A book review

Two things I am taking away from this book of letters:

1. Hellebores. They’re something I’ve only admired in OPG (Other People’s Gardens).

2. A great thankfulness that Civil Rights has passed in this country.

Yes, cantankerous me: wouldn’t it be LOVELY if I could just revel in these letters for their breadth of gardening knowledge? Well, whether it’s simply cultural oversight of a Yankee gardener with “hired men” or a Southern gardener with “half grown Negro boy[s]”…I seriously wonder if we can really consider these two women gardeners in the sense that we understand the term. (Especially Katharine White, who never deigned to even get out of a dress and heels.) I guess instead I will blame the editor, who did a fine job of delineating the silver spoon set but neglects to mention the hired help by name. It especially galled me when the editor saw fit to mention who Elizabeth’s mother’s doctor was, yet in the same paragraph, the ONLY place where he’s mentioned, she doesn’t cite Elizabeth’s gardener. “All saying things can’t be done, that my yardman, Willie, and I have been doing for years without a fuss.” [p. 76,Beacon Press ppb edition]

Okay, THAT is out of the way. Elizabeth Lawrence, if I were to rank them, is more bona fide a dirt digger. She wrote a gardening column for The Charlotte Observer and also had a landscape consulting business. Her personality comes through loud and clear in her letters, which describe a somewhat one-sided “friendship” between these two women. Katharine S. White (wife of E.B. “Andy” White, of Charlotte’s Web fame and a lot more) was an editor at The New Yorker who on occasion wrote a mostly gardening-related column for the same magazine. She had a large flower garden at their farm in Maine.

As a historical document, this batch of letters describes well how plantgrowing moved from one of local nurseries with local specialties to national nurseries with, as we know now, nothing local. This trend was helped somewhat by Katharine’s New Yorker articles about mail-order nurseries. (Katharine relied heavily in writing these articles upon the expertise of people like Elizabeth.) These letters document the loss of scent in roses, the hardiness of North Carolina daffodils in Maine, and bloom times for plants in December (!!). As such, it makes a very interesting read for those of us who’re plant-happy.

These letters also follow gardening trends, especially the emergence of the horrors of DDT and the re-emergence of chemical-free gardens. I think we were all a bit horrified to read how they describe how their yards were regularly sprayed with DDT and they noticed the loss of certain creatures because of it. (It was The New Yorker that first published chapters of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.)

The letters also describe what happened in their lives, particularly in terms of illness. (It is said that the Whites tended to be hypochondriacs.) Part of me wonders if some “real” gardening, the bend-and-stretch, dig-the-dirt, spread-the-mulch sweatiness that most of us practice wouldn’t have benefited these two, Katharine White especially. But then I also realize these women were very much products of their time, even though they were highly unusual by being fully employed. So getting sweaty in the garden was ONLY acceptable if they did it with their yardmen.

And that makes me wonder. Is my reaction to these women’s gardens a visceral kind of backwards jealosy? I am definitely in the bite-off-as-much-as-I-can-chew camp here on the farm. My vision, of course, is much larger than my time allows. If I had a yardman, or a crew…who knows what I could do. And seeing what these two COULD do, well…

And it is here that I should mention that my husband is in this week’s New Yorker. They mention his New York show, and include a photo (not online, unfortunately, but in the magazine itself). He’ll be in April’s Harper’s, so the ghosts of the Whites are all over this house…

(Thanks again, Carol, for hosting!)

12 responses to “A book review

  1. the Contrary Goddess

    lighten up already! “Civil rights” stuff doesn’t do a thing for the hired help (wages being another form of slavery), now does it?

  2. No, you’re right, CG, considering Mrs White’s hired men were white. But it was telling. I won’t be doing any hiring for help, even if I could afford it, because I like to sweat when I garden. Reading this book about “great gardeners” who left all the work to UNSUNG, unmentioned others kind of rankled me.

  3. Imagine the indignity of toiling under the direction and beady eye of a chain-smoking Katherine White…sitting there in a suit that cost more than you made in a year, telling you where to plant her high-priced bulbs. But then again, there are days when I wish I had me a ‘yard man’. Congrats on the New Yorker piece. So does Seymour Hersh stop buy for dinner when he is in town? I’m jealous. And then Harpers! exciting.

  4. El,thanks for posting for the book club. I definitely sensed that KW did more pointing and directing in her gardens, whereas Elizabeth was more of the “real thing” and was even known to wear pants in the garden (good for her!) I’m going to be including a link in the “club meeting post” to an article about KW, written by one of her son, that should provide more insight into who she was. But I definitely think most of us identified with Elizabeth.

