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The Unruly Garden: Wisdom of Vita Sackville-West

Posted by. Ann Herndon Marshall
Posted on 27 June 2017

blogs, blogs:Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies

​​A year ago, the Leeds Centre​ for Victorian Studies hosted the 26th Annual International conference on Virginia Woolf and Heritage. If you missed it, you can buy a copy of the Selected Papers here, or enjoy this blog post on Vita Sackville-West's Modernist garden writing by conference presenter Ann Hern​don Marshall.
The Unruly Garden: Wisdom of Vita Sackville-West
Text and illustrations by Ann Herndon Marshall
There is a spirit of Antigone in the green modernists who resist the indignity of mass slaughter by looking earthward, Katherine Mansfield perhaps most poignantly in memorializing a brother "blown to bits" in B​elgium with her New Zealand stories [1]. Mansfield's aloe blooming once every hundred years allows wife and mother Linda Burnell to imagine a noble flourishing. Virginia Woolf's "elder man," one of the war-time pilgrims to Kew Gardens, talks of "spirits of the dead…telling him all sorts of odd things about their experiences in heaven" [2]. Like Woolf, Vita Sackville-West did not escape the effect of two wars. Her growing retreat into her garden is a theme in Nicolson's and Raven's recent books on Sissinghurst. Her striving after a new language of flowers reflects both her feminism and a modernist awareness of a damaged world.

Sackville-West advocates "recklessness" in gardening and "violence" in garden writing. She captures the skeptical spirit and unregulated pleasure suited to her subject: "The behavior of plants is indeed inexplicable.  It breaks all of the rules; and that is what makes gardening so endlessly various and interesting" [3]. She admires the "curmudgeonliness" of William Robinson who takes to task "great public parks" that display plants "not infrequently in a repulsively gaudy manner" [4]. Victorian flower gardens are "poor of all the nobler plants" [4]. For Sackville-West too, the Victorians were benighted victims of carpet bedding. In Pepita, she tells how her aging mother waylaid passing flower-sellers in the city and sank flowers into the ground to "pretend they had grown there" [6].

Her tribute to Major Lawrence Johnston's garden shows her preference for unpredictable landscape. She writes poetically of his garden at Hidcote Manor. Her word choice dramatizes her surprise in a tongue-twisting spondaic:

         _      _           _            _    _
"the quincunx of pleached hornbeam" [7].
Instead of taming nature, a modern gardener seeks surprise.  She is "in search of rare and interesting plants", the more provocative the better:

somebody came along and said [vervascum bursa] were like some strange sub-marine growth, waving about; and somebody else said they ought to be growing in a primeval landscape with a pteroactyl browsing amongst them …. [8]

  Vervascum Bursa

Vita relishes the response of an audience. She shares a manipulative bent with 18th C. predecessors, the urge to stage the uncanny.  She writes repeatedly of her "taste for greenish flowers" [9]. The harlequin rose, "an amusing bush"[10], "is likely to please anybody with a freakish taste [11].

The Wisdom of Old Wives Tales
Vita elevates the authority of a neighboring cottage gardener who displays a wisdom never attained by "nurserymen":
​​A cottage friend of mine who grows some superb cyclamen on her kitchen window-sill tells me that her grandmother advised her to water them with weak tea.  This may sound like an old wife's tale, but the tales of some old wives sometimes turn out to be right. [12]

Three years later, Vita revisits her neighbor's virtues:
Successful gardening … is a question of love, taste, and knowledge. The neighbor about whom I was writing … possesses all these virtues, added to fingers so green that the water must surely turn emerald in the basin every time she washes her hands. [13]

She admires the cottager's greenhouse:
There are cardboard dress-boxes tied round with string to prevent them from disintegrating, and old Golden Syrup tins, and even some of those tall tins that once contained Slug-death, and some of those little square chip-baskets called punnets. [14]

A digression on the Madonna lily shows just how unsatisfactory vaunted authorities can be:
We are told a) to plant her among other growing things, that her roots may be shaded; b) to plant her where the hot sun will ripen her bulbs … (c) to lift her every two to three years (d) never at our peril to move the bulbs at all. [15]

The controversy over the Madonna lily recalls Sackville-West's disturbing account of St. Teresa of Avila, whose body was repeatedly exhumed and mutilated: "the imagination shudders at its contemplation" [16].

Unsentimental Botany

Though she had many influences as a gardener, she reveals her two favorite garden writers, Reginald Farrer and D.H. Lawrence, praising Farrer for his "extravagance and bravura" [17] and quoting a telling passage from Lawrence to show how ably he conveys color.  The passage from "Flowering Tuscany" also echoes her own dislike of the finality she associates with false experts:
​How a colour manages to be perfectly strong and impervious, yet of a purity that suggests condensed light, yet not luminous, at least not transparent, is a problem. The poppy in her radiance is translucent, and the tulip in her utter redness has a touch of opaque earth.  But the Adonis-blood anemone is neither translucent nor opaque. It is just pure condensed red, of a velvetiness without velvet, and a scarlet without glow. [18]

