful to Ellen Willmott. Through her influence and meticulous care, many plants that are now beloved to us came to light. Ellen Willmott was a true original, a brilliant and obsessed woman who managed to live her life doing what she loved. We have more to thank her for than we do (much as we love them) the kindly Miss Mints and Miss Wheelers of history.
In my search for the real Miss Willmott, I found that she was inordinately fond of having the last word. Thus, her own words finish this account, for far from hinting poignantly at loss, they sum up how she was pleased to live, and how she was determined to die.
“I am quite alone with nothing to think about but plants and gardening.”
I didn’t mention ‘The Genus Rosa’ for a reason—I can’t write about it briefly. It is a great work, and possibly Ellen Willmott’s finest legacy to the world. Beyond that, it is a work of tender and devoted love, and this from the woman who has become more identified with a ghostly thistle.
What is it?
Called “the first great color-printed flower book of the 20th century… It stands unrivaled, both as an account of the species and as a source of illustrations of wild roses” (Rix, The Art of the Botanist, 215).
“The Genus Rosa was the masterpiece of Ellen Willmott and the culmination of a lifetimes’ study of the species. It ranks with Redoute’s Les Roses as one of the definitive and most beautiful works on roses and remains an important reference for rosarians today.” http://www.darvillsrareprints.com/ellen%20Willmott%20The%20Genus%20Rosa%201910.htm
Last I checked there was a copy available at the link here and it goes without saying that I desperately want this set;
Beyond the very expensive and rare original editions, with the color illustrations, there has been a facsimile edition made available in the early 1990’s. If you are interested in just reading the text (and do not find rough black and white photocopies of fine botanical art an abomination) then you may be able to track down a copy. I did. :o)
*most of my information about Ellen Willmott, and any direct quotes, are from this book