Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 06/10/20 7:35 AM

Book review: Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively

This is a book less about gardening methods, types of plants and the like, and more about literary characters and their gardens, imagined as well as real.

Get out there and dig, weed, prune, plant, when stuck with whatever was being written, advises the author who apparently is very adept at both writing as well as gardening.

Some  evocative passages  from this delightful book LIFE IN THE GARDEN by Penelope Lively, author/ Booker prize-winner/ Dame of the British Empire…and enthusiastic gardener.

We garden for tomorrow, and thereafter. We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating. Gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backwards, and forwards, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next. And, for me, there is this abiding astonishment at the fury for growth, at the tenacity of plant life, at the unstoppable dictation of the seasons.

As I write, in late winter, the first snowdrops have nosed out of the earth, the ground-cover roses have tiny red knobs that say they are remembering what they have to do come June, a single white choisya flower is unseasonal but obedient – the days are a bit warmer, time to get going. Everything will happen anyway, that is what it is programmed to do, but the point of being a gardener is that you can manipulate this marvellous process, contrive, direct.


It is becoming more and more apparent that gardens and all that is within them are never just themselves: they are allusive, evocative, and that is why they can be such fertile material for a writer. They are indeed real, earthy, prolific places, and we know them as that, we dig them, enjoy them, but they are also wonderfully referential – they are potent, flexible, can become a metaphor. And that is what I should like to get on to first – the various concepts of the garden, and garden metamorphosis.



Monet`s Water Lilies

Monet’s water lilies must be an image familiar to many who have barely heard of the painter, let alone his garden at Giverny. The palette of blues and greens; that bridge. Why is it that a photograph of the same scene, however perfectly composed, does not have the same effect, cannot carry the same weight? I have a stack of hefty books filled with sumptuous garden photography, and I know that I like – appreciate – the photos, but I do not look at them with the same intensity that I look at a painted garden – painted by a masterly hand. The photograph reports; the painting examines, interprets, expands.



Wilderness that resembles Manderley

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ The opening line of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and she goes on to evoke the dreamed garden: ‘The rhododendrons stood fifty feet high, twisted and entwined with bracken, and they had entered into alien marriage with a host of nameless shrubs … Ivy held prior place in this lost garden, the long strands crept across the lawns, and soon would encroach upon the house itself … Nettles were everywhere, the vanguard of the army. They choked the terrace, they sprawled about the paths, they leant, vulgar and lanky, against the very windows of the house.’

There are several pages of this, and you know where you are at once: the garden as image of decay and destruction, of time passing. And with suggested menace. We read with a shiver of anticipation, though the garden-minded reader will itch to get going with secateurs and strimmer.


To garden is to elide past, present and future; it is a defiance of time. You garden today for tomorrow; the garden mutates from season to season, always the same, but always different.


The great defiance of time is our capacity to remember – the power of memory. Time streams away behind us, and beyond, but individual memory shapes, for each of us, a known place. We own a particular piece of time; I was there, then, I did this, saw that, felt thus.


Beyond the actual rose there is the symbolic rose, the flower that seems to have harvested more symbolism than any other. A symbol of silence, discretion, for the Romans, who had dining-room ceilings painted with roses so that guests were reminded that what was spoken in drink was ‘sub rosa’ only, a custom that was revived in the seventeenth century.

Links to related stories:                                        

How I Became A Tree by Sumana Roy


book reviewBritish bloomsBritish gardensexcerpts from the bookgardens in literatureLife in the Gardenliterary figures and their gardensPenelope Lively

Sheila Kumar • June 10, 2020

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