Wednesday Book: The flowering of a sexual revolution

Wednesday Book: The Pursuit of Paradise: A Social History of Gardens and Gardening by Jane Brown, (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99)
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THE JOY of gardening, from a writer's point of view, is that it can provide a metaphor for almost anything. For Jane Brown gardens are, among other things, an extension of the masculine military tradition, as men have sought to impose order on the environment by placing flowers and vegetables in impeccably straight lines, restricting women to menial tasks. Alternatively, she sees gardening as "a means of fulfilment for those who in some way seem to have failed the great examination board of life".

She attributes a vital historical role to horticulture, believing that Britain's 18th-century pleasure gardens may have provided the safety-valve that headed off a revolution. And then, of course, there is the sex. Brown informs us that the 1963 Profumo scandal, set in the delightful grounds of the Astors' Cliveden estate, represented "a highlight in pleasure- garden history". But the real boom period of desire among the dahlias began 10 years later when Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville-West, published his mother's diary of her steamy affair with Violet Trefusis. This convinced people that gardening was sexy. It became apparent that a garden can be more stressful than a mistress, "constantly demanding sweated exertions and a tender touch". She believes this may explain why many so many committed gardeners live alone, having only a limited supply of passion.

One of her favourite spots is a rectory in Northamptonshire, whose rambling garden boasts secret corners, enclosed spaces and a folly, and where flowers, fruit and vegetables are jumbled together. The result is "an amazement at the infinite variety of creation seen in detail, and an understanding of the tension between chaos and order that is at the heart of things". Her book is a lot like that, pivoting dangerously on the line between chaos and order, full of delightful surprises, but occasionally lacking coherence. Every gardener knows how it is. You start off with the perfect planting plan, you buy your seeds, you lovingly put them in the ground, but come summer and some key elements fail, others aren't as you envisaged, and weeds help destroy the symmetry.

In her foreword, Brown suggests that she is trying to do for gardening what G M Trevelyan did for history in his English Social History (1944), by tracing the development of gardens other than those of the rich and powerful. But a true gardening social history would include northern England and Scottish 19th-century flower societies: miners and factory workers competed to raise working-class flowers such as auriculas and pinks. And it would have more than three-quarters of a page on allotments.

This is really more of a spiritual history, examining the inspiration behind garden design over the centuries. It is also a personal crusade for gardens to be more like that rectory. She flays about at a wide range of targets, including, surprisingly, the Church, that she accuses of being so self-absorbed it's abandoned the earth and encouraged the schism between town and country. Where churchyards were once God's acre, rich in wild flowers, they are now poorly maintained or covered with tarmac.

Brown embraces a raft of fashionable causes, including Feng Shui, women's liberation, organic gardening and wildlife conservation, and disapproves of 19th-century plant hunters as a symptom of colonial exploitation: she's also a sniffy about patios - all in prose from elegant to excitable.

Her complaint about contemporary garden design is that few practitioners rise above the constraints of earth-moving, soil-improving and sourcing plants - though she refrains from attacks on TV garden-makeovers, those purveyors-in-chief of banal design. She is excited by signs that conceptual art and fashion are integrating with garden design, with designers whose "fluidity and flexibility becomes one with Mother Nature".

How far gardens are compatible with nature has exercised designers since at least the 18th century: Capability Brown replaced contrived parterres with equally contrived "natural" landscapes. In truth, gardening is the antithesis of nature as it depends on humans shaping landscape.

Gardening is domination or it is nothing. But then so is soldiery; and so, by some reckonings, is sex.

Michael Leapman

The daily poem is on page 11