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A Friend, a Booke, and a Garden

John Evelyn’s “Elysium Britannicum” and European Gardening

edited by Therese O’Malley and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn
Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 310 pp., $45.00


Three of the liveliest and most popular of seventeenth-century prose writers are known to us not through the work they brought out in their lifetime but through manuscripts first published in the nineteenth century. John Aubrey, the antiquarian (1626–1697), never printed his Brief Lives. They appeared in bowdlerized editions in 1810 and 1898. Debowdlerized, they were turned into a long-running stage show in the 1960s.

The diary of Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) was not deciphered until 1825, and the first full standard edition really came much later (1893–1899). Macaulay fell at once upon this work, and a remark to one of his sisters in 1831 makes it clear how it was appropriated by his imagination, his “fancy.” Through the diary, says Macaulay,

I seem to know every inch of Whitehall. I go in at Hans Holbein’s gate, and come out through the matted gallery. The conversations which I compose between great people of the time are long, and sufficiently animated: in the style, if not with the merits, of Sir Walter Scott’s. The old parts of London, which you are sometimes surprised at my knowing so well, those old gates and houses down by the river, have all played their part in my stories.

And yet Pepys himself does not appear as a key figure in Macaulay’s History. He is acknowledged as a source, but not made explicit as a presence. Pepys’s true fame as a character begins in the twentieth century.

And then there is John Evelyn (1620–1706), who published many books in his lifetime but whose Diary was first printed in 1818, with a preface acknowledging that, while much of its contents “may appear too unimportant to meet the public eye,” some particulars “may gratify the curiosity of those who are inquisitive after the mode in which their ancestors conducted business”:

Thus, when mention is made of great men going after dinner to attend a Council of State, or the business of their particular Offices, or the Bowling-Green, or even the Church; of an Hour’s Sermon being of a moderate length; of ladies painting their faces being a novelty; or of their receiving visits of Gentlemen whilst dressing, after having just risen out of bed; of the female attendant of a lady of fashion travelling on a pillion behind one of the footmen, and the footmen riding with swords;—such things, in the view above-mentioned, may not be altogether incurious.

One opens the diary at random to find that, in Rome on January 7, 1645,

A sermon was preached to the Jews, at the Ponte Sisto, who are constrained to sit till the hour is done; but it is with so much malice in their countenances, spitting, humming, coughing, and motion, that it is almost impossible they should hear a word from the preacher. A conversion is very rare.

A week later, Evelyn goes to the Ghetto with a Jewish acquaintance to witness a circumcision. A couple of pages on, he is admiring the Last Judgment painted by M. Angelo Buonarotti.

One opens the volume again, this time in the year 1657, September 15. Evelyn is in London. He describes a Turkish rope-dancer’s act, then the hairy woman Barbara Vanbeck:

Her very eye-brows were combed upwards, and all her forehead as thick and even as grows on any woman’s head, neatly dressed; a very long lock of hair out of each ear; she had also a most prolix beard, and mustachios, with long locks growing on the middle of her nose, like an Iceland dog exactly, the colour of a bright brown, fine as well-dressed flax. She was now married, and told me she had one child that was not hairy, nor were any of her parents, or relations. She was very well shaped, and played well on the harpsichord.

On the next page he examines John Tradescant’s museum, and sees two (live) Virginian rattlesnakes. On the page after, he and the congregation are taken prisoner at Holy Communion, charged with observing Christmas Day—“the superstitious time of the Nativity.”

Clearly there is no shortage of material in this diary. The Jews coughing through their compulsory sermon, the hairy woman playing the harpsichord, the Puritan soldiers holding their muskets against the congregation as they finish the Sacrament, the first pelican in St. James’s Park (“a melancholy water-fowl, brought from Astracan by the Russian Ambassador; it was diverting to see how he would toss up and turn a flat fish, plaice, or flounder, to get it right into his gullet at its lower beak which, being filmy, stretches to a prodigious wideness, when it devours a great fish”): I don’t see how one could expect more from a few pages turned at random.

But Evelyn has never quite commanded the same affection as Pepys or Aubrey, and a part of the reason for this is that what is invariably called his diary is rewritten—by himself, to be sure—and perhaps purged of any personal indiscretions. With Pepys we value the intimacy of his self-portrait. Opening a volume again at random we find:

A great part of the afternoon at nine-pins with my Lord and Mr. Hetly. I lost about 4s.

Supped with my Lord, and after that to bed.

