A Chinese proverb says, "a book is like a garden carried in your pocket." Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote the short story "The Garden of the Forking Paths" would agree. In his story, a professor and a scholar attempt to decode a cryptic note left by a literary ancestor, who bequeaths "to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.” The "garden," it turns out, is not a physical space, but a labyrinthine novel with its own twists and turns.
Fictional gardens serve as metaphors not only for winding plots, but also for contemplation, as in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, and for suppressed desires, as in Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence, in which a disgruntled woman has an affair with a gamekeeper. Lawrence writes, "the wood was silent, still and secret in the evening drizzle of rain, full of the mystery of eggs and half-open buds... in the dimness of it all trees glistened naked and dark as if they had unclothed themselves, and the green things on earth seemed to hum with greenness." And of course, Elizabeth Bennett might not be charmed by Mr. Darcy initially, but his sprawling gardens play a role in her altered opinions about his character.
A number of authors tended gardens in addition to writing about them. Thomas Jefferson designed and maintained the landscape at Monticello, including his vegetable garden, which contained over 70 species of vegetables. Robert Louis Stevenson, whose collection A Child's Garden of Verses contains lovely scenes, such as "When the golden day is done/ Through the closing portal/ Child and garden, flower and sun/ Vanish all things mortal," began gardening himself later in life.
Below are seven of the greatest gardens described in literature. If only we could spend all day reading in them!
The following images and text are from Pleasures of the Garden: A Literary Anthology [British Library, $30.00]:
From Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening by Humphrey Repton, 1803
In her novels Jane Austen often mentions gardens. She brings air-headed Catherine Morland down to earth in General Tilney’s kitchen garden in Northanger Abbey, and allows Marianne Dashwood to contract a severe chill wandering through the fashionably extensive shrubberies of Cleveland in Sense and Sensibility. In Mansfield Park, written in 1814, she pokes fun at the improvers – slaves to Repton all.
From a late 1rth century Mughal chronicle of the life of the Emperor Babur
Persian poets always seem to be ensconced in gardens as they compose their verses, for choice with a fine glass of vintage Shiraz wine in their hands. The coffin of the legendary fourteenth-century poet Hafez-e Shirãzi, who is to Persians what Dante is to the Italians, and Shakespeare to English speakers, is the centrepiece of an elaborate garden which is still constantly visited by pilgrims: they stand touching his coffin, intoning his verses aloud from memory.
A Day with Charlotte Bronte by May Byron, 1911
In Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Brontë establishes the most romantic horticultural atmosphere possible for Mr Rochester’s perversely presented and doom-laden proposal of marriage to Jane.
Tennyson's Maud, from Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale's Golden Book of Famous Women, 1919
The most famous nineteenth-century verses about love in a garden are undoubtedly these stanzas from Alfred Tennyson’s "Maud," an interminably long poem published in 1855. Much loved by the Victorians, the verses have been set to music by several composers, most notably Balfe and Delius.
Grapes from Pomona Britannica by George Brookshaw, 1812
One of the lushest early accounts of elaborate gardens is Homer’s description of the garden of Alcinous in The Odyssey. Alcinous was the father of Nausicaa, who found the exhausted Odysseus washed up on their island home, Scheria (often identified with Corfu). Alcinous entertained Odysseus royally, before sending him home to Ithaca.
An History of the River Thames by William Coombe, 1796
Alexander Pope was fascinated by gardens and parks; he saw them as the settings in which houses lay like jewels. "Gardening is near-akin to Philosophy," he once wrote. He repeatedly satirized contemporary garden style, insisting that artificiality was to be abhorred. Nature was the best guide, and the first consideration was the existing landscape in which a park or garden was constructed. His ideals were memorably stated in his Epistle Of the Use of Riches, written in the 1730s and dedicated to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington.
The Gardener from The Child's Coloured Gift Book, 1867
Robert Louis Stevenson appreciated gardens from childhood, though he only became an active gardener after he settled at Vailima, Samoa, in 1890. There, he set about reclaiming a plot of ground from the rampant wilderness around the house. In Memories and Portraits (1887) he reminisces nostalgically about an aged Scots gardener called Robert.