Virago, £30, Yale UP, £25

Book review: Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden, By Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven; Gardens of the British Working Class By Margaret Willes


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.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power