Dickensian Gardens

A few weeks back I was going to write about the way Dickens used gardens in his books, but ended up writing about the man himself and his garden at Gad’s Hill, so today I’m going to try again.  I’m a great Dickens fan and its pretty clear that gardens play a critical role in several books,  but rather than try and do a heavy literary analysis  I thought I’d look at  how  Dickens uses them to set the scene for his stories as they unfold, and in doing so shows the  importance of gardens and gardening to the aspiring Victorian lower-middle class.

And  don’t forget if you’re self-isolating you dont have to wait for  Saturday mornings  to read something new about garden history. There are another 323 posts covering all sorts of  topics  for you to read over breakfast  [or at any other time!] just check out what’s available under Topics on the top menu bar – or take pot luck and choose a month from the archive column on the right and see what pops up!

The only problem has been that while Dickens is good at describing/using gardens his illustrators aren’t. They have all tended to concentrate on his quirky characters, crowd scenes and dramatic or comic situations, and the results are usually set inside…so this weeks images do not always directly relate to the text and have come from a much wider range than just illustrations for  his books.

Quotes from Dickens are in bold and my comment as normal

An illustration by Harry Furniss for the Four Sisters in Sketches by Boz

That doesn’t mean his descriptions are always  flattering. In one of the Sketches by Boz published in 1839, he writes of how “Mr. Minns found himself opposite a yellow brick house with a green door, brass knocker, and door-plate, green window-frames and ditto railings, with ‘a garden’ in front, that is to say, a small loose bit of gravelled ground, with one round and two scalene triangular beds, containing a fir-tree, twenty or thirty bulbs, and an unlimited number of marigolds.  The taste of Mr. and Mrs. Budden was further displayed by the appearance of a Cupid on each side of the door, perched upon a heap of large chalk flints, variegated with pink conch-shells.”   You get the distinct impression that the Budden’s garden was not to Dickens taste!

But it’s difficult to think of Dickens and gardens without thinking of their use to set the scene and tone of the unfolding story.  You’re left in no doubt what kind of place Barnaby Rudge was looking at:  The terrace-garden, dark with the shade of overhanging trees, had an air of melancholy that was quite oppressive. Great iron gates, disused for many years, and red with rust, drooping on their hinges and overgrown with long rank grass, seemed as though they tried to sink into the ground, and hide their fallen state among the friendly weeds. The fantastic monsters on the walls, green with age and damp, and covered here and there with moss, looked grim and desolate.  

Even more grim and foreboding, presaging the character of Ralph Nickleby is the lengthy  description of him sitting overlooking his yard    People sometimes call these dark yards ‘gardens’; it is not supposed that they were ever planted, but rather that they are pieces of unreclaimed land, with the withered vegetation of the original brick-field….He had fixed his eyes upon a distorted fir tree, planted by some former tenant in a tub that had once been green, and left there, years before, to rot away piecemeal. There was nothing very inviting in the object, but Mr. Nickleby was wrapt in a brown study, and sat contemplating it with far greater attention than, in a more conscious mood, he would have deigned to bestow upon the rarest exotic.

“Kit and the old gentleman went to work in the garden. This was not the least pleasant of Kit’s employments” as you can tell by his smile.   from The Old Curiosity Shop

And it’s not just scenes that are set like this. Characters can also be introduced in horticultural language:

Its not difficult to imagine what this character in Martin Chuzzlewit  was like: “in his listlessness and languor  [he] looked very much like a stale weed himself; such as might be hoed out of the public garden, with great advantage to the decent growth of that preserve, and tossed on some congenial dunghill.”

You can form a picture of this woman too just from the way he describes her plants: It was not, naturally, a fresh-smelling house; and in the window of the front parlour, which was never opened, Mrs Pipchin kept a collection of plants in pots, which imparted an earthy flavour of their own to the establishment. … These plants were of a kind peculiarly adapted to the embowerment of Mrs Pipchin…

There were half-a-dozen specimens of the cactus, writhing round bits of lath, like hairy serpents; another specimen shooting out broad claws, like a green lobster; several creeping vegetables, possessed of sticky and adhesive leaves; and one uncomfortable flower-pot hanging to the ceiling, which appeared to have boiled over, and tickling people underneath with its long green ends, reminded them of spiders—in which Mrs Pipchin’s dwelling was uncommonly prolific, though perhaps it challenged competition still more proudly, in the season, in point of earwigs . [Dombey & Son]

