Tag Archives: England

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.

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From My Bookshelf: THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE

I’ll be the first to admit that my shelf of to-be-read books gets overloaded and dusty at times. Some of the novels on the bottom of the stack are so far from recent their publication buzz has long since faded to silence.

If I mention Alan Bradley’s mystery, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE, to people, I get either a blank look or a quick shrug with the comment, “Sure, I’ve read that!”

So I’m late to the party with this one. I think Bradley has added two or more novels to the series about little Flavia de Luce since PIE was published. Still, who says we have to read books the instant they’re published? Maybe you’re like me, not quite sure about PIE’s premise or its odd title.

All I can say is, Don’t be as slow as I was to pick it up!

Set in England during 1950, only five short years following the ravages of WWII, PIE is a delight from start to finish. Flavia’s entry action in the opening pages is so characteristic of her. It leaves a memorable first impression, plus it foreshadows a later event.

Back in cave-dwelling times, when my writing career as a professional novelist was just beginning, I sent Official Manuscript #2 to my New York agent. It was a young adult adventure set in the Middle Ages. She called me to have a serious talk about whether I intended to write more books for kids. (Please realize that in cave-dwelling times, a long distance phone call was a big deal.)

In 1980, the kids’ market was all but dead in the water. My agent advised me away from that direction, fearing that I intended to target my fledgling career toward a dead end. Should I repeat the word dead one more time in emphasis?

Neither of us could see into the future, much less predict that today the young adult market would rule.

Nevertheless, in 1980 editors would have glanced at the opening pages of PIE, seen that the protagonist is eleven, and rejected it because they weren’t interested back then in publishing children’s fiction.

Let’s get this point established: PIE may be about a child, but it’s not a book written for children. Flavia is as smart as any adult protagonist. The little genius is a clever investigator, and her youth keeps her constantly on the move. The book doesn’t plod. It doesn’t bog down in the middle. The plot twists do their job well, and the clues are puzzlers.

Beyond the central plotline, we have several subplots to keep things lively. Flavia’s ongoing rivalry with her eldest sister Ophelia leads to some brow-raising methods of revenge. The poignant character Dogger, so faithful to Flavia’s father, may be the loyal servant, but he’s more than a stock character as he gives Flavia the emotional support that she critically needs–although she’d rather die than admit it.

The backstory of Flavia’s beautiful mother injects another layer of mystery to the tale. Add several small threads about various villagers, and you have a complex, fast-paced, intricate mystery with a good villain and a very real dose of danger.

Although Bradley’s a Canadian author, he’s managed to evoke a believable post-war England setting. If you’re an Anglophile, enjoy yourself. If you’re not up to speed on mid-century British slang and customs, let alone some of the famous movie stars of the ’50s, you may find yourself puzzled by more than the mystery. Don’t let that keep you away, however.

Just find a comfy chair, put your feet up, set a cup of tea or cocoa at your elbow, and enjoy turning the pages.

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