Gardening today labours to be classless. TV programmes and books try to persuade us that we, whoever we are, can make over scrubby lawns, erect decking, build pergolas, plumb in water features, and construct a little Blenheim in a rectangle of twenty by thirty feet. Everyone knows this notion of classlessness is false, since nothing stimulates petty snobberies more immediately than a garden. If you have the wrong sort of paving, or if you put swathes of purple and orange together in the misguided belief that you are the new Gertrude Jekyll, you can be sure your friends will snigger about it on the way home. And if you see a garden which has nothing in it but an abandoned car and knee-high grass, you know to quicken your step. Gardens are full of class, and we can read them like books.
Gardening as an activity, however, is rather more complex than the gardens in which it results. It offers at least a fantasy of self-transformation. An accountant who spends his weekends laying York stone in the garden of his ruined manor in Somerset is imagining himself moving in two social directions at once: he enjoys pretending to be a manual worker; and he likes the idea that after his labour his estate will seem a bit more like that of a gentleman. There is a release to be had in working in a garden: you can play with natural forces, entangling them with human labour in a way that lets you go a little wild. My grandmother, who was a woman of infinite respectability, and whose street in metropolitan Essex was home to some of the last unironic gnomes, would lose all morality when it came to gardening. Taking a cutting for her meant just that: in stately homes and botanical gardens she would whip out a pair of scissors and a plastic bag and snip off a few semi-ripe shoots of this and that. Her garden was stocked with scions of Hampton Court and Kew.
It’s tempting to assume that for our upper-class ancestors gardening was a relatively simple matter. They paid people to grow things, and had their gardens laid out for them by teams of geometrists and labourers. Then they walked in them like little Adams imparadised. Certainly, early modern gardens were meant to look, sound, smell and feel like paradises, and to provide dramatic and dynamic spaces for those who walked in them. At Hampton Court in the later 1520s, formal walks were mixed with knot gardens, in which elaborate patterns were outlined in santolina or box. A privy garden ornamented with sundials and statues, was set apart for the special pleasure of the most senior courtiers. Lord Burghley’s garden at Theobalds followed a similar model: it had a privy garden with a knot at its centre, while the expansive great garden (more than seven acres) contained nine divisions into knots. As the 16th century progressed, the ornaments within these formal structures became increasingly elaborate: large trellises and summerhouses sat among substantial fountains and water features, which might shoot jets of water at unsuspecting guests. For the greater repose of the eye, a late 16th or early 17th-century garden might contain what Bacon called a ‘heath or wilderness’. This would be a carefully informalised (though still very formal) area in which rigid symmetry would relax into the appearance of something more like unregimented nature. The aim throughout the early modern garden was to bombard all the senses at once with delights which were guaranteed to be innocent because they were, or appeared to be, the products of nature rather than art. Artifice was often required to create these sensual paradises: John Evelyn, at the end of the 17th century, describes how to make what he calls a ‘Phonotactic Cylinder, or giant musical box’, which used water to produce sounds similar to birdsong (the alternative was to have an aviary). The synaesthetic delights of Milton’s Paradise, in which ‘Birds thir quire apply; aires, vernal aires,/Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune/The trembling leaves,’ are intimately connected to the artful manipulations of the senses by late 17th-century gardeners.
