Saturday, May 13, 2006

Review: Down the Garden Path

Review of: Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols (facsimile by Timber Press, 2004)
"I bought my cottage by sending a wireless to Timbuctoo from the Mauretania, at midnight, with a fierce storm lashing the decks.

It sounds rather vulgar, but it is true."
Thus opens the first of Nichols' Allways trilogy books, Down the Garden Path, which tells the story of Nichols' attempts and triumphs in his first garden. As with all of Nichols' books on his gardens (including the Merry Hall trilogy and the Sudbrook Cottage tales beginning with Garden Open Today), the text bubbles along in a merry froth of gardener's enthusiasm bordering on mania, from superstitiously-laden rambles (where one cannot go straight at an interesting spot of color in the winter garden but rather stick to a prescribed path, lest one miss other interesting sights), to nearly fainting dead away at the sight of a particularly gorgeous flower. But given the writing style of the day (and Nichols' style does bring to mind every now and then), and his passion for life in general and gardening in particular, his excesses are forgiveable, while his rabid enthisasm lends vitality and character to the story rather than detracting from it.

This is the first of his gardening books, and Nichols was still a young writer at the time; hence the style is a trifle more affected and less developed than his later books, such as Garden Open Today. Yet the charm that infuses all of his garden books is in full evidence here.

In this story, Nichols purchases a cottage and acreage he dubs Allways, and proceeds to develop the badly-neglected garden, from planting a wood (and on his father's gruff advice, starting his own willows from cuttings rather than spending any more on buying trees) to placing a statue of Antinous. His desire for a pond and the resulting mound of dirt -- he'd quite forgotten that when one digs a pond, the dirt must go somewhere -- leads to an attempt at a rock garden, and with a great expense laid out on rocks, ends up with a disastrous lump that reminds him "of those puddings made of spongecake and custard which are studded with almonds." A deep sense of the aesthetic in decorating and flower arranging leads Nichols to own a good three cupboards' worth of vases and containers, and he even goes so far as to have part of a wall knocked out and niches installed so that he can put up frames over the niches with cream velvet stretched over them and insert flowers through the velvet and into vases behind, hence creating living paintings. Readers may not wish to go quite that far, but it's hard not to take pleasure in the ingenuity.

But the most charming aspect of the book is the people who pop up in Nichols' garden, many of them composites of friends and neighbors rather than actual individuals. There is gentle and angelic Ms. Hazlitt, his former nurse and teacher, who is one of the few women Nichols wholely respects. There is the overly-obvious Undine Wilkins, who drapes herself artistically over various benches and tree trunks, working hard to create an irresistible picture, all the while self-deprecatingly calling herself "such a toon moose" -- her unfortunate and highly-affected pronunciation of "town mouse" that leaves modern readers with a vision of in a floaty voile gown. There is the irritatingly efficient Mrs. M. and her definite garden opinions -- who is caught in the act of cheating in her own garden by deftly inserting potted plants. And there is the Professor, whose musings on life and the universe make one slightly dizzy.

Reading Down the Garden Path is rather like sitting down for a conversation with Nichols himself. He speaks directly to the reader, never overwhelming the reader with Latin, nor going on about soil types and amendments, but always entertaining and always either in rapture or despair over some event or other in the garden. Anyone who has ever gasped aloud at a fine plant specimen at the nursery or has broken out into a lurid string of curses over dead or damaged plants can understand and sympathize.

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