The Morville Year

The English passion for gardening, which George Orwell identified (along with bad teeth) as being among our chief national characteristics, has unearthed many writers of unusual talent and scholarship, from Vita Sackville-West to Richard Mabey; it has also given ground to far too many ladies for whom publishing a lavishly illustrated book about their own landscaped acres has been misconstrued as a pro­fession. Katherine Swift, fortunately, belongs to the former category.

A rare-book librarian in Oxford and Dublin, she became a full-time gardener and writer in 1988, contributing a column to the Times and a series of pieces to the gardening journal Hortus. The book that emerged at the end of that series, The Morville Hours, was based on the medieval Book of Hours, telling the story not only of the history of the house in Shropshire where Swift had come to live, but the story of plants, plant-hunters, plant-painters and planting. Beautifully written and engaging, it became a bestseller. The Morville Year is somewhat in the same vein, with a dust jacket similarly inspired by the Limbourg brothers' Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, but more closely tied to the seasons, to the weather and to 105 selected columns from the Times.

Once again, the charm of Swift's writing is that it combines acute observation of nature, creative day-dreaming and scholarly musing. She addresses us as frankly and unselfconsciously as a friend. There is something either interesting or useful to know on every page - whether it's how to train wisteria, the origin of Wordsworth's daffodils, or whether Shakespeare's Captain Fluellen in Henry V really wears a leek in his hat. Like Robin Lane Fox's, her writing is all the better for being immersed in an alternative yet complementary field of scholarship: she looks at landscape and individual plants with a historian's eye. She tells us, for instance, that one of the curses of the modern farmer's life, the rabbit, was introduced to this country by the Normans:

[Rabbits were] a valuable addition to their diet, and, as such, great efforts were made to keep them in, rather than to keep them out. Their owners built warrens for them, specially constructed with a moat or water-filled ditch around the perimeter, to stop them sloping off and getting eaten by someone else.

This segues into a fantasy, after her cowslip meadow has all its flowers nibbled off, of widen­ing a nearby drain to form a moat, complete with drawbridge.

Many of us will have shared her joy, rage, bafflement and triumph, the moments of lunacy and the mistakes. Gardening is one of the most emotionally involving of all the arts, and the best writers about it (who may not always be the best gardeners) are those who, like Monty Don, come to it out of some inner compulsion, rather than as an extension of an aristocratic aesthetic sensibility, in the way of Penelope Hobhouse or Mary Keen.

Swift is a fairly conventional English gardener: she has her lovely topiary, her favourite roses and apples - just the sort of thing lapped up by The Yellow Book, which lists gardens open for charity. But what makes her books interesting is her knowledge, and her feelings. The gardener, like Eve in paradise, is always being tempted:

It was then that I saw them, across the room: bunches of pale, pale anemones, silver-white, with a wash of dusky pink on the backs of their petals and the largest boss of sooty black stamens I had ever seen, as thick and luxuriant as the richest, deepest velvet. They were absolutely ravishing. Where did they come from, what was their name, how could I get some, how could I grow some? I had to have them.

Though the second and fourth sentences are otiose, any gardener will recognise the sentiments. This is someone as interested in the wild flowers growing on a traffic island (much to the fury of commuters) as in more obvious creations such as the poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay's Little Sparta, or the Arcadian Trebah gardens in Cornwall.
To most people of almost any other nationality, this passion is inexplicable. We almost all like looking at lovely gardens, as we enjoy eating a delicious meal, but the idea that getting down and dirty to make it so could be a life-transforming pleasure rather than peasants' hard labour is quintessentially English. For those bitten by this strange passion, it is about what Kipling described in his poem "The Glory of the Garden":

Our England is a garden, and such gardens
are not made
By singing:-"Oh, how beautiful!" and
sitting in the shade,
While better men than we go out and
start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths
with broken dinner-knives.

If you have ever used a broken dinner knife to grub out a weed - or just your own sore fingernails - this is the book for you. l

The Morville Year
Katherine Swift
Bloomsbury, 336pp, £18.99

Amanda Craig's latest novel, "Hearts and Minds", is published by Abacus (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?