Although gardening between 1500 and 1700 might have aimed to create the appearance of paradisal simplicity, it was nonetheless a socially complex activity. It was also, throughout the period, changing very fast. As it did so it brought together many classes of people, and transformed at least some of them. A number of roles remained relatively fixed: weeding women, who for 3d a day or thereabouts would root dandelions from your knot garden, were underpaid and largely ignored until the 19th century, as were male day-labourers, whose income remained at around 4d a day. But above these classes early modern gardens contained people who were definitely on their way up. In the 1570s, the Earl of Leicester’s head gardener commanded a salary of about £20, roughly equivalent to that of a provincial schoolmaster. Generally speaking, a head gardener to a noble household in the early 17th century earned rather less than a butler, but by 1700 this tiny piece of social hierarchy was reversed. By the same date, those who could feed crazes for exotic hybrids or new colours of tulip could make fortunes. The 17th century saw the emergence of celebrity gardeners and herbalists. John Gerard oversaw Lord Burghley’s gardens in the Strand and in Theobalds in Hertfordshire, and compiled the largest herbal of the 16th century. John Parkinson, who was appointed apothecary to King James, acquired the title of Botanicus Regius Primarius after the publication of his massive folio on the nature and properties of plants, Paradisi in Sole (1629). Both men provided themselves with coats of arms and salaries to match. Neither was quite as successful as John Tradescant (c.1570-1638), who made a small fortune for himself as a horticultural entrepreneur and keeper of the royal gardens at Oatlands (for which both he and, after his death, his son, commanded an income of £100). The Tradescants perpetuated their family name by attaching it to hundreds of garden plants (notably Tradescantias or spiderworts), and declared themselves worthy to bear arms even when the heralds told them they could not. Their massive wealth and inquisitiveness left behind a collection that became the core of the Ashmolean Museum. Gardeners were on the rise, as Marvell seems to recognise in his description of Cromwell in the ‘Horatian Ode’ as a manically aspiring gardener:
Who from his private gardens, where
He lived reservèd and austere
(As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot),
Could by industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of Time.
Supporting these theorists of the garden were legions of nurserymen, who could make tidy fortunes out of propagating trees and shrubs for the gentry. They used nature to enable their advancement, and enjoyed surprisingly high social status, considering that the roots of their wealth lay in dung. Ben Jonson’s epitaph on Vincent Corbet, a Twickenham nurseryman who died in 1619, turns market-gardening into a moral art:
His mind as pure and neatly kept
As were his nurseries, and swept
So of uncleanness or offence,
There never came ill odour thence!
Jonson clearly thought his readers would be worrying about manure, so insists that Corbett’s nurseries were spotless. Compare this with the snobbish jokes which run through Milton’s elegies on the university carrier Thomas Hobson (who made a mint by offering students the original ‘Hobson’s choice’ of any horse so long as it was the one nearest the door), and you can see at once that nurserymen had it made: their job was refining nature, and creating little paradises on the shores of the Thames. No one could seriously object if they aspired to gentility, since gardening, even in its commercialised form, could always be allegorised into wholesomeness. From dung come sweet-scented flowers.
Gardening in the 17th century could also, however, bring with it social upsets and confusions. In particular it could fuel a version of pastoral in which a higher social class would choose to adopt the forms of labour normally associated with a lower one. Then, as now, there were upper-class gardeners who could afford to pay others to dig and graft for them, but who preferred to do it for themselves. ‘Because many Gentlemen and others,’ John Parkinson wrote, ‘are much delighted to bestowe their paines in grafting themselves, and esteeme their owne labours and handie worke farre above other mens; for their encouragement and satisfaction I will here set down some convenient directions, to enable them to raise an Orchard of all sorts of fruits quickly.’ Seventeenth-century gardening manuals are sociologically fascinating. They are often not quite sure whom they are addressing, or what sorts of work their addressees ought to be undertaking. The manuals range from small pamphlets for country housewives, to huge illustrated folios designed by commoners to be read by queens, through a range of works for husbandmen and early modern DIY enthusiasts. There were also quack books by quick-fix artists such as the notorious Hugh Platt, which promised that if you transplanted your gillyflowers three days after the full moon and twice more before the next new moon, and then eight days after the next full moon, they would be bound to come up double. (It may work with tulips, too, he suggests.) Platt also offered some very strange advice about fertilisers: ‘Dogs & cats applyed to the rootes of trees before the sap rise, have recovered many old decaying trees. Shred them.’
