Virago £17.99 (436pp) £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Gardening Women by Catherine Horwood
The green-fingered rebels
Friday 18 June 2010
Gardening women: there seem to have been a lot of them over the last 400 years. The grand ones, the duchesses, may have felt it their due that they would be remembered long after they and their gardens were gone, but most of the others might have been astonished to find themselves regarded as any part of history. It is one of Catherine Horwood's aims in writing this book to accord these women greater respect and recognition than many of them received during their lifetimes.
A love of plants leads people in different directions, so Horwood includes more than just the cultivation or design of gardens. There are chapters on plant hunting, botanical illustration, scientific discovery, flower decoration, embroidery, herb and vegetable gardening and so on. Women whose names often crop up in garden history are there, like Mrs Delany, with her exquisite paper mosaics, her letters describing gardens and her friendship with the Duchess of Portland, patron of Georg Ehret and voracious collector of exotic plants.
But there are also many less familiar, such as Henrietta Moriarty, whose illustrations published in 1803 were described as "too good to be by a woman", or the widow "Mother Tubbys", a 16th-century weeder in the City of London, for whom an annual wage of 8 shillings represented a pay rise. The index of Gardening Women covers nearly 18 pages. Taken together with various appendices, credits, notes and bibliographies, it accounts for about a fifth of the whole book, giving a sense of how much research has gone into it. The text is well illustrated, with many curious and unfamiliar images, including a delightful 1940s jacket photograph showing a smiling woman with muscular arms holding three tall columns of terracotta flowerpots against her hessian-aproned front, proof that women are not afraid of heavy work.
There is a risk, however, to including so many women, and that is reader fatigue. In the early chapters a host of ladies (an appropriate word) file past so quickly that it is hard to keep track. Perhaps because it is now impossible to know about many of them as individuals, Horwood describes an improbable number as "passionate" about plants or gardening - some, after all, may just have had a passing interest that happened to get recorded. All to say, it would be better not to try to read the book straight through.
There are some linking themes, recognisable across the centuries. Marital difficulty or social disgrace could turn a woman to plants, and want of income lay behind some taking up the trowel, or more often, pen or paintbrush. For this reader at least, the book comes more to life in the later chapters, centring on women's education and the struggle for acceptance in the male-dominated workplace.
These people having lived more recently, more tends to be remembered about each, whether her chosen sphere was in the garden, the laboratory or in writing or illustration. Even with hindsight, knowing that she went on to make her own fame, it is painful to read of Beatrix Potter being sent away by Kew and the Linnaean Society when she tried to submit original research on fungi. Of the director of Kew she wrote in her diary, "I fancy he may be something of a misogynist". From the many other instances Horwood cites, he was not alone.
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