The very nature of society in the eighteenth century meant that women were unlikely to become active designers, either professional or dilettante. However, the care and creation of their own gardens was something deemed an appropriate arena of action in a country increasingly dominated by the mores of the ‘polite society’. The garden could thus bring both cultural and artistic fulfilment to complement the more traditional releases of embroidery, drawing, music and conversation. For some women, such as Henrietta Knight, or Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, the garden could also act as a release or retreat from the dictates of a society with which they had become frustrated or with which they found themselves in opposition. Other women saw the garden as part of their intellectual spheres, connecting them with cultural coteries revolving around the influential literati of the day. In the case of Jemima, Marchioness Grey, the intellectual and the domestic combined, as she developed the gardens at her family seat of Wrest Park in the fashions of the day, taking responsibility for designers, workmen and gardeners. Whatever their motive for embracing the world of the garden, or their involvement within it, a common thread runs through the gardening lives of almost all these women. For them the garden is not a place in which to parade the accomplishments of polite society but instead a place in which that society might be challenged or evaded. 2I knew the author back in 1990-91 when we were both postgraduate students at Clare College, Cambridge; Elizabeth de Clare, the college's founder, gets a shout-out in the first chapter, and I'm glad to say that her devotion to gardening is carried on by the college to this day. I'm not a gardener myself, but many of my relatives (mostly female relatives) are, and I found this a fascinating examination of the role of gardening in a historical and gender context. There's a lot of fascinating stuff here - the particular influence of queens and aristocratic women in creating gardens, which of course had a demonstration effect on other aspiring households; the way in which particular plants get transported from continent to continent; the gardening career of Jane Loudon, better known to sf fans as author of The Mummy!; the study of ferns being deemed acceptable for women, because they don't reproduce through sex; and how particular plants got their names.
2 I am grateful to Dr Stephen Bending for sharing his thoughts and research into women, gardens and retirement in eighteenth-century society with me at an early stage in my writing. His own academic research, funded by a Leverhulme Grant, will be available in 2006. Another study of the romantic aspect of female gardening is J.M. Labbe, ‘Cultivating One’s Understanding: the Female Romantic Garden’ in Women’s Writing, vol. 4, no. 1 (1997), pp. 37–57.
Roses appear to be one of the worst flowers for taking the names of females who have had little or nothing to do with their breeding. Lady Hillingdon, the famous society hostess who is said to have coined the phrase ‘shut your eyes and think of England’, gave her name to a pale yellow rose. A climber by habit, Rosa ‘Lady Hillingdon’ is said to be dreadful in the bed but great against the wall.I thought this was great fun, well-documented and enlightening. You can get it here.
This was, shamefully, the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is The Politics of Climate Change, by Anthony Giddens.