The recent craze for short books (this one was published first in England by a firm called Short Books) gives a welcome home to what used to be known, when someone like Macaulay or de Quincey wrote them, as essays. We will all still read essays happily, it turns out, as long as we are only asked to read them one at a time. We have an appetite for a subject, even a taxing subject, explained at some length—Dava Sobel’s Longitude was exemplary in this respect—providing we can see that the account will not go on and on. We like to entertain ourselves by informing ourselves, and we like to inform ourselves without ulterior motive. No doubt it is true that many of the readers of Longitude were also people who enjoyed messing about in boats (so the subject had pleasant associations for them), but they did not turn to Ms. Sobel in order to learn navigation. Rather, they took a disinterested delight in the history of a navigational problem.
The book under review is a short, funny masterpiece about the history of rock gardening, plant collecting, and gardening prose style. A further appeal comes from its astute profile of an extraordinary, and not at all pleasant, character, a member of the English landowning class such as were to be found at Balliol College, Oxford, at the end of the nineteenth century. Nicola Shulman has a quite specific notion of what such young men were like:
Although [they] were mostly born in 1880, it could be said of them that they were the first to mani-fest that distinctly post-Victorian quality, an antipathy to growing up. Notions of duty and worldly ambition repelled them somewhat. They were interested in adventure; for them, the memorable undergraduates of the day were not the ones with their noses aimed at the cabinet, but those on whom the greatest gifts of nature and fortune sat most lightly.
One of these was Raymond Asquith, son of a leading Liberal politician, who combined beauty with academic abilities so outstanding that, Shulman tells us, “the Regius Professor of Greek took off his hat to him if they passed in the street.” Asquith would eventually be killed in action on the Somme:
The gallantry of his manner of dying, chatting and smoking so his men would not be afraid, put the final burnish to his reputation and served Churchill with another opportunity for the sort of eulogy he had exercised the year before, upon the death of Rupert Brooke.
Another exemplar, but rather less handsome, was Aubrey Herbert, son of the Earl of Carnarvon and future hero of Gallipoli, who earned the distinction of twice refusing the throne of Albania. Herbert also died young, we eventually learn, “of an infection acquired when, in an attempt to slow the deterioration of his eyesight, the doctors removed his teeth.” John Buchan based the novel Greenmantle on him.
Reginald Farrer was, to an extent limited by family funds, a …