I wrote a few months about Dickens and his garden at Gad’s Hill and also about the way he uses gardens in his novels. Today I was just going to look at one rather quirky Dickensian character and his rather quirky garden, but as I started writing I realised Dickens had got it right once again. This character, odd though he appears at first, is not actually that strange, and instead of being entirely a creation of Dickens fertile imagination, I think he is actually a reflection of a large number of us gardeners… definitely including me.
So this post is going to be a bit self-indulgent – with these 2 photos and others through the text as proof of that – for reasons which will be apparent by the end.
First of all though, allow me to introduce you to John Wemmick, who, if you don’t already know him, appears in Great Expectations. This was Dickens 13th novel and tells the story of an an orphan nicknamed Pip and how he comes into a fortune given to him by anonymous benefactor. It was published in weekly instalments in Dickens’s own magazine All the Year Round, in 1860 and 1861, before being published as 3 volume novel later in 1861.
One of the principal characters is a lawyer named Jaggers, who is the agent for Pip’s mysterious patron, and Wemmick is his chief clerk. Like most of us Mr Wemmick lives between two worlds: those of work and home. But unlike most of us he manages to keep them entirely separate. No after work drinks or dinner parties with work colleagues, no gossip about the family at work, or gossip about work and clients at home. By day Wemmick is a hard-nosed, hard-working cog in the machine, but after work and at weekends he is someone completely different.
Part of Wemmick’s work involves visiting prisons to speak to Jagger’s clients, and on one occasion he invites Pip to join him on a visit to Newgate, London’s main crimianl prison. Pip comments: “It struck me that [Wemmick] walked among the prisoners much as a gardener might walk among his plants” , and he even refers to the prison as a greenhouse. He remarks on “the advance they had made, since last observed, towards coming out in full blow at their trial”, while a new prisoner reminds Wemmick of “a shoot that had come up in the night”. Before leaving the clerk spends extra time with someone who is to be executed in a few days time, and after saying goodbye and turning to leave, he looks back and nods “at this dead plant, and then cast his eyes about him in walking out of the yard, as if he were considering what other pot would go best in its place.”
Why the horticultural language? The answer becomes clear when Pip is invited to visit Wemmick at his home in Walworth, then a semi-rural suburb in south London: “I have not much to show you; but such two or three curiosities as I have got you might like to look over; and I am fond of a bit of garden and a summer-house.”
Walworth, says Pip.”appeared to be a collection of back lanes, ditches, and little gardens, and to present the aspect of a rather dull retirement. But he was in for a surprise: Wemmick’s house was a little wooden cottage in the midst of plots of garden, and the top of it was cut out and painted like a battery mounted with guns.” It was, Pip thought, “the smallest house I ever saw; with the queerest gothic windows (by far the greater part of them sham), and a gothic door almost too small to get in at.” “My own doing,” said Wemmick. “Looks pretty; don’t it?”
It’s sad that none of the 19thc artists who illustrated Great Expectations attempted to portray Wemmick’s castle, and indeed I can only find Edward Ardizzone’s version from later illustrators. If anyone knows of other images please let me know
It was a miniature, almost mediaeval landscape. The cottage was surrounded by a moat [ if a ditch four feet wide and two deep, can be called a moat] which was crossed by a plank drawbridge which Wemmick raised as a matter of principle once back inside.
He had installed a flagpole complete with flag, and near the house twas a ” a separate fortress, constructed of lattice-work. It was protected from the weather by an ingenious little tarpaulin contrivance in the nature of an umbrella.” Underneath the protection was a cannon – known as the Stinger -which Wemmick fired every night at 9.
But this was not all. Like every good mediaeval manor the cottage tried to be self-sufficient “At the back,” said Wemmick, “out of sight, so as not to impede the idea of fortifications… there’s a pig, and there are fowls and rabbits; then, I knock together my own little frame, you see, and grow cucumbers; and you’ll judge at supper what sort of a salad I can raise. So, sir,” said Wemmick, smiling again, but seriously too, as he shook his head, “if you can suppose the little place besieged, it would hold out a devil of a time in point of provisions.”
A path through the “landscape” led to “a bower about a dozen yards off, which was approached by such ingenious twists of path that it took quite a long time to get at; and in this retreat our glasses were already set forth. Our punch was cooling in an ornamental lake, …(with an island in the middle which might have been the salad for supper) was of a circular form, and he had constructed a fountain in it, which, when you set a little mill going and took a cork out of a pipe, played to that powerful extent that it made the back of your hand quite wet.”
