Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 7, 2018

Life in the Garden (2017), by Penelope Lively

My mother was not a great reader, but she was a keen gardener across three continents and Life in the Garden would have been the perfect birthday gift for her.  Penelope Lively is a great raconteur and this memoir of her own life in gardens is nostalgia reading for any of us with memories of English gardens and of creating our own gardens, wherever they happened to be.

Lively thinks that there is a genetic element to being a gardener, and that it passes through the female line.  She tells us about her grandmother’s garden in Somerset, her mother’s garden in Cairo where she spent her childhood, and then about her own two gardens in Oxfordshire and her current small urban garden in London.  There are hints, here and there, that although her mind is as sharp as ever, Lively is getting on a bit, something I’d rather not think about because she has been part of my reading life ever since I discovered Moon Tiger, which won the Booker in 1987.  My mother was lucky to spend her last years with the garden she had created on the Gold Coast; I don’t think she would have thrived if, like Lively, she’d had to downsize to a small courtyard garden.

Like my mother – who loved it when I came up during term holidays and took her for short expeditions to the nearest Bunnings Garden Centre – Lively can’t help but be captivated by the marketing of new plants.  In the chapter ‘the Fashionable Garden’, she traces the history of garden fashion, noting that

These days, garden fashion is dictated by television gardening programmes, by garden journalism, by what is available and conspicuous in garden centres.  Both television and garden centres are relatively recent dictators – neither was around when I first took an interest in gardening in the 1960s.  But 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. (p.81)

There is a marvellous book called Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama (reviewed here at the NYT) and what I always remember when I’m in any of those splendid formal gardens in Europe, is that they were designed not just to impress, but also to reinforce with symbols the power and authority of the autocrats who flaunted them.  This lives on, it seems, in the way that some plants have been social indicators – even the type of rose in your garden can be an indicator of class in England!

Lively talks at some length about how the great gardens of England and their smaller 19th century offshoots relied on an army of labouring gardeners not affordable today.  Today these gardens are often open to tourism, where Lively chanced upon a postcard that evokes that earlier era:

These are the gardeners, posed for a formal portrait – seventeen of them, one row seated, one row standing, and flanked at one side by a lad of maybe twelve, and at the other a white-bearded figure in his seventies.  All wear hats – flat caps for the most part.  Shirt and waistcoat seem to be de rigueur: all but one of the seven seated figures at the front wear aprons.  Those standing behind are posed with hoe, spade, rake, shears while the sitters are neatly framed by two long-spouted watering-cans.  They inspire confidence, these gardeners; formally dressed, business-like.  You feel that Hestercombe would have been well serviced.  One of them must be the head gardener, a figure of authority and who would have had considerable expertise.  Scottish?

A garden of that order will not be serviced by seventeen men today.  But one must remember that garden work, just like housework, has been turned on its head by modern appliances: the strimmer [whipper-snipper], the electric hedge-cutter, the rotovator.   (p.161)

Hestercombe today employs six gardeners, three with horticultural training and three trained in countryside management but most English people manage their own gardens as we Aussies do. (Though many of us in our street have someone to do the lawn.  With the decline of manufacturing in this country many people lost their jobs and took up franchises with their retrenchment benefits.   Hiring these people, and the ones who do cleaning, window-washing and so on, is the least those of us still with proper jobs can do, IMO, not that a nice gift at Christmas makes up for them not having superannuation and sick leave…  I really don’t like the modern economy.)

Ah… you can see that I am digressing, as Lively does.  Reading Life in the Garden is a bit like being in the company of an old aunt (if I’d ever had one) and the digressions are as interesting as the case in point.  Still, I should not forget to tell you that Lively also quotes poetry and prose about gardens and explores how writers use gardens to set atmosphere, the rhododendrons in Rebecca being the most famous example.  In the chapter on ‘The Fashionable Garden’ she quotes Jane Austen in the age of Capability Brown, mocking the obsession with ‘improvement’ in Mansfield Park: 

‘I wish you could see Compton,’ said he; ‘it is the most complete thing! I never saw a place so altered in my life . . .  The approach now, is one of the finest things in the country: you see the house in the most surprising manner. I declare, when I got back to Sotherton yesterday, it looked like a prison – quite a dismal old prison.”

‘Oh, for shame!’ cried Mrs. Norris. ‘A prison indeed? Sotherton Court is the noblest old place in the world.’

