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Apr/May 2012 Reviews & Interviews

Queen Elizabeth in the Garden and Writing the Garden: A Literary Conversation Across Two Centuries

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! Author Trea Martyn has rightfully received some positive attention for her unique royal biography, Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry and Spectacular Gardens. Martyn is a garden historian (which I think has now become one of my official dream jobs) and in her quest to uncover the gardens of the Elizabethan period also managed to peel back a fresh layer on the long competition between the man the Queen loved, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the man she most deeply respected, her chief political adviser William Cecil, Baron of Burghley. In their lifelong attempts at currying favor, both men sought to impress Elizabeth with grandiose gardens and entertainments. Along with many of her other courtiers they continuously upgraded their grounds, changed the displays and brought in everything from mock battles to fairy tale shows, dances and fireworks.

While gardening proliferated under Elizabeth's reign, Dudley and Cecil led the way and the sharp triangle formed by these three powerful people is a tale that Martyn mines for all it's worth while also delving deep into the most intricate aspects of their garden designs. The book manages to encompass aspects of love and deceit, joy and tragedy with a healthy dose of the expected court intrigue all while referencing letters and other historic documents that provide readers with intimate looks into how the two most celebrated gardens of their day were designed, maintained and altered. The lavishness is not to be believed and as both Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire and Theobalds Palace in Hertfordshire are long gone, Martyn's work here is not only entertaining but informative. I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed this book and as a writer I can only bow down to the artful way in which Martyn blended so much personal drama with landscape history in creating a truly divine piece of authorship.

For an overview of literally hundreds of gardens, readers need to look no further than Elizabeth Barlow Rogers' Writing the Garden: A Literary Conversation Across Two Centuries. Garden historian Rogers co-curated an exhibition of the same name in 2011 with Harriet Shapiro, the New York Society Library's Head of Exhibitions. The Society library is actually the city's oldest library (dating to 1754!) and home to more than 300,000 titles. Rogers is a collector of rare books on landscape history and the depth and breadth of her knowledge on this subject is on full display in Writing the Garden. From names we know, (Vita Sackville-West, Edith Wharton, Katherine S. White) to those off the beaten path and lost to history and even some surprising contemporary names (foodie Michael Pollan), Rogers is brilliantly eclectic with every aspect of her gardening survey. From humor to philosophy to "warriors in the garden," this is a title with a little bit of everything and should serve not only as a pleasurable reading experience but a valuable resource for anyone interested in gardening history.

Rogers has organized her work by categories of her own making. This places Sackville-West in "Spouses in the Garden" with Harold Nicolson whereas White is found in "Correspondents in the Garden". There is a section on "Women in the Garden" (which includes Gertrude Jekyll) but also "Rhapsodists in the Garden" and "Nurserymen in the Garden" (my favorite section I think) and also sections for travelers, conversationalists, philosophers and teachers. These wide-ranging categories allow Rogers to be a bit freewheeling in her assessments, moving her subjects out of areas where you might expect them to reside and pairing them up with others across time and miles. This affords readers with the opportunity to learn about writers they may be unaware of when honing in on their favorites and will provide ample opportunity to fill lists for further reading and research. There is just such a wealth of information here that it should be a daunting work but Rogers writes about all of the gardeners (and their books) with such warmth and familiarity that Writing the Garden is actually extraordinarily inviting and a title that could serve as a valuable resource for many.

A word on the design aspects of both of these books: the authors have included illustrations throughout especially Rogers who has placed color plates and pictures when possible. The source lists are also impressive and not to be overlooked and proof positive of just how much work has gone into these titles. Writing the Garden in particular makes an excellent gift book and could be treated as such (Mother's and Father's Days are looming large). I also couldn't help but think of researchers and writers while reading, especially Queen Elizabeth in the Garden. Martyn has a long epilogue where she details how she sought out primary sources and turned to Italy to find the only surviving Elizabethan gardens (all sadly gone from England). Her recollection of the research process made me wish she had written a series of essays on the process as she truly went to great lengths (literally and figuratively) to uncover the story she tells here. Anyone writing their own book set during this period (or even a steampunk version of it) would profit from reading Martyn's book and likely never look at flowers in the same way.

 

Writing the Garden
By Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
David R. Godine 2011
ISBN 978-1-56792-440-4
280 pages

Queen Elizabeth in the Garden
By Trea Martyn
BlueBridge 2012
ISBN 978-1-93334-636-6
336 pages

 

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