Self-sufficiency was not confined to food: “I am my own engineer, and my own carpenter, and my own plumber, and my own gardener, and my own Jack of all Trades,” said Wemmick, in acknowledging my compliments.
Now while we might think that Dickens was exaggerating Wemmick’s eccentricity in all this, in fact he’s merely echoing fashion. Gothic or rather, to be fair, sham gothic was all the rage at the time Great Expectations was set, and as Kenneth Clark [of Civilisation] in his book The Gothic Revival points out almost all Gothic mouldings or ornament could be bought wholesale. Where Wemmick was eccentric was that his castle was a DIY job.
His inspiration could well have been local because Walworth was also home to the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens, which I wrote about earlier this year. This commercial pleasure garden had lots of Gothic buildings and a series of huge panoramas, and since Great Expectations was written in the aftermath of the Crimean War one commentator has suggested that Wemmick might have got the idea for his fortifications from one of these: a re-creation of the fortifications of Sebastopol.
Mr Wemmick’s castle and his garden are escape mechanisms, places where he can be being creative and imaginative in ways that he can’t be at work. Thats a feeling I’m sure we can all sympathise with : that delight in getting home, metaphorically (indeed, literally, in Wemmick’s case) pulling up the drawbridge, and losing ourselves in the flowerbeds and the punch. If you read about Gads Hill it certainly what Dickens himself did, and I warmed towards him [and to Wemmick] recognising a fellow gardener, with grandiose schemes and pretensions just like our own. But Wemmick went one stage further than his creator and actually carried them out proving the truth behind the old adage that an Englishman’s home is his castle.
Its at this point that I confess I share the same feelings and, like Wemmick I’ve always wanted a castle too. The opportunity arose a few years back when my partner and I were contemplating a move from our house in France.
We actually looked at several mediaeval chateaux or ruins and remnants of them, but they would all have been building projects rather than garden projects so in the end we had to settle for something slightly less grandiose, but more manageable.
But of course having tried and failed to purchase a mediaeval wreck the hankering after the castle walls continued.
In the process of reclaiming the ground at the new place we had to clear 50 years worth of agricultural rubbish spread over nearly half an acre, a task too big for us on our own. The upshot was it got bulldozed into a heap before being buried in a very deep hole dug in one corner of the garden, with the spoil from the hole dumped on top.
This led to another problem. There may not have been an unsightly rubbish but what were we to do with a huge mound of gritty sand? At first I decided to settle for a snail mount, like the ones I’ve written about on here, but it soon deteriorated into a weed-infested heap, and have you ever tired to mow a very steep bank? Its not easy!
In the end the siren call of the flagpole, portcullis and gothic arches was too strong and, after a bit of persuasion, my partner finally gave in… up went the flagpole …. and then he began to build me a castle on top.
The mound was covered with plastic , the steps were built and the stones collected…
Unfortunately it doesn’t have a portcullis [yet] but it does have a gothic window and a royal effigy in the corner which help make it a perfect look-out post to spot marauding brigands as they cross the neighbouring fields.
Its also a wonderful place to sit on a summer’s evening with a glass of wine or 2 and watch the world go by
And before you point out that castles usually have moats I’ll let you into the secret that I couldn’t persuade him to dig one for me, mainly because it wouldn’t be terribly practical on such sandy soil.
However I did persuade the man with the digger to excavate a tiny ditch around a corner of the garden where it backs onto our lake..,.
…and we installed a bridge so now I have Treasure Island as well as my ruined castle!
Under normal circumstances you could have come to see the chateau ruins as the garden is open to the public occasionally in the summer but that pleasure will have to be delayed for another year.
I’m not even sure when or even if I’ll get to see the castle myself this year. That’s a great pity because I’d rather hoped to be celebrating the onset of middle age on my 70th birthday yesterday sitting in my castle and taking in the view…and a glass of wine or 2.
However if you want to know more about it I’m giving a free lecture for the Gardens Trust on Tuesday 28th July at 10.00 which will be repeated on Wednesday 29th July at 6.00. It’s one of a series of 6 that I’m doing to help raise money to replace what we’re losing because all our normal fund-raising events have been cancelled. Donations to support the Trust’s campaigns to protect historic parks and gardens would be welcome! https://bit.ly/DonateGardensTrust