These modest and largely neglected works are the subject of Rebecca Bushnell’s unstintingly interesting book. She writes with great sympathy and quiet wit about the mixture of empiricism, magic and popular lore in the manuals, and tells the story of the way they were superseded by the apparently more scientific works on horticulture produced under the influence of Bacon and Hartlib. She shows how gardens could be places of both fantasy and discipline, in which gentry gardeners sought to exercise power over nature, and create spaces which were in their way as artful as poems. Green Desire grows out of Bushnell’s earlier work on Renaissance teaching manuals, many of which use metaphors of cultivation to explain how a schoolmaster can transform a child who naturally lacks wit into one in whom the virtues flourish. As a result, the book dwells more on the debates about class, art and the nature of scientific knowledge which are going on beneath the surface of gardening manuals than on how to grow pinks. Bushnell aims to show that ‘the culture of fruit and flowers, in short, was a form of "cultivation", whereby men and women could produce beauty and profit from the land, yet also advance and transform themselves.’ The process was driven by ‘green desire’, a phrase she uses to cover a range of phenomena from the desire to grow unusual plants to the desire to be well known for doing so. As she shows, men experienced the transformative effects of green desire rather more often than women, since ‘in poems and prose, women were seen contemplating, maintaining, gathering, and bestowing flowers and fruit but not producing them, no matter how hard they may have been working at the time.’ More often than not, women are represented as ‘flowers, the object of green desire’, rather than as cultivators. Milton’s Eve, as she gardens, is seen by Satan ‘stooping to support/Each Flour of slender stalk . . . Her self, though fairest unsupported Flour,/From her best prop so farr, and storm so nigh’. What sticks in Satan’s mind is that she’s stooping, rather than that she’s doing so because she is hard at work. He sets out to cull this flower with his predatory form of green desire.
The only significant way in which Bushnell disappoints is in her decision not to use the gardening manuals to explore the literature of the period, but to use literature as a gloss on the manuals. This is a shame because her central argument, that social and sexual desires in this period are tied up with horticulture, is on the whole more vividly illustrated in fictional writing about gardening than in the handbooks and guides that she considers in detail. Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum is the only one of these manuals which is still enjoyable today, but even it shows that gardening lore is on the whole a lot simpler than most fictional writing about gardens. Evelyn unselfconsciously quotes Spenser’s highly eroticised descriptions of the morally sinister Bower of Blisse when he is describing how to create an earthly paradise, and clearly and comically fails to see that Spenser’s garden is supposed to set all kinds of moral alarm-bells ringing. Mind you, Evelyn can cast a tincture of sexual fascination over the growth of plants in a way that makes Spenser look like an amateur:
That those minute, despicable & tender Atomes [seeds] cast into the womb of so austeer a mother & rotting (in all appearance) under her cold and miserable embraces should yet at last, after so long a tyme captive abandond to such wet showers fresh; killing nipping snow and hedious stormes emerge & come up rall[y]ing their small particles, & putting forth their slender rootes, serpenting in the mould: whose milke & blood they now suck in revenge . . . displaying the virgin beauties which are sometimes guarded with vulnerating pricles and fenced with sharp thornes, till being kissed open by soft whispers of the rosy Zephyr, they are tempted to peepe upon the glorious Eye of the World the Sunn, that greate luminary so proportion[d] to them, and then as awakend out of their pretty cradles wherein the winds had gently rocked them asleep, they rise from their drowsy beds, and now apparell themselves like sommery Eastern Queenes, or goddesses, Whith what delight & satisfaction dos our Gardiner then behold some of these moddest & flowery Nymphs mantled in their green scarfes, others half dressed in the smocks of lawne or indeed hardly borne!
Serpenting in the mould, milking the earth in revenge for her stifling oppressiveness, guarded with prickles, displaying their beauties, and shyly half-concealing them, these green nymphs are for the early modern man the model of the perfect early modern woman, who is never quite a sexually mature threat but always in a state of sexual awakening: they can be kissed open to become ‘Eastern Queenes’ for a moment before they revert to being innocent beauties ‘indeed hardly born’. The garden is a place for thinking about desire because the innocence of nature licenses erotic imaginings, and can bury desires for young girls beneath a protective affection for the vulnerably emergent. We are inches away here from the delicate mingling of horticulture, innocence and sexual threat which runs through Marvell’s ‘Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers’.
