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 member of this circle. He was not beautiful, although Shulman tells us that “like many ugly people he had nice eyes.” He had a harelip, the external symptom of a cleft palate “acquired, so it was thought in the family, when his pregnant mother was surprised by a chimney sweep.” So he suffered dreadfully as a child at the hands of
physicians who themselves still half believed that the condition was caused by maternal frights. The standard procedures involved hot tongs, sulphuric acid, and metal bridles; but in spite of these ministrations he could not speak intelligibly, and until he was fifteen the only person who could properly understand him was his mother.
That a youth so disadvantaged should fall irreversibly in love with Aubrey Herbert, who had no disadvantages at all, might seem like a prelude to disaster. And so it proved, but it was an extended, tuneful prelude. Herbert coped with the situation, it would appear, by genial indifference. Farrer did everything he could to make himself interesting. He wrote novels and verse plays, with diminishing success, in which his situation—his hatred for his own family and his infatuation with an inappropriate love object—was set out in various easily cracked codes. To the utter horror of his relatives he “became a Buddhist” and wore Oriental robes. And he pursued the childhood interest for which he truly displayed talent, for botany, gardening, and the collection of alpine flowers.
If many gardens can be explained as Machines for Needing Me—devices to assuage widowhood or the terrors of retirement—alpine gardens are particularly demanding. The plants that are chosen to grow in them are small and specialized in their native habitat. Whether in the Alps of Switzerland or China, or other countries, they spend the winter under a blanket of snow, which is not the same thing as the cold and damp to be expected in an English garden. They hate damp, and will rot at the necks if left to its mercy. They are used to hot summers, and to periods of dryness, or to an underground source of water that must never be stagnant. “Perfect drainage” is the ideal. If they can be grown on a vertical surface, so that the rain is never allowed to soak into their rosettes, that might be excellent. But of course in the long run they are going to need water. You see the problem.
The great professional growers of alpine plants—“alpines”—today often use a system which bears no visible resemblance to high mountains: they use an alpine house, which is like a greenhouse but designed for maximum lateral ventilation. Within this structure, the plants sit in individual pots on trays of grit. So desirable are these rare species to amateurs in the field that in any publicly displayed alpine house the pots will be wired to an alarm system, like works of art.
A great rock garden, such as the ones in the botanical gardens of Edinburgh, Kew, or Munich, can do nearly everything to imitate geological formation and soil conditions. What it cannot imitate is climate. In an alpine house you can do this with watering devices and growing lights. The super-specialized high-altitude plants that are found on the equator can only be grown, away from their habitat, in such structures.
Farrer’s garden, at his parent’s estate in North Yorkshire, took seriously the challenge to replicate the native growing conditions of the plants. He created a garden on a cliff by a lake:
Over the years he devised many methods of seeding it, including lowering men down the cliff on rope ladders and, so it is said, rowing a small boat out into the middle of the lake and shooting at the cliff-face from a rifle loaded with seed. The results were gratifying: the cliff broke into flower. It bloomed so heartily that Farrer thought he had established a self-sustaining colony of alpines, to speak for him in perpetuity. “As for me,” he wrote, “the sight makes me say Nunc dimittis; so far and away more satisfactory is it than any other thing that I have yet achieved upon this sinful and ineffectual earth.” But in time they failed, and the cliff is empty now.
They failed in the long term, these colonies, because it was not in Farrer’s power to lay on the right climatic conditions for their success. In every other respect he was able and willing to indulge his alpines, for he felt toward them
a personal force of attraction such as no other plant can hope to rival—the attraction of limitless courage, of their stubborn individuality, of their indomitable ingenuity against difficulty, far up in the grim and lonely places of the world.
It was to these grim and lonely places that Farrer went in search of new plants. He was tough and determined and unsparing of others in his retinue. He once, in China, sent a servant “thousands of feet down the Himalayan pass to fetch Northanger Abbey and when this man, who couldn’t read in any language, struggled back with Emma, showed little clemency.” The places he visited were often hostile, the conditions unhealthy. But when it was suggested he might come home he pointed out to Herbert that he could not very well live at home while his family were there, and he had no means or wish to live anywhere else in England, unless Herbert wanted a lodgekeeper. Herbert did not respond to this broad hint—in part, no doubt, because he was now married, and his wife was no great admirer of Farrer’s personality. So there was an element of moral blackmail in Farrer’s endless clambering through high altitudes, as if he was saying to Herbert: the only alternative to this life of privation would be life with you.
The blackmail failed, and Farrer died in Burma in 1920, leaving some twenty publications of which The English Rock Garden (two volumes, 1919) is the one most treasured, revered indeed by many a gardener. In her preface Shulman calls Farrer a great prose stylist, but this is not quite what she argues in the body of the book itself. She says he changed garden writing for good, that he “dragged garden writing into the area of belles-lettres,” that he was a garden snob:
Everything he admired was what we would today call “good taste” in the garden; and he is at the head of that extensive tribe who made such matters as the choice of single over double flowers, of small narcissus over large, of blue flowers over orange, of scent over size, of species over garden cultivars, of simple petals over ruffled, of flatheaded chrysanthemums over globular, incurved varieties into a means by which a refined sensibility might be advertised, or a coarse one betrayed.
All this is true, I have no doubt, and it is entertaining to encounter such animus in horticulture, as when Farrer describes the globular show chrysanthemum as “a moulting mop dipped in stale lobster sauce.” But these flowers have outlived Farrer’s prejudices and his prose style, and his emulators can be as intolerable on the page as he must have been in person.