The secret garden…
“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”
I imagine, for most of us, our first encounter with a garden in fiction will be Frances Hodgson Burnett’s wonderful book, The Secret Garden. The garden, locked away by a grieving man, is where Mary Lennox, with the help of a friendly robin, and two new friends, discovers a hidden world full of magic and life that transforms all their lives.
“The Secret Garden was what Mary called it when she was thinking of it. She liked the name, and she liked still more the feeling that when its beautiful old walls shut her in no one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place. The few books she had read and liked had been fairy-story books, and she had read of secret gardens in some of the stories. Sometimes people went to sleep in them for a hundred years, which she had thought must be rather stupid. She had no intention of going to sleep, and, in fact, she was becoming wider awake every day which passed at Misselthwaite.”
Much has been made during the last couple of years of the healing power of nature. That is what Mary’s secret garden does, for her, for her sickly cousin and for her grieving uncle.
The garden as paradise
I have written quite a few books in which gardens feature as a major player and one of the joys, for me, is the research. Whether it’s just looking up when a flower is likely to be in bloom, the butterflies that rely on nettles to feed their caterpillars, or simply which month a flower represents.
One of my very special memories is a talk given by Penelope Hobhouse at the lost garden of Aberglasny on the Gardens of Persia. I was seeking inspiration for a new “sheikh” book and here’s the book I bought that day, which gave me the “paradiso”, a great walled garden in the desert that reflects heaven, in The Sheikh’s Guarded Heart.
“The soft murmur of the breeze will pour forth its music;
The old world will find youth anew, the Judas tree will offer its purple cup to the jasmine,
As the eye of the narcissus gazes at the anemone, after the long sorrow of exile, the warbling nightingale
Will take flight towards the shelter of the rose.” Hafez 1324-89
Even in The Sheikh’s Convenient Princess, set in a fortress on a rocky coast… “At the bottom of the steps, sheltered from the sea by stone walls and from the heat of the summer by pergolas dripping with blue racemes of wisteria, scented with the tiny white stars of jasmine, was a terrace garden.”
It all started with a pot plant
My love affair with gardens began in my second book with a potted plant. When Casey, my heroine in A Point of Pride, marries a man with a serious grudge in order to save her father from bankruptcy, she finds herself living not in the beautiful house that her father had built for her – sold in a last panicked attempt to stave off his creditors, and marriage to Gil Blake – but in a small, terraced cottage with only a concrete backyard.
On that first day, a new neighbour gives her a potted plant, a bright yellow polyanthus, to welcome her to her new home. Casey places it on the windowsill. It provides a splash of colour in a world that has, for the moment, turned very dark. That small splash of brightness is the beginning of her transformation of the cottage, her life and, finally, the heart of the man she has always loved.
The garden as metaphor
And I’m not alone in finding inspiration in a garden and using it as a metaphor for healing and discovery.
Kate Morton‘s The Forgotten Garden, set across three generations, is another book in which a garden is a major player.
“It was such a pleasure to sink one’s hands into the warm earth, to feel at one’s fingertips the possibilities of the new season.”
The magical garden
Garden Spells, the magical debut by Sarah Addison Allen, was given to me by my daughter, who’d bought it while on holiday in Spain and was desperate to share. This isn’t one of those cool, rose-scented English gardens. This is an enchanted garden, in the southern states of America. It mysteriously blooms all year round. It has an apple tree that tosses its fruit at the feet of the unwary, tempting them to bite into the fruit and know their future. All is well until a stranger moves in next door, an ivy vine creeps into the garden and things begin to spin out of control.
“She sometimes thought she was going crazy. Her first thought when she woke up was always how to get him out of her thoughts. And she would keep watch, hoping to see him next door, while plotting ways to never have to see him again.”
This is a book filled with magic and I cannot begin to tell you how much I love it!
The garden as a place of danger
The garden, in fiction, is a place of beauty and promise. It’s a constant source of hidden delights, secret places for lovers to meet. But it can be fraught with mystery and, for the unwary, there is danger.
In Marrying the Major, an historical novel by Joanna Maitland, in which Hugo Stratton returns from war a disfigured and prickly recluse, heiress Emma Fitzwilliam is drawn into the garden, searching out elusive scents and, half dreaming, intoxicated, loses herself in its beauty.
“Was this the secret garden of the fairy tales, appearing only once in a lifetime and then only to those in love?” But the man who found her there and “…was going to kiss her, to reawaken those wonderful feelings that had been haunting her, it seemed, for ever…” was not Hugo, but his rakehell brother. The garden has tempted her into danger and it’s all there in her desperate cry. “You have ruined me.”
The garden is, of course, a wonderful place for the crime writer. Libby Sarjeant, Lesley Cookman‘s wonderful sleuth, is constantly falling over bodies, and when, in Murder in the Dark, an unidentified woman’s body is found in a remote garden in Kent, it’s her son, landscape gardener Adam Sarjeant, who comes under suspicion.
And then there’s the eeriness of Signature in Stone by Linda Lappin, set in Italy in the mysterious sculpture garden of Bomarzo, peopled with freaks and monsters.
“Entering a garden like Bomarzo was like succumbing to a dream. Every detail was intended to produce a specific effect on the mind and body, to excite and soothe the senses like a drug. To awaken the unconscious self.”
But always as a place of romance…
But a lovely garden always brings us back to romance and in More Than a Millionaire, Sophie Weston draws us in with… “Abby had found the rose grotto at Hacienda Montijo almost by accident.” The sentence has everything. The heroine, the garden and a mystery. It reminds me so much of Mary Stewart, another writer for whom the garden was a magical place.
I’ve never been much into gardening but you’ve introduced me to a world of possibilities. Lovely.
Thank you so much, Liz. And s belated happy birthday.
I became interested in gardening – or perhaps just my garden – when I downsized and no longer had four children at home to cope with. I love it, now, as long as someone else does the digging! And thank you, Liz, for the mention!
Not very keen on digging, either, Lesley. Do a lot of stuff in pots!
I love mine, except in the hayfever season, when I can’t actually go out to enjoy it. Unless it’s raining 😉 Thanks for the mention, too, Liz. Marrying the Major is one of my favourites among my own books. There’s something about a wounded hero…
Commiserations on the hay-fever, Joanna. That’s a miserable affliction. And I, too, love a wounded hero. A lot of mine carry wounds, although not all their scars are visible.
I remember that my then editor at M&B said that she really loved a scarred hero and so Marrying the Major had a fair wind behind it when I first sent it to her. Many of my heroes, like yours, are wounded but Hugo is the only one who had visible scars. So far…
I have just re-visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. I first went in 1998, only a few years after the restoration began began, and it was magical. It was as if something wonderful was waking up after a long sleep and you could see things emerging – but much remained hidden and unknown.
Seeing it now, when it is almost completely restored, was, alas, something of a disappointment – I’m sure Mary Lennox would have felt the same. Yes, it’s beautiful, but what’s happened to that sense of wonder now you can see exactly what’s there?
Ah, yes, Elizabeth the magic is in the uncovering of secrets.