She calls Farrer "half poet, half botanist; Lawrence, wholly poet" as she celebrates their common trait: "They both write with violence and not with sentimentality" [19]. This anti-sentimental thrust glosses her startling take on fuschia: "I like the ecclesiastical effect of their red and purple among the dark green of their foliage; and, of course, when you have nothing else to do you can go round popping the buds" [20]. While she hurries the fuschia to maturity, she cannot wait for the Incense plant to die: "I kept some sprays of it in a vase for so long that I began to loathe the sight of the thing; it turned dusty long before it started to fade and die; it reminded me of those Everlasting Flowers, the Helichysams, which are only too everlasting indeed" [21].
​Vita takes exception to the sentimental gendering of the "Lady Tulip":
I suppose her alleged femineity is due to her elegance and neatness … she is really more like a slender boy, a slim little officer dressed in a parti-coloured uniform of the Renaissance. [22] 
Reassigning gender undermines the old trope of women as flowers familiar from Tennyson's "Come into the Garden, Maud" and Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs.

Vital Diction
Sackville-West awards "dishonourable rank" to adjectives, "quaint," "dainty," and "winsome."  The issue of "smell" (an "honest word," she says) arises as garden writers search for "genteel substitutions; 'scent' or 'perfume' nor 'odour' or 'fragrance" cannot take smells' place when a flower simply smells good; is fond of the verbs "startle," "surprise," and "shudder." Here she recalls T.S. Elliot's test for poetry, the "shudder" [23].
​Vita has been type-cast as a "romantic" gardener, but her writing encompasses modernism and feminism. She strives to incorporate the new biography in her un-flowery flower portraits.  The same revisionist energy runs through her Aphra Behn, her hagiography, and Some Flowers. Furthermore, like Lawrence and Farrer, Sackville-West is keen to "approach the flower as though it were a mystical thing, reflecting on each some strange beauty which is to be found in perfection only in another, unknown world" [24]. Sackville-West's scrupulous detachment is compatible with her quest for the sacred. Like Antigone, she shuns gentility in favor of awe and a conviction of chthonic power at a time when many despaired of the sacred.

[1] Mansfield, Katherine. "Prelude."
[2] Woolf, Virginia. "Kew Gardens." P. 92.
[3] Sackville-West, Vita. In Your Garden Again. P. 67.
[4] Robinson, William. The Wild Garden. P. 5.
[5] Robinson, William. The English Flower Garden. P. 41.
[6] Sackville-West, Vita. Pepita. P. 287
[7] Pepita. P. 227.
[8] Sackville-West, Vita. In Your Garden. P. 222 and p. 95-96.
[9] IYG. P. 41.
[10] IYGA. P. 122.
[11] Sackville-West, Vita. V. Sackville West's Garden. P. 127.
[12] IYG. P. 42.
[13] IYG. P. 44.
[14] IYG. P. 45.
[15] Sackville-West, Vita. Some Flowers. P. 107.
[16] Sackville-West, Vita. The Eagle and the Dove. P. 100.
[17] SF. P. 14.
[18] As quoted in SF. P. 15.
[19] SF. P. 14 and p. 15.
[20] IYG. P. 82.
[21] IYG. P. 91.
[22] SF. P. 37.
[23] Kermode, Frank. "Eliot and the Shudder." P. 13.
[24] SF. P. 15.


Kermode, Frank. "Eliot and the Shudder." London Review of Books. 13 May, 2010: 13-16.
Lawrence, D. H. "Flowering Tuscany." Criterion 6:4&5 (Oct & Nov 1927): 305-310 & 403-408.
Mansfield, Katherine. "Prelude." Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield, 1916-1922. Eds.
          ​​Gerri Kimber and Vincent O'Sullivan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP: 56-93.
Nicolson, Adam. Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History. New York: Viking Press, 2010.
Raven, Sarah and Vita Sackville-West. Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville West and the Creation of a
​​​          Garden. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2014.
Robinson, William. The English Flower Garden. New York: The Amaryllis Press, 1984.
Sackville-West, Vita. The Eagle and the Dove: A Study in Contrasts, St. Teresa of Avila, St.
​          Thérèse of Lisieux. London: Mermaid Books, 1953.
---. Even More for Your Garden. London: Francis Lincoln Edition, 2006.
---. In Your Garden (IYG). London: Oxenwood Press, 1996.
---. In Your Garden Again (IYGA). London: Isis Large Print, 2000.
---. Pepita. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1937.
---. V. Sackville West's Garden Book. Ed. Philippa Nicolson. New York: Atheneum Press, 1979.

---. Some Flowers (SF). New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993.
Woolf, Virginia. "Kew Gardens." The Complete Shorter Fiction. 2nd ed. Susan Dick. San Diego,
          New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1989: 90-95.

Ann Herndon Marshall earned her B.A. from Hollins College and her doctorate in English from the University of Virginia. Her recent article on Katherine Mansfield and W. L. George is included in Katherine Mansfield and the Bloomsbury Group (2017); "Act Natural:  Dubious Proposals in The Mill on the Floss, Vera, and Rebecca" will appear in the Summer 2017 issue of Women: A Cultural Review devoted to Elizabeth von Arnim.  She has presented three papers on Vita Sackville-West at the International Virginia Woolf Conference. Ann lives and gardens in Charlottesville, Virginia.​

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