And so on to the Victorians, high-minded and heavily moustachioed exporters of British culture par excellence, and more specifically onto The Victorian Gardening Childhood, one that I missed by only century. Thank God.
I have long believed that the dominance of the British Empire was a not a consequence of industrialisation, navel supremacy or even Allan Quartermain, but was a direct result of the horticultural education of the Victorian young. Children of the nineteenth century were started on their botanical studies early, and their education was a disciplined and rigorous one. Jane Loudon’s The Young Gardeners’ Yearbook published in 1855 is typical in its advise that the principle tool in the young gardeners arsenal should be the budding knife, that beds should be carefully measured out by the child using pegs and string, and that fanciful shapes should be avoided as they hinder planting in straight lines. She informs the lucky recipient of her austere almanac that propagation from bud is not a technique to be undertaken sloppily, and that the summer months will require strenuous labour on behalf of the child to obtain a neat and therefore perfect garden. With a childhood so overbearingly dull and structured as this it’s no wonder that adult Victorians desired nothing more than to join the army and gad about the world conquering and subjugating and picking up venereal diseases. It’s what I’d have done.
A Jane Loudon Illustration
So it has been refreshing to find a Victorian garden writer who shares the same views I do, the great Samuel Reynolds Hole, Dean of Rochester. This is a man who understands that when a schoolboy wakes up on a balmy summers dawn, he does not gleefully rush down to weed his geometrically correct spinach plantation, but in the words of Charles Lamb, he exclaims: ‘Here’s a fine day — let us kill something’. Children have short attention spans, they had short attention spans before playstations were invented, and they will have short attention spans when all the playstations are recycled and Britain is turned into one giant eco-friendly non carbon emitting bean farm (throwing beans, stealing beans and finding amusingly phallic beans will then become the new childhood plague to worry over-concerned adults who long for the simple halcyon days of their own childhood, where they spent happy days surfing the internet and never threw a bean from year to year – just you watch). Children can’t be forced to garden; they must come to it of their own volition, as an adult and through a series of lifestyle revelations (read disillusionments).
The great Dean knew this well, author of the seminal A Book About Roses, he writes of his own childhood attitude to gardening that:
I recall a period when, in the enthusiastic language of youth, all the recreations which I liked were “ripping” and all those which I disliked were “rot.” The man who ventured to admire such ordinary rubbish as scenery, sunsets, and flowers, was denounced as a “duffer,” and his conversation was “bosh.”
This Dean truly speaks the language of youth!
Reynolds Hole also understands that not everyone will appreciate a garden in the same way writing:
I asked a schoolboy, in the sweet summertide, “what he thought a garden was for?” And he said, Strawberries. His younger sister suggested Croquet and the elder Garden-parties. The brother from Oxford made a prompt declaration in favour of Lawn Tennis and Cigarettes.
Any scorn is reserved for adults who purported to be visiting his garden and then spent their time admiring such things as brickwork, or gossiping about subjects non-floral. One particularly hurtful example is recorded in his book, while eavesdropping on the conversation between two visitors to his garden,
I heard a lady speaking to her companion of “the most perfect gem she had everseen,” and when, supposing that reference was made to some exquisite novelty in plants, I inquired the name and habitation, I was informed that the subject under discussion was “Isabel’s new baby !” “Ladies,” I remarked, with a courteous but scathing satire, “I have been a baby myself, and am now a proprietor, but I am constrained to inform you that this is a private, and not a nursery, garden.”
I recommend anyone who has an hour spare track down a copy of Our Gardens and bathe in the knowledge of The Dean of Rochester. Some of his ideas on the history of British gardening are questionable (I doubt it was the Romans who first introduced vegetables to the natives of these Isles and weaned them off a diet of acorns) but if his account of the pleasures of returning to tend to your garden after a hard days work was leaked to The City I’m sure we would see almost immediate bankruptcy in all but a few of the capitals bars, nightclubs and brothels. So go, read and when you raise your offspring let them grow as children and not as gardeners, if they are destined to bear the trowel, they will find their own way there.
The Iceni Rebellion - Fuelled by acorns.