BOOKS; IN BRIEF

2 The Virago Book of Women Gardeners edited by Deborah Kellaway (pounds 16.99).

Although devised for browsing through and savouring gardening pensees, rather than actually finding answers to specific horticultural questions, this book gives a fascinating historical perspective - especially in highlighting what a turning-point the 1890s proved for women gardeners. Before Gertrude Jekyll's time, gentility forbade most ladies from actually doing, rather than just planning, the gardening: "Unfortunately, one's hands belong not only to oneself but to the family," wrote Mrs Theresa Earle in 1897, while extolling the merits of lashings of Vaseline, "or better yet, a mixture of glycerine and starch", to hide those tell-tale green fingers. "If only I could dig and plant myself," pined Elizabeth von Armin in 1898, then confessing to feverish furtive digs during her servants' dinner hours, before dashing back to the house to "look languid just in time to save my reputation".

Gertrude Jekyll, on the other hand, whom the book's editor describes with rather catty respect as "a dumpy little woman who towers over the other garden writers of the 20th century" would even make her own tools if she didn't have the right ones to hand, and her bracingly bossy tones are a tonic throughout. Elsewhere, Colette describes the ongoing envy between herself and a Paris neighbour - she for his double flowering cherries, he for her purple sage; Vita Sackville West is quietly inspired about Sissinghust; Germaine Greer is noisier in recommending that we all kill a rabbit a day to save our trees and Alice B Toklas gets very emotional about Gertrude's vegetables. The volume is probably worth the cover price for Constance Spry's pot pourri recipe alone, though I'll carp and say it could have been made more practical with a subject index. Still, as Jill Tweedie put it in Letters from a Faint-Hearted Feminist: "we also serve who only stand and whine."

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