When it comes to my reading habits, I’m decidedly not an Anglophile. I don’t care much for cozies, the Royals leave me cold, and I’ve never had the hankering for a servant—I find that peculiar kind of class slapstick distasteful. So a book by a foppish confirmed bachelor on his trials and travails reclaiming a derelict manor house garden was definitely not on my radar. Fortunately I have friends who know better, and who aren’t afraid to send me their own beloved books no matter what kind of silly pronouncements I make.
Case in point: Beverley Nichols’ Merry Hall, a birthday present several years ago from my good friend and gardening compatriot Sue Dickman. It languished until last month, when I suddenly picked it up after promising to write a guest post for her blog, A Life Divided. I had the idea that I would read the book and write about it in the space of a few days, which most definitely did not happen. But I was smitten right away, and even though I was breaking the cardinal rule of gardening books—which is that they should be read in the dead of winter, not in May when the garden would be far better served by my actual presence—I can’t think of better spring reading. If anything it inspired me to action, and the good folks who run the Windy Farm Garden Center should be grateful.
Merry Hall is the first of a trilogy, originally published by Jonathan Cape in 1951 and reissued in 1998 by Timber Press. Beverley Nichols was something of a bon vivant, one of those early 20th-century men of letters who went everywhere and knew everyone and managed to find time to write about it all endlessly. Much of this was memoir, much of it about his various gardens; each move to new grounds seemed to occasion a new set. Merry Hall, a huge white elephant of a Georgian manor house that he bought in 1946, was obviously a big enough mess to warrant three volumes.
But in that messiness lies the book’s charm. Nichols may wear his undying drollness like a force field, but he’s also right on the money:
There is a certain dialogue which must be familiar not only to everybody who has ever owned a garden, but also to everybody who has ever been shown over one.
It begins with the words … “But you should have seen it when we came!”
Do you recognize it? You are standing in the porch, with your hostess and her daughter by your side, looking out on to a trim lawn and a neat herbaceous border, and you make some polite little remark about how beautifully everything is kept up. That starts them off.
“But you should have seen it when we came!” cries the hostess, clasping her hands. “Shouldn’t he, Ada?”
“He should indeed,” agrees Ada. “He could have NO IDEA!”
“None! Nobody could have any IDEA!”
“It was a WILDNERNESS!” cries Ada.
And there is Nichols’ plot, for the most part. Merry Hall is a shambles, and he sets out to rehabilitate it, much to the concern of Oldfield, the ancient gardener who comes with the place, various fussy female neighbors, and his manservant Gaskin—see how quickly I got over the servant issue? There are actually a few things to be got over. Nichols’ misogyny is meant to be taken with a large grain of salt, and the more he complains about his meddlesome neighbors Miss Emily and Our Rose the more his grudging affection shines through, but lines like “[Women] should be abolished. No. Not abolished. They should be beaten with the utmost regularity—as Noel Coward once said—like gongs” just grate, no matter how much tongue in cheek is intended. And the odd ugly post-Colonialism is embarrassing. In fact, it becomes clear early on that Nichols doesn’t get his hands very dirty at all. He has some very good anecdotes about the various disappointing laborers he hires along the way—the French lesbians Ninette and Ninon are wonderful—but no matter what, he is the idea man.
But it’s through those ideas, obsessions and far-fetched schemes that he shows his hand. As each new plan unfolds, whether it involves decorative urns, a wood’s worth of cypress trees grown from seeds, or a fantastic pool with spouting dolphins, Nichols is unashamedly full of wonder at the world. His tone is consistently arch and a bit snarky, but his heart is there on his sleeve for everyone to see, and that’s the charm of Merry Hall. And maybe it is the unique Englishness that I’m reacting to:
When I surveyed the apparently hopeless project, I had the same sort of feeling, in a minor way, that most of us had in Britain in 1940. The enemies, it seemed, were invincible…. We were in the in the mood which was expressed, on another occasion, in the immortal phrases of Queen Victoria during the Boer War. “Please understand that there is no one depressed in this house. We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.”
Nichols isn’t a bad man. He humors the neighbor ladies endlessly, and for all his complaining he tolerantly respects Oldfield’s reverence for the manor’s former owners. And he adores his cats, One and Four (Two and Three met unfortunate ends, but he intends to get to One Hundred). And how can you help warming up to a man who gives this aside?
(At the risk of seeming intolerably discursive, it must be explained that every autumn, when the new bulbs arrive, a proportion of them are handed out to any friends who may be around so that they may plant them in some secret place, where I can have the fun of discovering them in the spring. It is a sort of floral hide-and-seek which is vastly entertaining.)
The book is a handsome thing, printed on thick, buttery paper stock, and the typesetting looks to be a straight-up reproduction of the original. Each chapter is headed with a line drawing by William McLaren, every one a beauty. There’s something reassuring about the whole package, especially Nichols’ combination of stiff upper lip and sentimentality. His vision of the garden pool, its construction, and the eventual purchase of the iconic dolphin reads almost like a love story.
I went to the car, and lifted out the dolphin. The twilight was almost gone; there was a watery moon that seemed to race across the sky; it was a magic hour…. Then I … lifted up the dolphin, carried him over, knelt down and set him on the platform. There was an opening under one of his fins, and the water fell directly on it, tinkling inside him and filling him up. As he grew fuller he bagman to gurgle and make happy bubbling noises, suggestive of delight. I stepped back, waiting, watching. There were several moments of agonizing suspense, and then—it happened. Out of his mouth shot a thread of diamond clear water. It formed a tiny arc that sparkled like a necklace in the light of the rising moon.
Maybe a good gardening book needs to be a love story. Certainly we don’t spend so much money and time on our knees in the dirt for any other reason. And if so, Merry Hall is a perfect little romance that hits all the right notes. I have the following volume, and am looking forward to seeing what happens there.
(Photo of Nichols appreciating his laborers in 1941 courtesy of the Beverley Nichols website.)