Of course he can write about cheerful gardens too,  although perhaps not quite so effectively.  “Plants were arranged on either side of the path, and clustered about the door; and the garden was bright with flowers in full bloom, which shed a sweet odour all round, and had a charming and elegant appearance. Everything within the house and without, seemed to be the perfection of neatness and order. In the garden there was not a weed to be seen, and to judge from some dapper gardening-tools, a basket, and a pair of gloves which were lying in one of the walks, old Mr Garland had been at work in it that very morning. [Old Curiosity Shop

Such scene settings can also give the reader an immediate sense of the social  standing of the location Dickens is describing. There are two good examples in that most sentimental of all his books Old Curiosity Shop published in 1840 with its famously tragic death of Little Nell which had the public weeping over their copies. The first is a verbal pictures of creeping suburbanisation:

At length these streets becoming more straggling yet, dwindled and dwindled away, until there were only small garden patches bordering the road, with many a summer house innocent of paint and built of old timber or some fragments of a boat, green as the tough cabbage-stalks that grew about it, and grottoed at the seams with toad-stools and tight-sticking snails. To these succeeded pert cottages, two and two with plots of ground in front, laid out in angular beds with stiff box borders and narrow paths between, where footstep never strayed to make the gravel rough. Then came the public-house, freshly painted in green and white, with tea-gardens and a bowling green.



The other reveals Dickens recording his horror of the effects of industrialisation and urban sprawl:

A long suburb of red brick houses—some with patches of garden-ground, where coal-dust and factory smoke darkened the shrinking leaves, and coarse rank flowers, and where the struggling vegetation sickened and sank under the hot breath of kiln and furnace, making them by its presence seem yet more blighting and unwholesome than in the town itself—a long, flat, straggling suburb passed, they came, by slow degrees, upon a cheerless region, where not a blade of grass was seen to grow, where not a bud put forth its promise in the spring, where nothing green could live but on the surface of the stagnant pools, which here and there lay idly sweltering by the black road-side. [Old Curiosity Shop]

It’s interesting in that context to note that whereas most books have several dozen references to gardens his most anti-industrial book Hard Times of 1854  has just a handful. The deeply unsympathetic Mr Bounderby displays his  “supreme satisfaction “…by growing cabbages in the flower-garden,” while there is clear anguish when the equally unsympathetic and hard-hearted Mr Gadgrind’s daughter cries out” Where are the sentiments of my heart?  What have you done, O father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here!’She struck herself with both her hands upon her bosom.”

Of course Dickens is also famous for his  lighter touches too:

If you’ve ever read Pickwick papers its hard to forget Mr Tupman escorting Miss Wardle down the garden where   “There was a bower at the farther end, with honeysuckle, jessamine, and creeping plants—one of those sweet retreats which humane men erect for the accommodation of spiders.” [Pickwick] Where she “trembled, till some pebbles which had accidentally found their way into the large watering-pot shook like an infant’s rattle.‘Miss Wardle,’ said Mr. Tupman, ‘you are an angel.’‘Mr. Tupman!’ exclaimed Rachael, blushing as red as the watering-pot itself.”

And who hasn’t been curious about new neighbours …although we probably didn’t do what the Nickleby’s neighbour did: The bottom of his garden joins the bottom of ours, and of course I had several times seen him sitting among the scarlet-beans in his little arbour, or working at his little hot-beds. I used to think he stared rather, but I didn’t take any particular notice of that, as we were newcomers, and he might be curious to see what we were like. But then he began to throw his cucumbers over our wall—’ 

If it’s not humour then it’s nostalgia that Dickens revels in. Gardens are scenes of lost childhoods and happy memories: he stood before the old house—the home of his infancy—to which his heart had yearned with an intensity of affection not to be described, through long and weary years of captivity and sorrow. The paling was low…he looked over into the old garden. There were more seeds and gayer flowers than there used to be, but there were the old trees still—the very tree under which he had lain a thousand times when tired of playing in the sun, and felt the soft, mild sleep of happy boyhood steal gently upon him.[Pickwick Papers]

‘London Recreations”, one of the Sketches by Boz , in particular show clearly how Dickens saw  the growth of gardening in the early 19thc, and in particular its importance to the aspiring Victorian lower-middle class. It’s his longest single piece about gardens and in it he  identifies two types of gardener. The first is  gently satirised as “the regular City man, who leaves Lloyd’s at five o’clock, and drives home to Hackney, Clapton, Stamford-hill, or elsewhere”. If he “can be said to have any daily recreation beyond his dinner, it is his garden.”  But you might be surprised to find that  “He never does anything to it with his own hands; but he takes great pride in it notwithstanding.”   This includes the fact that he “always takes a walk round it, before he starts for town in the morning, and is particularly anxious that the fish-pond should be kept specially neat”

