You might assume that Margaret Willes’s history of British working class gardening and Sarah Raven’s posh new outing to Sissinghurst would be breaking out into fisticuffs if placed side-by-side on the same shelf. Willes’s book is a careful scholarly consideration of the evidence about Britain’s humblest plots, from medieval times onwards, where Sarah Raven’s is a rather glossier book about one of England’s most privileged gardeners, who embarked on the restoration of a former castle in 1930, just as the country was suffering the worst depression of the 20th century.
Willes’s new book follows her 2011 success, The Making of the English Gardener, which focused on the ordinary horticulturalist in Elizabethan and Stuart times. According to her introduction, when Willes announced her plan to write about working-class gardens, she was most often asked: “Do you mean allotments?” Demonstrating how very little we know generally about the variety of ways in which working-class people in Britain gardened.
Willes has worked tirelessly to amass evidence, and the illustrations and images included in the text are particularly evocative, and often also very poignant: Edwardian postcards, medieval maps, Seventies Tower Hamlets balconies, and a haunting image of a Mrs Dyble of Blackfriars Road, in 1939, tending her “glasshouse garden” on the roof of a factory. Willes has tracked down diaries, newspaper articles, reports from government inquiries, and autobiographies, all of which provide the book’s rich texture and make for delightful and often surprising reading.
So, a “History from Below”? Yes. Yet inevitably, a lot of Willes’s evidence comes not from working-class gardeners themselves, but from possibly helpful, possibly meddling middle-class sorts, determined to improve the lot of the downtrodden. Horticultural newspapers and political campaigns alike need to be treated with caution as evidence of working-class attitudes. Again, unavoidably, there is more in the book about nurserymen, park keepers and head gardeners – the male working class “made good” – than about the tantalising Mrs Dybles, making gardens in transient, unsanctioned spaces.
In contrast, uptown girl Sarah Raven, the well-respected garden and cookery writer, takes on Vita, the glamorous grandmother of her husband Adam Nicholson. Raven first went to Sissinghurst for a party and ended up living there: her book is full of evocative details of life in inherited space among someone else’s objects, walls and plants – sleeping in Vita’s own bed, pruning her roses. And the book itself is a sort of mutant family effort, quoting huge chunks from Vita’s own garden columns with overlain commentary by Raven.
“Lavish” is the keyest of Vita’s key words here, and Raven does an elegant job of deconstructing in detail the Sissinghurst planting style that resulted, with many shrubs and few herbaceous plants. Vita’s bugbear was anything that smacked of a “Scrimp” or a “Stint”: “There’s nothing stingy about roses,” she wrote, of a plant she loved passionately. The initial purchase of Sissinghurst Castle and its adjacent 500-acre farm certainly required an unstingy sum; as did the consequent frequent massive orders from Hilliers Nursery.
But despite the impression of conspicuous consumption, Raven’s book also quietly reveals the more complicated story behind the apparent ease of inherited wealth. Sissinghurst is built between the remaining walls of an Elizabethan castle, but it served time in the Seven Years’ War as a prisoner-of-war camp; became the local parish workhouse; and was latterly used as a rubbish tip: the Nicholsons excavated both ploughshares and bedsteads in their efforts to create useable flowerbeds.
And Vita was deeply influenced by the garden philosophy of William Robinson, author of the Victorian bestseller The Wild Garden, who wrote approvingly, if possibly inaccurately, of the “happy-go-lucky gardens of poor cottagers”. So did working-class gardeners contribute to grander designs? Margaret Willes argues that the compartment style of “garden rooms”, seen at Sissinghurst and its famous contemporary, Hidcote, owed much to the cottage garden. For me, though, this smells more of Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens touring the Surrey lanes in a pony cart with a picnic, searching for “the vernacular”, than of real give-and-take.
So Vita Sackville-West and Britain’s working class might seem at first glance to have little in common. Almost oppositional, you could even venture. Yet both books, in a way, show how determined people can be in pursuit of greater colour and richness in life. Margaret Willes includes a black and white photograph from a Bournville Trust report of 1941, showing a working-class woman in a Birmingham back alley, with long planting boxes mounted on the walls of her house, plants climbing up to the first floor windows. It is difficult to look at Sissinghurst, after seeing this tiny, beautiful and lavish garden, and see any difference in their makers’ desires, other than scale.