Reviewed by Marcia Lawrence
“Life in the Garden” by Penelope Lively, Viking, 2017, ISBN 9780525558378, Hardcover, $25.00
Penelope Lively is a grande dame of art, literature, and all that grows. This compilation of poetic reflections is as much philosophy and poetry as it is memoir. The Booker Prize winner and bestselling author, now in her eighties, offers an insider tour, taking the reader from gardens at Sissinghurst to Somerset, Cairo to Oxford, and more.
“The two central activities of my life – alongside writing – have been reading and gardening.” Appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to British literature, Penelope Lively languidly muses about her life and her own gardens as well as gardens through the ages.
“Life in the Garden” is a nostalgic read, including the author’s own quirky methods and opinions as well as a brief history of gardening beginning with Eden through Babylon, Pompeii, Rome, the Impressionists, and beyond. There are references that will likely set some gardeners’, historians’, and naturalists’ teeth on edge. Lively extols the virtues of American pioneers and their “taming of the wilderness”. She advocates strongly for ripping out any plant that does not suit her tastes–a luxury not all gardeners can indulge.
Reading this slim volume feels like chatting with a slightly eccentric gardening friend over the back fence. Lively is convinced that a bent for gardening is genetically passed down through the female line. She looks at gardens portrayed in literature and paintings as well as real gardens in real life, and considers how gardens are used to communicate ideas, convey character, and suggest social position.
She weighs in on how gardens also give hints about the inclinations of their creators. Lively dishes about rich and famous gardeners, who employ staff to maintain their grand estates, as well as gardeners with more modest plots, all interspersed with memories of her own gardening experiences and those of family and friends.
Definitely not a how-to-garden book, nonetheless Lively offers a wide range of gardening titles and opinions of useful garden books and reference works worthy of any gardener’s library.
“…we have always gardened according to the written word, and some very persuasively written words at that. In the early part of the twentieth century, and back in the nineteenth, writers were the garden gurus of the day. Not usually fiction writers, but devoted gardeners – maniacal gardeners indeed – who turned themselves into writers in order to spread the message.”
Absolutely a niche book, not everyone will find “Life in the Garden” to their taste as either memoir or garden book. But it does, perhaps, capture the essence of that slightly wacky but eminently knowledgeable lady gardener we can all visualize in our imaginations.