Monday, February 13, 2006

Of Cats, Chrysanthemums, and Georgian Follies

Review of Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols (Timber Press reissue, 1998)

Some fall in love with women; some fall in love with art; some fall in love with death.

I fall in love with gardens, which is much the same as falling in love with all three at once.

For a garden is a mistress, and gardening is a blend of all the arts, and if it is not the death of me, sooner or later, I shall be much surprised.

So opens Beverley Nichols marvelous Merry Hall, a classic in garden literature, reprinted by Timber Press. Merry Hall is one of the author's later gardening books, but written at the height of his writing career and at the height of his gardening style. It is the first book of a trilogy in which Nichols paints a humorous portrait of his years spent living in a Georgian manor, restoring it and its surrounding gardens to Georgian splendor.

As with any work of fiction, and Merry Hall, while based in fact, is a fictionalized tale, it is the characters who make the story. Nichols, as the narrator and protagonist, is effusive, energetic, opinionated, and open-hearted. His majordomo, Gaskin, looks after the house and Nichols himself. There is Oldfield, the gardener, who keeps the lilies and "t'chrysanthemums" in bloom, happily if allowed his own methods, grudgingly when forced to use innovative ideas -- and smugly, when the innovations fail. There are the indomitable Miss Emily and Our Rose, and their machinations in the floral shows. There is the mysterious Marius, who, it is hinted, might belong to the Secret Service.

And there are, of course, the cats named One, Two, Three, and Four. Alas, Two and Three succumbed to illness early on, in spite of intense nursing and penicillin injections from Gaskin. But One and Four live on.

If the descriptions of Nichols' life in Merry Hall are to be believed, one may get the impression that his life was one long lark, dashing from one social event to another, where most disasters were horticultural ones. While Nichols was highly social and an extraordinary novelist and garden writer, what is deliberately missing from this account is the darker side of Nichols' life, better described in his biography, Beverley Nichols: A Life by Bryan Connon. Nichols hungered for the life of a serious writer, but though he tackled many social issues of his day in his novels and columns, his fame wrapped around his garden writings, as it still does today. Bitter over what he viewed as a failed career, and increasingly resentful of his autocratic father, Nichols later penned his savage autobiographical novel, Father Figure -- which, like Merry Hall, was a work partially of fiction. In it Nichols portrayed his father as a ruthless brute, and described his own attempts at patricide in all the lurid detail of a confession magazine.

The contrast between the gothic darkness of Father Figure and the sparkling champagne wit of Nichols' garden books, including the Merry Hall trilogy (Merry Hall, Laughter on the Stairs, and Sunlight on the Lawn) only highlights the deep complexities of an extremely talented writer. Though Nichols may have been disappointed that readers favored his garden fare, gardeners themselves may rejoice that his best-loved works have survived.

And perhaps he needn't have been disappointed after all. Under the gleam of humor lie Nichols' strongest feelings about racism, religion, and world issues, within parables of gardens and floral shows, which makes them all the easier to slip past the reader and gently awaken one to the greater lessons that lie in the garden, and beyond.

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