‘It wants improvement, ma’am, beyond anything. I never saw a place that wanted so much improvement in my life; and it is so forlorn that I do not know what can be done with it . . . I must try to do something with it . . . but I do not know what. I hope I shall have some good friend to help me.’

‘Your best friend upon such an occasion,’ said Miss Bertram calmly, ‘would be Mr. Repton, I imagine.’

‘That is what I was thinking of.  As he has done so well by Smith, I think I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day.’

‘Well, and if they were ten,’ cried Mrs. Norris, “I am sure you need not regard it. The expense need not be any impediment. If I were you, I should not think of the expense. I would have everything done in the best style, and made as nice as possible.’  (p.96)

In the thirty-odd years I’ve had my current garden, I’ve fallen for fashion fads.  Under the delusion that it would be maintenance-free, I’ve had an all native garden, a surfeit of ‘mission-brown’ garden furniture, an all-the-same-colour garden and even a rockery, which like Lively I came to regret because of those weeds that make their homes in it.  Have you, dear reader, succumbed to design ideas from Burke’s Backyard, Gardening Australia, or those garden-makeover shows?

I’ll finish up with Lively’s wisdom about timelessness in the garden:

We garden for tomorrow, and thereafter. We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating. Gardening, you are no long stuck in the here and now; you think backwards, and forwards, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next. (p.4)

I can’t end without a rejoinder to her claim that the English are the best at gardens!  This is my garden last January, some plants struggling a bit after a scorcher, and a tad overgrown because it’s too hot to get out there and tidy up – but lush and gorgeous all the same.

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PS A word about the cover: in this hardback edition, the cover design by Katie Scott is just gorgeous, and the texture of the cover boards is a sensual delight… there’s a velvety feeling under the fingers, and the text is embossed.  Stunning!

Author: Penelope Lively
Title: Life in the Garden
Publisher: Fig Tree (an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House UK), 2017
ISBN: 9780241319628
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Life in the Garden: A BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week 2017


  1. Love the look of your garden!


    • It’s always a bit messy at this time of the year, but the colours are gorgeous. Fingers crossed we don’t get another scorcher, that wreaks havoc on the hydrangeas…


  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  3. It was so good to read your comments about this book. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Penelope Lively is such a fine writer. Yes, garden shows on TV (like a great many show on TV) are probably rather shallow and unsatisfactory. Somewhere on my bookshelves I swear there is a book with an almost identical cover image. Perhaps I have only imagined this. I can’t find it. But anyway, it’s a beautiful cover.


    • TV is not what it was, that’s for sure. There’s very little I want to watch these days…
      The Spouse and I were talking just the other day about how we’ve never seen anything about how to protect the garden on days that are scorchers. I know, some people would say that we should pull out our treasures and have natives instead, but we think our garden suits the age of our house and we like it. (And we mostly water it from our tanks).
      So we look for both short and long-term solutions to the problem… if you look at the slides of the hydrangeas, you can see that some of them have curled leaves from the heat. Putting old queen sized sheets over them seems to work best, but it’s hard to get them to stay put if it’s windy. We’ve also installed Shadex over our ferns, that we can roll up in winter and put back in place in summer. But the vegie patch suffered badly from the last scorcher because we had not long planted beets and celery and they were too young to tolerate the heat. So we need something like a portable shade umbrella – if only Bunnings had one for sale, eh?


  4. Maybe the DNA originated in that first garden where the women’s knowledge started the merry dance and so it continues. I grew up in a tenement and always wished for a garden. Have created quite a number over the years and sometimes revisit them which is a lovely way to view time passing.
    Gardeners are a special group always happy to share their passion.
    I have visited Monk’s House the last house of V.Woolf where she had her writing room in the garden. I treasure that memory.


    • Penelope Lively writes quite a bit about Woolf and her garden, and the tragic way she killed herself.
      She also writes about the allotment movement in London – a astonishing number of people are involved in this movement and there’s a huge waiting list for more. I think she would be pleased to know about the community gardens we have here in Melbourne, but I am sure we need more, especially in places where there are lots of flats which don’t even have a small balcony for some plants.
      I don’t think she mentions school gardens. Some schools I’ve worked at allocated a part of the garden to each class which as nice as long as the teacher had a green thumb!