The garden is the centrepiece of family life and activity, especially in the summer months, if you call on him on Sunday… about an hour before dinner, you will find him sitting in an arm-chair, on the lawn behind the house, with a straw hat on, reading a Sunday paper.”   You might encounter his older daughters with their beaux “loitering in one of the side walks” who, if they ” are desirous of paying … addresses … [should] be sure to be in raptures with every flower and shrub  … and  “certainly [be] bestowing more admiration on his garden than his wine.”

The owner probably employs someone like the gardener in a blue apron, who let himself out to do the ornamental for half-a-crown a day and his ‘keep.’  fits in perfectly with what we  saw in the recent post on Jobbing Gardeners [Sketches]   or perhaps employed a servant  :   who, on ordinary occasions, acted as half-groom, half-gardener; but who, as it was important to make an impression on Mr. Sparkins, had been forced into a white neckerchief and shoes, and touched up, and brushed, to look like a second footman.

The same horticultural spirit can be seen in the Pickwick Papers with the  figure of garden owner, Captain Boldwig, in whose garden Mr Pickwick trespasses and manages to fall asleep in a wheelbarrow.  Captain Boldwig was a little fierce man …who, when he did condescend to walk about his property, did it in company with a thick rattan stick with a brass ferrule, and a gardener and sub-gardener with meek faces, to whom (the gardeners, not the stick) Captain Boldwig gave his orders with all due grandeur and ferocity; for Captain Boldwig’s wife’s sister had married a marquis, and the captain’s house was a villa, and his land ‘grounds,’…

… he struck the ground emphatically with his stick, and summoned the head-gardener. ‘Hunt,’ said Captain Boldwig. ‘Yes, Sir,’ said the gardener. ‘Roll this place to-morrow morning—do you hear, Hunt?’ ‘Yes, Sir.’ ‘And take care that you keep this place in good order—do you hear, Hunt?’‘Yes, Sir.’ ‘And remind me to have a board done about trespassers, and spring guns, and all that sort of thing, to keep the common people out. Do you hear, Hunt; do you hear?’ 

While readers are encouraged to laugh at these absurdities,  in the next breath Dickens reverts to sentimentality again :

 “There is another and a very different class of men, whose recreation is their garden.  An individual of this class, resides some short distance from town—say in the Hampstead-road, or the Kilburn-road, or any other road where the houses are small and neat, and have little slips of back garden.”    He gives as an example here an elderly and long-retired couple for whom their garden is their pride and joy.

“In fine weather the old gentleman is almost constantly in the garden; and when it is too wet to go into it, he will look out of the window at it… ” Why? Because  “He has always something to do there, …. digging, and sweeping, and cutting, and planting, with manifest delight.  In spring-time, there is no end to the sowing of seeds, and sticking little bits of wood over them, with labels, which look like epitaphs to their memory; and in the evening, when the sun has gone down, the perseverance with which he lugs a great watering-pot about is perfectly astonishing. 

The old lady is very fond of flowers, as the hyacinth-glasses in the parlour-window, and geranium-pots in the little front court, testify.  She takes great pride in the garden too: and when one of the four fruit-trees produces rather a larger gooseberry than usual, it is carefully preserved under a wine-glass on the sideboard, for the edification of visitors…

On a summer’s evening, when the large watering-pot has been filled and emptied some fourteen times, and the old couple have quite exhausted themselves by trotting about, you will see them sitting happily together in the little summerhouse, enjoying the calm and peace of the twilight,…  These are their only recreations, and they require no more.  They have within themselves, the materials of comfort and content; and the only anxiety of each, is to die before the other.

It may be sentimental but, as we saw in the post about Gads Hill,  I’m sure it sums up Dickens own attitude to gardens.  But there is one Dickensian character who crosses the divide between these last two distinct kinds of garden lovers….and I’ll look at him in another post very soon. In the meantime why not revisit Dickens with a gardener’s eye?

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2 Responses to Dickensian Gardens

  1. David Lambert says:

    I’m a new follower and bowled over: what a great essay!. What a compendium of Dickens arcania! I have just skimmed and this evening’s isolation treat will be to read fully and savour. Thank you David.

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