Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Down the Garden Path

How can you resist a memoir that begins like this:

I bought my cottage by sending a wireless to Timbuctoo from the Mauretania, at midnight, with a fierce storm lashing the decks.

I couldn't.  But, then, I already knew what I was getting when I purchased Down the Garden Path by Beverly Nichols.  Years ago I had read his memoir trilogy in which he described his efforts to rehabilitate the house and gardens at Merry Hall:  Merry Hall, Laughter on the Stairs, and Sunlight on the Lawn.

I'm not a gardener but even I loved his accounts of gardening exploits and English country living in the years after World War II.  I was excited when I saw that my favorite little local bookstore carried the Merry Hall trilogy.  When I realized that they were carrying even more of Nichols' books I decided to treat myself to Down the Garden Path, his initial foray into garden writing. 

Published in 1932 it unexpectedly became a great hit.  Nichols was already an established writer who had a reputation throughout the 1920's as a partying playboy, friends with Noel Coward and Anita Loos. So it was somewhat of a surprise when he published a book about gardening.   He expected it would be mostly ignored, but it wasn't.  According to the new forward, written by Nichols' biographer Bryan Connon, The Gardening Club of America declared it "one of the most delectable and diverting garden books ever published."

Nichols has a wonderful way with words, although his turns of phrase are old fashioned early 20th Century phrases.  And of course he is describing another time, 1928-1931, a time when master-servant relationship existed, when people like Nichols had to deal with "the servant problem".   By the time Nichols wrote the Merry Hall books, World War II was over and upper class Britons were more or less resigned to the fact that life had changed.  (They didn't know how to move on to "post-servant"  phase, but they realized they were going to be servantless.)  But at the time this book was written the landed class was still in denial.

I'm not much of a gardener (ok I'm not at all a gardener) but even I could have a beautiful garden if I could employ ... a gardener.   Nichols has a gardener to do the heavy lifting and that leaves him time to putter in the garden.  And write books about it.  Which is marvelous for we readers.

I've already lent it to my best friend H who is the possessor of the complete set of Merry Hall books.  It probably will make the rounds of the book club too.