  5. There’s an essay about the ‘gardeners’ – the actual gardeners and their working conditions on those great English estates, “The garden and the division of labour” by Martin Hoyle in an anthology called Vista.

    It was eye opening. It also made me realize why, I don’t feel like drinking martinis at parties, after double-digging or hauling stuff up this hill, that passes for my yard.

    I’ve really liked your snow photos. Snow is somewhat of a novelty in Australis. When a couple of inches fall in my part of the world, they close the highway for fear of black ice and sightseeing gridlock!

  6. Meredith, Seymour Hirsh is one guy I would LOVE to have over for dinner. The RANTS we would have…! But yeah, getting the New Yorker and the NYRB keeps me connected with civilization out here in the hinterlands.

    Carol, thanks again for hosting. I swear to you I am not always so critical of books; I really have liked the last two, but I sometimes have a hard time glossing over things.

    And everyone, if you are really jonesing for some good gardening photos, go look at Nada’s Australian gardens! Swear to you the second photo is a TOMATO. *sigh*

  7. Well, I am glad to meet someone who was not as impressed with these two as everyone else seems to be!! I felt like the only one who didn’t like this book.
    When she mentions her yard man, I laughed out loud!
    I did click the link, but I didn’t know what I was looking for, since I don’t know who you are, or your hubby! Whatever it is, it must be exciting and I hope it goes well!
    Please suggest a more horticultural book for the next month, maybe someone like, oh, I don’t know, Allan Armitage or Micheal Dirr??!!

  8. Blackswamp_Girl

    Interesting. I didn’t get angry about it from a civil rights perspective, but the “hands off” aspect of those ladies’ gardens did bother me. I don’t think it’s really jealousy, though, is it? After all, I wouldn’t WANT gardening help–I’m egotistical enough to think that nobody could determine the siting of a particular clump of bulbs or colorful perennial as well as I could, in my own garden. *grin*

  9. Hmmmm . . . . I guess I had a different impression about Katharine White. However, that was colored by the fact that I already knew that she was more of a “dirt gardener” (to use Elizabeth’s words) before she had so many health troubles. The letters between the two women started when KW was about 60, and I think she had had a lot of physical issues before then. I sensed some frustration from KW – between the lines – about not being able to do more. (Maybe that sense was just me.) I think I also sympathized because she reminded me so much of my grandmother – dictatorial, wants things her way, cocktails at 5:00 pm sharp whether in the city or in Northern Minnesota, but still willing to garden or clean the fish she caught. Like my grandmother, KW was a type of mid-20th century woman who no long exists.

  10. the Contrary Goddess

    I haven’t read the book, I don’t know who these people are, etc. I’m not really much of one for gardening books in the end I guess.

    But I really do wonder if people get what a relationship people have with their “help”. And I’ve been on both sides of that. When I was growing up, a lady came twice a week every week to clean our house. I have a brother who literally did not know toilets got dirty! But she was our “second mother”, much beloved and very much part of the family. So was our “yard man”, Wormy (who had a wooden leg and drank a lot so that eventually his step-son came to help in the yard — and these were VERY part-time positions). Now I mow for a couple neighbors, mop floors and vacuum for another. It could be subservient but isn’t necessarily.

    Anyway, I encourage people in general to rethink classist ideas, which are as confining as the class structure that is evidently on parade in this book.

  11. CG, I agree. I just reread everyone’s review and I guess I am alone in mentioning this particular issue of class. If the help is part of the family, as some of them seemed to be in Elizabeth’s case, I expected it to be mentioned in letters of such a personal nature about personal illness et.al. There is one touching incident in the letters when EL thought the Whites “might” come down and stay with her about what she should do to house the Cooks, a couple who cooked and cleaned for them.

    I think many reviewers’ responses to these women was a kind of wistfulness. They saw their gardening grandmothers in them: their imperiousness, their gardening tendencies, etc. And I guess you simply don’t diss Granny, you know?

    And I guess I am also weighing the notion of some kind of standard for being a gardener. Eventually I will become too infirm to be the dirt digger I am now, and I will still want to garden (I assume). But these women had help ALWAYS. It was de rigeur of their class. So I am wrangling with the idea that if you’re rich are you still a gardener. Which is so not true.

    My point is: If you mention the damned doctor, MENTION THE LABORER, too. As an architect it is fully my contractors’ work that I stand behind. Sure, it might be my design, but I didn’t hang the sheetrock.

  12. For more about Hellebores:


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