Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Women who wrote Gardens; Notes on Dorothy Elmhirst; a Writer in her Garden

Dartington Hall Gardens
 © Copyright Tom Jolliffe and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

               As cultural text Dorothy Elmhirst’s garden at Dartington Hall may be the quintessential Devonian garden. I label it as ‘her’ garden purposely; Dorothy’s husband Leonard, who was perhaps the person most qualified to so designate his wife, called it thus. Friends of the Elmhirsts said that the garden 'always occupied a more central place in her thoughts than in his ... that while she spoke of 'our garden' he would normally refer to it .... as 'your garden'.
          Dorothy planned and described her garden in such a way that both garden and her diary or notebook-texts exemplify and are perfect examples of what you might call the paradox of 'garden as text’ and ‘text as garden’. Both journal and garden appear equally important in Dorothy's gardening-life. As she creates her garden, she elaborates her notes and together she and they move in and out of the Dartington garden landscapes, creating a harmonic aesthetic; a synthesis of pattern, colour, movement, narrative, composition, context, symbol, figuration, and shape:
‘I walked today to Staverton Vicarage and back. Three things took my eye, the maroon tone of the alders against the deep blue of the river by Staverton Bridge; the shining faces of periwinkle peeking out from the hedgerows ... and white Arabis climbing over the rocky ledge of a cottage garden in full bloom, with white and purple crocuses above – a lovely combination.//I’ve lost my heart to the white Erythronium like a large open star.’
          Elmhirst was able to take and work the signifying tools that made her garden speak its wisdom silently, quietly, so to be absorbed into the internal mind-texts of generations of artists, musicians, writers. How many poets have sat in the ‘Sunny Border’, which was apparently Dorothy’s most favourite garden, contemplating, creating or revising poems?
‘I have always had to keep the colours here quiet and restrained – grey foliage plants, cream, pale yellow day lilies, blues and purples when I can find them, It is the quieter colours that suit our garden best, I think.’
           How many people have walked and discussed the draft of a new poem with another writer, whilst they subconsciously absorb this garden’s subliminal essence? I know I have.
           In terms of self-identity or self definition, though calling herself ‘gardener’, I don’t believe Dorothy Elmhirst would have determined herself as ‘author’ or ‘writer’. I remember coming across a statement commenting that in effect 'her [Dorothy's] collected works are non-existent', which begs the interesting question, why not? Her words, just like the identities of plants, trees and flowers she figuratively strews on the blank sheets of her notebook pages, disperse, then grow and thrive intimately in the reader’s mind:
‘December – Heart lifting day after rain. Raindrops hanging along small branches like tiny silver bells ... I love Cotoneaster simonsii. It retains its tiny red and yellow leaves, and with orange berries it gives effect of stained glass (82)January – Yesterday, I studied buds – Lady Alive Fitzwilliam is about the loveliest of the Rhodos – somewhat like an azalea bud – crimson folds edged with white. Then Sorbus sargentiana is fascinating – sticky crimson buds with long antennae. Magnolias have sheaths of mouse-grey fur around their buds and Davidia has nuts that hang by crimson cords ... Strange light on everything today – with white earth and dark sky. The planes looked tawny and the beeches and oaks very dark grey – all the values were changed as if under the spell of an eclipse.’
         In her account of the impulse behind the development of the gardens Elmhirst describes its formation and shape in terms suggestive of landscape as text:
‘... the natural contours of the land, the shapes, the essential form that lay underneath everything else – how could we intensify these shapes and make them count? Then the trees ... How could we uncover those great trunks and show them off in their great nobility and beauty? Lastly the discovery and embellishment of architectural and historical features. Some we had to uncover, some to release, some to reveal and some to emphasise...’
        At one and the same time, she is weaving a narration in and with her writing, relating a story about Dartington’s garden’s history as a signifying system and as well, about its site within the context of the  Devonshire scenery:
‘Then came the question of the landscape around us. Should we shut ourselves off from it or extend and open out into it? Some gardens that are not in lovely country, feel they must concentrate on the within and shut themselves inside their surroundings. But here I feel that, to the East and the South, the sea, which is so near, is rolling in upon us, and is suggested by the rolling green and wooded hills around us. So we set out to open up new vistas into the distant country.’
 One thread runs into, then merges with the other, until they become indistinguishable.

        One of the many interrelated narrative weavings Dorothy fostered was her gardening and written links with others. For, as with many gardening women Dorothy’s work and writing extends outwards to other women. In particular, her friend, the landscape designer Beatrix Farrand contributed to the development of Dartington Hall's garden; Farrand's work there focused especially on the ‘head of the valley’, Dartington’s wilderness area, which with her professional input became the so-called ‘Woodland’, the part of the garden the Elmhirsts referred to as its ‘backbone’. Farrand’s extensive letters to Dorothy Elmhirst on the subject of the garden crossed back and forth across the Atlantic.

        Layers of garden and gardening at Dartington have reflected and encapsulated the chronological slices of time, just as layerings of writings have been set upon the Devonian land. The garden context of Dartington is shared by the literary context of the written oeuvre contributed by Devon’s own women writers:
‘beneath the worn out surface lay an extraordinarily dramatic landscape setting ... When they came here the grounds were neglected and overgrown with weeds. The shrubberies reflected Victorian taste, the tiltyard was a pattern of formal flower beds ... a coombe with terraces flowing into a wider river valley, whose folds drifted away south-eastwards to the sea ... It became a matter of freeing the form of the gardens from entanglement; there was never any question of imposing a design upon the landscape.’

         Dartington has often seemed to me as though the archetypal Devonian site for the imaginary mode. As the inspiratrice of music, art and dreams and as icon of Devonian culture, 'she' is a repository binding the arts, the past, place and community. Dartington Hall and its gardens is a temenos for my whole project of finding, revitalising and recognising that scattered corpus of texts/names /places that have contributed to the county’s as yet unacknowledged and, what has seemed to me carelessly abandoned, body of women’s written work.
          Perhaps, after reading this short piece one or two people will decide to go in search of Dorothy Elmhirst's gardening journals and to stroll in her beautiful gardens, at Dartington.

Quotations from Dorothy's garden journal are taken from Reginald Snell,
From the Bare Stem; Making Dorothy Elmhirst's Garden at Dartington Hall; Devon Books, 1989.

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