Gertrude Jekyll's first book, Wood and Garden, clearly show her sophisticated rhetorical strategies and techniques found in John Ruskin's word-painting. Like him, she combines narrative, description, and personal experience to convince readers that she is masters of experience — an author worth reading because she can teach them how to see the world in new ways. Like Ruskin and many authors since him, such as Joan Didion and Annie Dillard, she begins with bits of self-denigration, denying that she possesses particular forms of expertise, before asserting that she has what turns out to be far more important — indeed essential — skills and accomplishments. "I lay no claim," she begins, "either to literary ability, or to botanical knowledge, or even to knowing the best practical methods of cultivation." Nonetheless, she can write this book because
I have lived among outdoor flowers fur many years, and have not spared myself in the way of actual labour, and have come to be on closely intimate and friendly terms with a great many growing things, and have acquired certain instincts which, though not clearly defined, are of the nature of useful knowledge.
Having so much active experience of nature, she has learned something important to us: "the lesson I have thoroughly learnt and wish to pass on to others, is to know the enduring happiness that the love of a garden gives" (Ch. 1, p. 1). Lest the reader assume that such love of plants, gardens, and surrounding nature takes the form of some weak sentimental dreamy attitude, Jekyll quickly immerses us within a world of crisp, hard fact, almost the opposite of what one might expect:
A HARD frost is upon us. The thermometer registered eighteen degrees frost night, and though there was only one frosty night next before it, the ground is hard frozen. Till now a press of other work has stood in the way of preparing protecting stuff for tender shrubs, but now I go up into the copse with a man and chopping-tool to cut out some of the Scotch fir that are beginning to crowd each other,
Jekyll, in other words, immediately presents herself as an active person who not only leaves the protections of gardens — she's no sheltered frail being protected by a latter-day hortus conclusus — but also acts upon nature. Yet even as she tells us about this expedition to destroy some plants in order to make others flourish she pauses to experience for us the beauty of nature in winter, again not something the reader opening a book about gardens might expect:
How endlessly beautiful is woodland in winter! To-day there is a thin mist; just enough bo make a background of tender blue mystery three hundred yards away, and to show any defect in the grouping of near trees. No day could be better for deciding which trees are to come down, there is not too much at a time within sight, just one good picture-full and no more. On a clear day the eye and are distracted by seeing away into too many places, aud it is much more difficult to decide what is desirable in the way of broad treatment of nearer objects.
Jekyll here, as so often, does several things at once: First, she wonders at the general beauty of winter, something as I have said, we might not expect to be emphasized in a book on this subject. Next, she informs us that we are standing within a "thin mist," which another author with another purpose might emphasize cuts through our clothing and leaves us chilled. This mist, she explains, has the important function of framing — aesthetically isolating — the group of trees she finds necessary to trim: "On a clear day the eye and are distracted by seeing away into too many places, aud it is much more difficult to decide what is desirable in the way of broad treatment of nearer objects." By making this observation, she lets us know she is not only sees beauty but has a practical understanding of aesthetic effect, particularly when connects to the hard work of artistically shaping nature to nourish and reveal its beauty.
She then continues with a series of close observations about the colors encountered in this patch of woods that has the rhetorical effect and gives us the consequent readerly pleasure of enabling us to discover a large number of separate plants, each with its own beauty and color and texture, that most of us would otherwise pass by without noticing, particularly on such a damp, chill day. In the following passage, she first directs our attention at the ground and then raises our eyes so we catch sight of trees:
The ground has a warm carpet of pale rusty fern; tree-stem and branch and twig show tender colour-harmonies of grey bark and silver-grey lichen, only varied by the warm feathery masses of birch spray. Now the splendid richness of the common holly is more than ever impressive with its solid masses of full, deep colour, and its wholesome look of perfect health and vigour. Sombrely cheerful, if one may use such a mixture of terms; sombre by reason of the extreme depth of tone, and yet cheerful from the look of glad life, and from the assurance of warm shelter and protecting comfort to bird and beast and neighbouring vegetation. The picture is made complete by the slender shafts of the silver-barked birches, with their half-weeping heads of delicate, warm-ooloured spray. Has any tree so graceful a way of throwing up its stems as the birch? They seem to leap and spring into the air, often leaning and curving upward from the very root, sometimes in forms that would be almost grotesque were it not for the never-failing rightness of free-swinging poise and perfect balance. The tints of the stem give a precious lesson in colour, The white of the bark is here silvery-white and there milk-white, and sometimes shows the faintest tinge of rosy flush. Where this bark has not yet peeled, the stem is clouded and banded with delicate grey, and with the silver-green of lichen. For about two feet upward from the ground, in the cage of young trees of about seven to nine inches diameter, the bark is dark in colour, and lies in thick and extremely rugged upright ridges, contrasting strongly with the smooth white skin above, Where the two join, the smooth bark is parted in upright slashes, through which the dark, rough bark seems to swell up, reminding one forcibly of some of the old fifteenth-century German costumes, where a dark velvet is arranged to rise in crumpled folds through slashings in white satin. In the stems of older birches the rough bark rises much higher up the trunk and becomes clothed with delicate grey-green lichen. [Wood and Garden, "January," Ch. 2, p. 7-9.]
As you read the following passage from the next chapter, "February," note how this time Jekyll begins with the sense of smell, which she then connects to the passage of time and change of seasons:
There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer. Perhaps it is a warm, mossy scent that greets one when passing along the southern side of a hedge-bank; or it may be in some woodland opening, where the sun has coaxed out the pungent smell of the trailing ground ivy, whose blue flowers will soon appear; but the day always comes, and with it the glad certainty that summer is nearing, and it the good things promised will never fail.
Having conveyed to us perhaps unexpected the woodland perfumes of February, she directs our attention to the colors to be seen during this month, and again she introduces us to the unexpected and often unnoticed:
How strangely little of positive green colour is to be seen in copse and woodland. Only the moss is really green. The next greenest thing is the northern sides of the trunks of beech and oak. Walking southward they are all green, but looking back they are silver-grey. The undergrowth is of brambles and sparse fronds of withered bracken; the bracken less beaten down than usual, for the winter has been without snow, only where the soil is deeper, and the fern has grown more tall and rank, it has fallen into thick, almost felted masses, and the stalks all lying one way make the heaps look like lumps of fallen thatch. The bramble leaves — last year's leaves, which are held all the winter — are of a dark, blackish-bronze colour, or nearly red where they have seen the sun. [19-20]
She begins, then, by mentioning color, at first apparently only to deny its presence before making us understand that typically we neophytes expect to find the wrong color, in this case green. Only moss and "the northern sides of the trunks of beech and oak" turn out to be green. In fact, "silver-grey," "blackish-bronze," and "nearly red" fill the scene. Note how the discovery of these facts take the form of a miniature narrative, for we learn about these colors only because we follow Jekyll, who while "walking southward" looks back.
Last modified 18 January 2009