The poems from the period are what really make gardens interesting. Marvell’s mower poems, for instance, adopt the persona of an agricultural labourer in order to speak against the arts of cultivation. Here the gardening manuals must surely explain the poetry, rather than vice versa: Marvell’s mower deplores the cultivation of double pinks by the artificial enrichment of the soil; his hostility to art would certainly have prompted readers to supply the missing side of the argument between art and nature which had raged through the pages of gardening handbooks. Marvell’s mower invites the kind of answer that Shakespeare’s Polixenes offers to Perdita when she chastely refuses to propagate gillyflowers – ‘so over that art,/ Which you say adds to nature, is an art/ That nature makes’ – and which Hugh Platt and others had clumsily adumbrated. Marvell’s mower poems also represent a version of pastoral that teeters towards the earthier mode of georgic in a manner which would have been impossible without the previous generations of garden handbooks. When Damon the Mower cuts himself with his scythe, he seeks ‘Clown’s All-Heal’ to heal the wound (marsh woundwort, as it is now called, is still believed by some to have antiseptic properties). This is not just rustic artlessness, since it shows that Damon’s author had been poring over Gerard’s Herbal, which tells how in Kent a ‘very poore man in mowing of Peason did cut his leg with the Sieth, wherin he made a wound to the bones, and withal very large and wide’ which the mower then cured with a poultice of Clown’s All-Heal. The social voices of the poem are diverse and divergent: the herbalist records the poor man and his rustic version of the herbalist’s own art; Marvell, the leisured poet, mimics him, knowing that at least some of his horticulturally minded readers will know that Gerard is his source. The garden poem, aided by a garden manual, and perhaps given a touch of militancy by Marvell’s knowledge that in an age of Diggers and Levellers gardening could never simply be a matter of pottering about with cuttings, enables the poet to create a voice which is at once inside and above the rural poor, and is at the same time leisured and bookish, and about labour. The mower poems are tiny metaphors for the poet’s own task, as they hew a space for themselves from a complex of arguments about art, nature, work, idleness and social class. They certainly grow from the gardening manuals Bushnell analyses; but to use the poems to gloss the manuals is on the face of it perverse: less complicated and prior things can be invoked to explain more complicated and subsequent things, but not the other way around – unless you believe that the later and more complex phenomena reveal something about where the earlier and simpler texts are going.
There are moments when fictions about gardens explicitly explore areas of thought that are only implicit in technical writings on gardens, and speak more loudly for the unconscious of the society that produced them than technical manuals are able to do. In this respect, feeding back the more conscious to the less conscious, or using literature to understand the confused arguments presented in ‘factual’ writing, can enable us to see aspects of both which might otherwise have been invisible. The moment of this kind in early Shakespeare (which Bushnell touches on very briefly) is the scene in Richard II in which Queen Isabel overhears her gardeners, who are at work, presumably, in a privy garden of the sort developed at Hampton Court. The gardeners turn their labour into an allegory of the present ills of the commonwealth, in which every bough is burdened with a moral: ‘Go, bind thou up young dangling apricocks,/Which like unruly children make their sire/Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight.’ The garden becomes a vehicle for political meanings, and enables the gardeners to talk comfortably of kings and to rebuke their conduct. It is also a place where different groups collide: Queen Isabel learns of her husband’s fall from an unnamed generic gardener, and emerges from the shadows to converse with a ‘little better thing than earth’, someone whose life consists of mulching and pruning. The garden becomes not just a place of social confluence and an allegorical representation of the nation, but virtually a metaphor for a historical fiction: it is a space apparently set apart from the surrounding world which can nonetheless talk about and play at transforming the events that happen around it, and in which a ‘little better thing than earth’ can speak to his times. This scene displays concerns that are only latent in the handbooks, but Shakespeare raises questions about how classes talk to each other and rule over each other in a self-conscious and controlled way that Parkinson, Gerard, Platt and the rest cannot match. And if Shakespeare does clearly what the horticulturalists do blurrily, why not spend more time reading him and less time on them?