I had never heard of the Irish novelist Emily Lawless (1845–1913) before the Orlando Project team recommended her non-fiction writing. A Garden Diary: September 1899–September 1900, published in 1901, looked as though it might be interesting, and I think it is – though not because it is in any sense at all a conventional garden diary.Our cover image is taken from Volume 25 of the Ruskin edition, and shows a path through a Brantwood copse to the sunny meadow beyond it. By chance, this rather oppressive and gloomy picture suits the tone of much of the book.
Emily Lawless was a scion of an Ascendancy family, though not a conventional one: her grandfather, the second Baron Cloncurry, was a supporter of the United Irishmen during the failed rebellion of 1798, spending a short time in prison as a result. Emily, brought up in comfort and privilege at the family home in County Kildare and at her grandparents’ home in County Galway, was intensely patriotic in her feeling for Ireland (which is clearly much in her thoughts throughout the writing of this book), but was opposed to Home Rule, and it may have been the difficulty of maintaining this position in the Ireland of the late nineteenth century that caused her to move to Surrey, where in a bracken- and bramble-infested tract of land near Dorking, she began to create a garden.
The book starts conventionally enough: an introductory section glances sardonically back at the aspirations of the ten-year-old Emily to become a traveller and explorer, and concludes that, in ‘real life’, reading the works of real explorers is actually a good substitute – we can share the thrills and dramas of Bates, Wallace, Stanley, Park, Miss Kingsley and Mrs Bishop, to say nothing of ‘the prince of them all’, Charles Darwin, just as though we had actually participated in their journey. Meanwhile, gardening is a scaled-down alternative or displacement activity.
Early on, the book offers a puzzle: ‘we’ are referred to – as in ‘We often say to one other that it is impossible that we can have been only two years and a half in possession here…’, and the dedication is ‘To the Garden’s chief Owner and the Gardener’s Friend’. Lawless was never married, but seems to have shared the home and garden in Surrey with Lady Sarah Spencer, and there is an impassioned and moving piece (25 August 1900) on the importance of friendship as the greatest of all blessings.
Another puzzle is the size of the garden: it is ‘small’ by comparison with what Lawless was used to in Ireland, and it is not ‘Kew or Versailles’. On the other hand, it has copses; a lily-pond; an informal (‘wildlife’, as we would say these days) pond; a Dutch garden (formal, for spring bulbs); gardens intended to replicate districts of Ireland, including the Burren, with their own distinctive flora; and a grass walk, ‘sweeping up from the region of the larches’, which is 11 feet wide. (My garden is 14 paces long – I checked at the weekend while mulling over the relative meanings of ‘small’ – but I identify completely with Lawless (and indeed with all other gardeners): ‘I adore my garden, and yield to no one in my estimation of its supreme importance as a topic.’)
Then, suddenly, the plant lists, the musings on Life and Nature, the quaint saying of Cuttle the gardener (who comes, it has to be said, out of the same box as Williams the gardener in Wives and Daughters or old Ben Weatherstaff in The Secret Garden) all come to an abrupt halt – completely bewildering to this modern reader. After a gap of four weeks, on 27 October 1899, the diary continues: ‘Who dare forecast even his nearest future? These last four weeks have been so charge with anxiety . . .’, and I realise that Lawless is referring to the outbreak of what used to be called the Second Boer War, but is now known as the Anglo-Boer War; something we rather skipped over at school, but which with longer hindsight was of major significance in the shaping of the twentieth-century British Empire and indeed foreshadowed its decline.
The first Boer War had involved skirmishes between regular British troops and Boer militiamen, lasted for 10 weeks in the winter of 1880–1, and ended in an uneasy peace. But the fuel of ambition, grievance, greed and exploitation which kept the British and the Boers in mutual hostility had by 1899 been ignited by the discovery of gold (in addition to the diamonds first mined at Kimberley in 1871), and the struggle for control of the land and the mineral wealth was clearly going to be protracted and painful.
This was the first war which the British had fought since the arrival of the telegraph cable, and it was the first war since the Indian Mutiny in which British civilians (settlers of all kinds from landowners to miners to clerks) were likely to be involved. Thousands of British people had relatives or friends in South Africa: they knew already that the Boers were (although ‘amateur’ soldiers) tough and experienced fighters on their own terrain; and the telegraph meant that news from the front could be transmitted almost immediately back to the whole of the population through uncensored journalism (famously including that of Winston Churchill) rather than filtered by the army High Command through official dispatches.
Hence ‘Black Week’, when the British Army suffered three defeats in six days at the hands of the Boers; hence the tension over the sieges of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking, and the almost hysterical relief and rejoicing as, one town at a time, the besieging forces were driven back. Indeed, the entry for 19 May 1900 is headed ‘Mafeking Day’ – though Lawless contrasts the outburst of celebration (which apparently gives us the verb ‘to maffick’: ‘to rejoice or celebrate with boisterous public demonstrations’) with the inevitable mourning in so many individual homes, and later she notes the strange phenomenon by which ‘the most reticent of races has flung its reticence utterly to the winds’ (a phenomenon noted more recently at the death of Princess Diana).
After Mafeking Day, the progress of the war is barely noted until 4 September, when appears to be drawing to an end (though a peace treaty was not in fact signed until 31 May 1902). Outside affairs take centre stage again only twice: on 7 July, when news of the Boxer siege of the Western legations in Beijing became known in England, and on 4 August, when, in half-comic and half-real anger, Lawless rejoices in the news that previous reports of atrocities and deaths in China had been greatly exaggerated. She hopes that ‘responsible’ heads of daily newspapers will keep a low profile for at least a few days, but admits: ‘Not that I pretend for a moment to have been one whit wiser, or less lugubrious myself!’
I realise that this is one of the longest blogs I have yet posted (many thanks to those who are still with me!): the book itself is only 245 pages long. But if you want to know about the introduction of frogs into Ireland (both the factual and mythical versions), or the insectivorous plants of the west of the island, or the curse of oak seedlings, or the (hypothetical) invasion of Ireland by France and the consequent status by the laws of war of civilian soldiery, or indeed life, the universe and everything, as ruminated upon by an educated, witty, somewhat melancholy, thoughtful and independent Victorian lady, this is definitely the book for you.