But this is not about my garden. It is about a story, The Lost Garden, by Helen Humphreys (2002). I have read this novel slowly, savouring every paragraph. The story is of Gwen, a young woman gardener, who leaves her job in London to work in the countryside teaching a group of younger women how to grow vegetables during the Second World War.
My attention was first captured as I read, “But what is love if not instant recognition? A moment of being truly equal to something,” and then again a few pages later as Gwen talks of having first heard about Virginia Woolf’s death. She thinks back to the time she once walked by Virginia Woolf on her way to a Royal Horticultural Society lecture given by Miss Ellen Willmott.
Virginia Woolf, Gwen observed, was dressed, “in a flowing dress the colour of dusk…. a mauve dress. The colour of lilacs.” The experience of encountering Virginia Woolf was profound. “When I did notice her,” Gwen commented, “it was as if I also noticed everything else for the first time.” Somehow I felt a connection to Gwen simply because she felt about Virginia Woolf as I do and because she paid attention to colour. Throughout the story, Gwen mentally composes letters to Virginia Woolf, the content changing as events unfold in Gwen’s life.
This is a beautiful, almost poetic story that truly brings home the redemptive qualities of love and the healing power of a garden. Desperately unhappy and feeling unloved, Gwen has trouble relating to the young women she works with, since her life experience hasn’t given her the ability to connect with others.
Quite by accident, Gwen discovers an overgrown garden that immediately captures her imagination. Inadvertently finding a ledger book and the plans for the garden, Gwen goes on to piece together what the garden must have been like many years earlier.
Initially Gwen unearths a piece of slate with the word ‘longing’ carved into it and begin to wonder, “what is longing if not the ghost of memory?” As she investigates what she calls the garden of longing, Gwen realizes that each plant has a specific meaning and that, “this garden has not been planted for the eye. It has been planted for the heart.”
When she happens upon the Sweet Briar Rose, Gwen can’t decide what exactly this rose represents. Is it the scent of apples that the rose is reminiscent of or, “was it simply a metaphor for longing,” because it, “released an unexpected fragrance, had a secret that surprised with its poignancy?”
Throughout the novel, Gwen can be found reading a book by Miss Ellen Willmott, The Genus Rosa. The book has meaning for her because it was a present from her mother, whom Gwen felt never loved her. At one point, Gwen talks of how she grew to love gardens because her mother locked her outdoors for hours at a time. She had this to say of her mum: “My mother was beautiful. I ruined her life.”
From the garden of longing, Gwen goes on to discover another garden which she realizes represents loss. Chancing upon a metal stake with the word, ‘loss’ amid a planting of peonies and of irises, Gwen wonders what the connection is between the peonies and irises in this garden and the Briar Rose.
The answer becomes clear to her when she recognizes Potentilla nepalensis, aka ‘Miss Willmott’. Miss Willmott, Gwen recounts, had a tremendous passion for roses and it was her life’s ambition to write the definitive tome on the genus rosa. Yet this undertaking was fraught with difficulty from beginning to end for Miss Willmott and, as Gwen saw it, “Sometimes our passion is our ruin.”
Problems with illustrators, the high costs associated with producing the book, combined with the realities of war and her extravagances ended up bankrupting Miss Willmott. It was an impossible task to Gwen because, as with people, roses, “kept fluctuating, changing their names and associations, refusing to lie still. The roses kept growing, even on paper.”
All of Miss Willmott’s life had been in service to roses, and to find that this seemingly simple task of classification was impossible must have been devastating. Surely understanding provides mastery. Isn’t that what we want to believe? Isn’t that how we explain our very lives?
And then Gwen discovers the final garden in the trilogy, the garden of faith. It contains a overgrown white damask rose, ‘Madame Hardy’. Gwen decides to leave it untended since, “Faith should be left to find its own way.”
By this time, Gwen has started to open herself to others. She does this in various ways, including a brief love affair and also by how she tells her story on a blackout curtain as each of the other girls have done in turn. She is coming to terms with having been unloved by her mum. She decides to tell her story in flowers because they have always responded to her love.
Every day, Gwen changes the flower arrangements on her curtain to surprise the other women with her latest arrangement. She has learned to understand them.
If I had been more generous when I first arrived here, instead of being so defensive about my deficiencies, I would have seen this sooner. They weren’t unwilling to like me. I just never gave them the proper chance to do it on their terms.
There are other stories running through this story but it is late and I need to sleep. The book is a wonderful read – a rare find.
The thing about gardens is that everyone thinks they go on growing, that in winter they sleep and in spring they rise. But it’s more that they die and return, die and return. They lose themselves. They haunt themselves.
Every story is a story about death. But perhaps, if we are lucky, our story about death is also a story about love.