In this piece from 1913 the children’s author Edith Nesbit observes her garden. It had been a mild but wet year. On this morning, Nesbit finds herself questioning her calendar – was it really cold enough to be November? She discovers the usual autumn offering – the white and yellow chrysanthemum and dahlias that one might expect at that time of year – but some unexpected ones too. She describes her excitement at finding“tiny scabious, pink and pearl”, “tall scarlet penstemons stood up like torches” and “campanulas with their blue and white bells”. For a moment Nesbit enjoys the beauty, until she realises summer has outstayed its welcome.
I wrote at the top of the paper “November the –” and then I got up to see which November day it was. The almanack hangs near the window, and I looked out.
Drifted leaves lay along the edges of the lawn like borders of fur to a velvet gown. The lilac’s deep summer green has faded till now it matches the glad tint it wore in April. The limes that June knew in ruffled robes of padded leafage now show their shapes through their tattered raiment of cloth of splendour. The beeches wear copper and gold, and the ivy is embroidered with the tufted crests which are its flowers. The hedges still are hung with green; only here and there Time has torn holes in their coats, and the lighter colour of the grass looks through.
In the orchard, where the silver of the lichens encrusts the trunks of the apple trees, a robin is singing his autumn song. It is as sweet as though he were a thrush in spring.
From the window one looks down on the second childhood of the lilac, the unconquered green of the jasmine. Wet leaves sparkle in the sun – there is a bed of snap-dragons still brave in royal crimson. I went back to my letter and added the number the almanack had taught me, as well as “Dear Sir,” but the window was open and the robins called insistently. It was not possible to believe the almanack. And, anyhow, the letter could wait. I went out.
There is a great patch of bracken opposite my door. It shone yellow and smooth, like fine goldsmith’s work, and above it the sky was blue. The ferns were green in the rockery, green as when there, in spring, the wood sorrel hangs its delicate wreaths. Green, too, the grass under the heavy-layered cedars. The air was not cold – many a June morning is colder – and along the alleys of the garden roses beckoned, red roses and pink and white.
There was foam of white and yellow chrysanthemums; but these one expects. Stout bushes of dahlias blazed in the sunshine, red and yellow and pink and purple. But dahlias, after all, are autumn flowers. They will stay with us till the first frost, blackening their beauty like a slander, makes them glad to disguise themselves in potato skins and hide under the staging of the greenhouse till better days come, when a poor flower stands a chance. But the roses – not many, but here and there, and not fine, but yet roses – soft-tinted and scented faintly like treasures long laid by …. There were some scores of them – and there were other things. Little gay splashes of colour that caught the eye and held it. It seemed as though the garden had armed herself with all her strength to resist the might of Winter approaching. It was like a miracle, for never can I remember that flowers like these bloomed in a November garden. There were evening primroses like fairy smocks hung out to dry; there were little red fuchsias, like ballet dancers with purple petticoats, and the flat china saucers of Japanese anemones.
There was tiny scabious, pink and pearl, and there was the pink and pearl of carnations. Tall scarlet penstemons stood up like torches; also there was a carpet of that blue and bushy stuff which is like plush made into flowers, and verbenas which are like the Berlin wool-work of my childhood. In just such reds and purples and greens did one work the slippers for the favourite uncle in the days when one had favourite uncles and they had slippers.
I was not so much surprised to find a geranium blood-red and undaunted, but who could have expected campanulas with their blue and white bells, or arabis flowering for the fourth time this year? There was a ring of sunflowers round the sun-dial – their bright heads dropped a little but they were sunflowers right enough. Among a misty tangle of travellers’ joy in the wild walk I found a foxglove – a thin, pale, furry foxglove – and in the grass quite near it the small persistent scarlet of poppies.
At this I told myself how beautiful it all was. At once I knew that I did not really find it beautiful, and that the little summer flowers had outstayed their welcome. The paths were muddy underfoot, and the roses, lacking court of green leaves, looked like exiled queens gone a-begging. The little orphan poppies and the lonely foxglove were sadder than bare earth, and the sunflowers made the heart ashamed. I would rather have seen my garden sober in brown and grey than decked with these poor fineries hoarded from happier days. It was as though some lady once beautiful in youth and maturity, and now come on old age, had painted her faded face and chosen to wear in her grey hair the daisy chains of childhood or the crown of red roses while women wear for love.
These trivial gauds cannot hide the truth; they only obscure its dignity. Better bare boughs and the winds of winter and the plain earth that we use for graves. For when the last trace of these pitiful vanities has faded into the smooth, dark mould there will be nothing to stand between us and the memory of the garden in her bridal gauze of blossom, with daffodils and purple flags on every hem of her garment, and primroses and all soft, sweet spring patterns woven on the web of it. We shall once more have against our heart the full splendour of the garden as she was when the roses were big and red like puckered velvet, with sharp thorns and large green leaves, and the scent of dreams in the heart of every rose – when arbour and arch were thick with a snow thatch of round white roses, and the little rosy rose they call Dorothy was as pretty and as bright as the song of a lark – when the jasmine stars shone in the dark heaven of their leaves, and the peonies were larger than roses and as lovely as any rose – when we walked in the garden of an evening and watched the stars come out between the elms, and the pink roses turn white to match the moon as she rose over the three poplars – days when the grass at dawn is dewy as the eyes of a child, and at noon warm as the heart of a friend, when you hear the cuckoo calling and see the blue of the sky and of the swallow against the sky.
I came in and added to my letter “In reference to your communication of yesterday’s date,” with more to match. It seemed the only thing to do. I shall go on writing that sort of letter with much prose about Bimetallism and Welsh Disestablishment and things like that, and I shall not again be friends with my garden till she has laid aside every rag of her ancient glories. When once she has renounced the last of them I shall begin to love her again, to count the days that lie between me and the first gold-ball, the first crocus, the first violet. And when my garden’s first awakening bud ends my counting, it will not be in prose that I shall write of her beauty and of my love.
[See also: From 1972: Living with inflation]