This night I had a strange dream of bepissing myself, which I really did; and having kicked the clothes off, I got cold and found myself all muck-wet in the morning and had a great deal of pain in making water, which made me very melancholy.

One loses four shillings at ninepins, then one wets the bed: a plausible occasion for melancholy. But it is useless to expect this sort of thing from Evelyn, of whose diary Virginia Woolf wrote in 1920 that “he never used its pages to reveal the secrets of his heart, and all that he wrote might have been read aloud in the evening with a calm conscience to his children.”

Now this writing of a journal or diary in order to leave one’s family a record of some sort—particularly if one has done interesting things (as Evelyn undoubtedly had)—this is not only a natural and a valuable activity, it is a fundamental category of narrative. But Woolf goes on, rather shockingly:

If we wonder, then, why we still trouble to read what we must consider the uninspired work of a good man we have to confess, first that diaries are always diaries, books, that is, that we read in convalescence, on horseback, in the grip of death; second, that this reading, about which so many fine things have been said, is for the most part mere dreaming and idling; lying in a chair with a book; watching the butterflies on the dahlias; a profitless occupation which no critic has taken the trouble to investigate, and on whose behalf only the moralist can find a good word to say. For he will allow it to be an innocent employment; and happiness, he will add, though derived from trivial sources, has probably done more to prevent human beings from changing their religions and killing their kings than either philosophy or the pulpit.

One must not be so solemn as to be provoked by this tone of voice, nor, it would seem, so unsophisticated as to protest that it does scant justice to Evelyn. For the writing is uninspired, and the reading of it—on horseback!—a desultory activity that serves, at best, to keep us out of harm’s way.

But there is more to John Evelyn than this belletristic put-down would lead us to expect. There is more, first of all, to Evelyn’s subject—the virtuoso in the seventeenth century, the founding of the Royal Society, the theory and practice of gardening—and there is more to Evelyn as a person through whom these illuminating subjects can be approached. In the work under review, Evelyn’s hitherto unpublished Elysium Britannicum, we have the remains of an unfinished work (or all that has hitherto been found, for the editor holds out hope that other parts of the manuscript may still exist).

It is the missing masterpiece of the literature of gardening. Had its author managed intellectually to contain it, it would have been the successor to John Parkinson’s A Garden of Pleasant Flowers (1629) and the predecessor to Philip Miller’s The Gardeners Dictionary (1731). But the encyclopedism of the project proved too much for its author, and the great manuscript with its carefully enumerated additions and insertions remained unprinted, and much of it very probably suffered theproverbial fate of such material. It most likely ended up as liners for pie dishes, as curling papers and wrappers for spices.


When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, his friend and adviser John Evelyn suggested to him in a Panegyrick that he might found a body “that may improve practical and Experimental knowledge.” It is likely that Evelyn was responsible for securing Charles’s patronage for what became the Royal Society, of which he was one of twelve founding members, along with Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle (to be joined soon after by John Aubrey). The purpose of the society was to scrutinize the whole of nature, to investigate it by means of observations and experiments in order to hammer out, in the course of time, a more solid philosophy, that is to say, to lay the foundations of a new science, along the lines earlier proposed by Francis Bacon.

The experiments to be conducted on nature were, in the Baconian scheme, experimenta lucifera: experiments to bear light, that is to say experiments not made for profit but designed to discover causes and axioms, to give the stuff and material on which the inductive sciences were to be based. Bacon divided nature into three states: nature as it was in due course, nature as it erred and varied (that is to say natural prodigies such as the hairy woman), and nature “altered or wrought.” In the last division we find nature as molded by the hands of man, nature forced by art to do that which, without art, would not be done, nature forced and nature bonded. A study of the mechanical arts was proposed, however, not primarily because of its utility and the prospect it offered for profit (although that was to come into it later), but because nature was expected to reveal itself more readily under the vexations of art than in its freedom.^*

What might seem to modern eyes a pursuit quite distinct from that of science, the study of the history of the mechanical trades, is to a Baconian mind such as Evelyn’s nothing less than a part of the study of science, or “philosophy,” itself. The early scientists were after all very closely involved with technology, because they were busily inventing or refining the instruments with which they worked, just as an architect of the period might expect to design a crane. The task the Royal Society proposed for itself was enormous; it included the listing of all natural phenomena as well as all ways of modifying nature. That was why a society, with agreed procedures and programs and committees, was needed. The task was all-encompassing.

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