  5. I am a Lively fan and hadn’t heard of this one, so I’ll check it out.


    • *chuckle* Can we expect a rejoinder about males and gardening? In our household it is The Spouse who does most of it, though we both share a distaste for weeding so I do a bit of that to make up for the fact that he attends to the compost bins…


  6. I just finished this book the other day, and enjoyed it very much. An Australian equivalent (which I confess I enjoyed more) is Margaret Simons’ ‘Six Square Metres’, another beautiful little book, beautifully written.


    • I hadn’t heard of that one, I must check it out.
      Yes, my library has it, and I’ve put it on reserve. Thanks for the recommendation!


  7. This sounds delightful and interesting – reminds me of that lovely Audrey Hepburn quote – to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow – And your garden looks lovely – I’m all for the comeback of the hydrangea!


    • Yes, that is a lovely thought, I did so admire Audrey Hepburn:)
      Re hydrangeas: I think they just ‘go’ with postwar weatherboards. Streets like mine (which you can find all over the middle ring in Melbourne) were in the 1950s full of white weatherboard State Savings Bank homes with hydrangeas grown from cuttings that were shared up and down the street. They grow tall and lush and will shade a window, and they are pretty hardy really. Before she went into aged care my MIL used to love to come over and cut their blooms to fill a vase … one of those people who make flower-arranging look easy!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Speaking of fashion I can remember when my dream home was a terrace house in Carlton with a native garden out the front. Now I have a flat with a bougainvillea and a kangaroo paw on the balcony.


    • You’ve made me envious about that bougainvillea before. I can’t get it to grow here, and it’s not the climate because other people can get it to grow just fine!


  9. That’s a beautiful cover, and I love your garden pics. I adore looking at gardens, and it’s something we do when we travel, but I am a very average gardener myself. My father was the gardener in our family. My Mum loves flowers and plants in pots, but she wasn’t the gardener.


    • Yeah, so much for the genetic theory, eh?
      (My mother was the designer, and my father was the labourer, and I think that would have been my genetic inheritance only I’m too much of a feminist to leave all the hard work to someone else!)
      Another thing I didn’t mention from the book is the Yellow Book program, which is apparently well-established and huge in the UK. It’s like the Open Garden scheme, but I think it’s more eclectic than ours, because she talks about visiting some more ordinary gardens than the impressive ones we’ve been to.


      • Exactly what I was thinking – re the genetic theory I mean. I know what you mean about being too much of a feminist. I laboured hard in our recent re-landscaping project. It was hard work but besides the pulling my weight issue, I tell people it was cheaper than going to a gym (which I never do.)


        • My one claim to feminism is that I would iron our daughter’s school dress with multiple pleats (and watch car races on tv) while Mrs Legend mowed the lawn.


          • Hmmm, *stifling laughter* I’m not sure that’s quite in the spirit of things!


          • That sounds a fair claim to me. I wouldn’t iron pleats. Why do you think our kids went to uniformless government schools! Haha!


            • No, I meant doing the ironing (any kind of ironing) as an adjunct to sport on TV!


        • Ha! Penelope Lively said the same thing about gyms!


  10. A lovely, well-written post. Thank you for the heads up. I do love a good garden book!


    • Thank you Carolee! I loved reading about your grandmother on your blog. I never met him but apparently I had an old Irish uncle who did that kind of gardening too.


  11. […] from a Small Garden, recommended to me by Kate W from Books are My Favourite and Best after I read Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively. It’s due back at the library tomorrow and not able to be renewed because it is ‘in […]


  12. Hi Lisa – great review and beautiful garden! How long have you had it? My front yard is finally getting in shape, though I still have a few plants leftover from the previous owner that I want to get rid of but can’t bring myself to pull up until I find a home for them.

    I haven’t read any of Lively’s novels yet, but they’re on my list. I thought she seemed a bit rambly as well… but had nothing to compare it to. Still, I came to the same conclusion that age, as well as “generational characteristics” came into play.

    Thank you for leaving the link!


    • Glad you like it! I’ve been here for 30+ years, and when we moved in the only thing growing in the back garden was a lemon tree and some sad grass. It’s been through a few phases since then: all natives; low maintenance; beds of all one colour, but we’re happy with how it is now, except that people diagonally behind us have built a double storied monstrosity and we have planted some tall trees to screen it out!


  13. I like the sound of this very much, and the quotes help to give a flavour of he style. I have a garden-related book (Philosophy in the Garden) in the little pile on my night table, and I’m wondering if it might even contain a chapter by Lively. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it does!


    • I hope it does!
      I loved this book…


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