From My Bookshelf: Beverley Nichols

Some years ago, back in the late twentieth century when I was an avid gardener and had not yet wrecked back or knee, let alone developed the revolting mold allergy that later drove me away from grubbing in the soil or concocting smelly brews for feeding rose bushes. . . back once upon a time, I stumbled across the books of an English writer named Beverley Nichols and discovered his passion for flowers and horticulture. His writing on gardens is lyrical and enchanting. He can wax poetic about the star-shaped blooms of winter jasmine or whip up a wickedly funny caricature of his neighbor and rival gardener, the terrifying Mrs. M.

Charmed by the accounts of his wonderful gardens, and already wild about growing roses, lilacs, and just about anything that bloomed, I devoured his garden writings, gathered inspiration, and redoubled efforts to create my own small plot of paradise here on the prairie. (Yes, this was the era when I was braiding the green leaves of spent daffodils and dreaming of the day when I would be able to afford a small dovecot and tidy paths paved in Connecticut bluestone.)

But the prairie is cruel to cottage gardens, and time has brought the brutal rose virus that today makes me hesitate to prune my surviving bushes lest I spread the blight and bring them all down. I now own raised beds and in-ground sprinklers, yet my landscaping has never looked worse. Neglect, relentless winds, bagworms, and dog excavations make my winter garden a sorry sight indeed. I know that it isn’t money that makes a pretty garden. Love and regular care are what’s needed most.

Yet I don’t much love what I have–so many awkwardly sited plants in such a poor composition–and I no longer provide the nurturing my struggling plants need. Plans for redoing the front bed coagulate in my mind, and then I sigh and let those fine intentions dissipate among the excuses:  no time, no funds to spare on paving stones, too hard to dig and move established plants, later after the writing deadline is met, later after the semester is finished, later . . . ah, too late.

However, just before Christmas I stumbled upon a copy of Nichols’s DOWN THE GARDEN PATH and bought it for old times’ sake. I thought I had read it, and perhaps I have, but when I sat down with it this week–after reading several mediocre mysteries–I found nothing familiar except the author’s adroit turn of phrase and his keen wit. The old charm was still there. I laughed aloud at the author’s confrontations with Mrs. M and his scathing attack on garden ornaments, especially cement cupids.

An ember of the old joy rekindled into a tiny blaze. So compelling is Nichols’s prose that I almost grabbed the pruning loppers and set outside to do battle with bramble and thorny twig.

Almost.

The opening paragraph of this book, where he recounts how he read a newspaper obituary while traveling and immediately cabled an offer to buy the deceased’s country property, caught my attention at once. Because the day before I started reading DOWN THE GARDEN PATH, one of my favorite Internet sites had sent me notice of a Greek revival house for sale in Alabama. Built in 1875 and remodeled in 1892, the house–shown in a few meager pictures–set me ablaze with excitement. This, I thought, is my dream house! I have found it at last after a lifetime of yearning and hoping.

Alas, however affordable the house is, it is also at least a two-day drive away, which renders commuting to work impossible. Still, I felt the vines of temptation entwine around my brain and I let myself dream a little of chucking job, friends, community, and sanity and taking on a ramshackle, moldering house in another state where I know exactly one person. Furthermore, the house shows every evidence of lacking central heat and air. Heaven knows what the plumbing is like–if there is any. But my dream remains. Here, on the prairie, settled by wagon and land run, we have no houses built in 1875. So if I want Greek revival or Italianate architecture, I must go east.

And then I picked up Nichols’s book, where on impulse, whim, and reckless fancy, he sent a purchase offer by telegraph and bought his country cottage and garden far beyond where he lived in London. The timing of my temptation and his story seemed like serendipity at work. It seemed like a sign.

Here, I thought, is someone who did what he wanted to do. He dared act on his dream. He leaped.

So, perhaps, should I. Yet despite my artistic temperament, I don’t always let it have its way. And while I usually regret allowing my practical good sense to check me, I still go on indulging practicality perhaps more than I should.

Instead of phoning the realtor, I instead consoled myself in vicariously sharing Nichols’s  experience in having the opportunity and freedom to buy his getaway and develop his first garden as he wished. If I must immerse some of my dreams into the adventures of others, then so be it. But oh how I yearn to live as published writers could in 1930s Britain, when selling a few articles earned enough to purchase a country house. At least in the book’s pages, I could smile at the frivolity of putting umbrellas over foxgloves to protect the petals from being ruined by too much rain. And that sort of anecdote succeeded in distracting me from wild thoughts of should I call and buy the house sight unseen? Dare I ask the realtor to send more pictures?

Thanks to the Internet, which didn’t exist when I first read some of Nichols’s books, I have discovered that his writing career began with the publication of his first book PRELUDE in 1920. From then until his final book in 1982, he wrote over 60 books and plays, including the half-dozen or so garden books I knew about. There are mysteries and children’s books and travel books and biographies. Maybe I will sample and savor; maybe I will stick with the garden ones that are his best-known works. But if you would rather read about lovely gardens than break your back hoeing and weeding them, and if you want to enjoy prose in that lovely, graceful style that used to be so quintessentially English, and is now fading from newer publications, then give Nichols a try.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “From My Bookshelf: Beverley Nichols

  1. In the mid 1990s, just a few years out of high school, my wife and I purchased a house in El Reno, Oklahoma that was built in 1880. “Twenty-seven years before Oklahoma was a state,” I used to boast. Someday I would like to make a movie about the experience, but somebody already did (“The Money Pit”). It was a fun adventure, but the lack of central heat and air, three-pronged outlets, and the constant smell of leaking gas was enough to send us packing. For some reason most authors (and real estate agents) leave those details out! 🙂

    • Golly, that was an adventure! The oldest house I’ve ever owned was built in 1938, and I finally gave up on it. I nearly froze to death from rotting windows, no insulation, prehistoric wiring, and outlets so loose that a lamp plug would fall out of them.

      My grandparents’ house was much older, built probably about 1900, and I loved it. No central heat or air, mice scampering through the walls at night, and yet fabulous old pedestal sinks, enormous bathtubs, pocket doors, wood floors, and a terrific floor plan. Of course, my grandparents dealt with the snake infestation when they first moved in and for years thereafter ignored the cracking plaster walls.

      It always comes down to what can you put up with, what hazards do you fear, and how much can you afford to spend on fixing all of the above. I figure there’s a very good reason why there are so few pictures of this house in Alabama.

  2. Had to look up historic Alabama houses for sale after reading this. No c. 1875 house near me. 😔 My great grandparents’ house in TN is in shambles. Wish I had a say in the matter.

    • The house in question is located in Union Springs, Alabama.
      So sorry about your great-grandparents’ house. Twice I’ve come so close to buying my great-grandparents’ house to save it from dereliction, but at last a man with construction experience has bought it and is restoring it. I wish my grandparents’ home was safe, but alas it’s crumbling and abandoned.

      • Yes, I thought it was the stately-looking Union Springs one.

        It’s great someone with construction experience has your g-grands’ house. I’ve seen a few houses in south Alabama that would be gorgeous if someone with know-how, tlc, and money brought them back to life.

  3. I love the Nichol’s books as well. Don’t give up on the dream, but do it while you are young enough to make it happen!

    • Words of wisdom. I think that window is starting to close. It makes me sad. At least, if someday the dream happens it won’t be a DIY project now. I’ll have to stand back and throw buckets and buckets and buckets of money at it. Alas.

  4. Alabama sure has had some lovely architecture. The crime lies in letting these structures crumble when they could be saved.

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