Something that combined my love of Shakespeare with gardening was always going to appeal. What I hadn’t expected was that it would be informative as well as entertaining. Shakespeare’s Gardens by Jackie Bennett managed to surprise me by being both.
With the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death this year, a flurry of books about him was predictable. I had anticipated biographies, new interpretations of his plays, accounts of Elizabethan life but gardens? It seemed a tenuous link.
In fact, the book, published in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, manages to show how important they were. Bennett argues that to ignore Shakespeare’s houses and gardens is to miss out on a “very large body of visible evidence” about his world. She shows how from the gossiping gardeners in Richard II, comparing the state of the nation to a neglected plot, to the numerous references to plants and flowers, the influence of gardening is found throughout his work.
The book is based on the five Stratford-upon-Avon gardens now owned by the Trust. Of these, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is arguably the most famous and attracts visitors from all over the world. The Trust, which has its origins in a mid-19th century campaign to save Shakespeare’s birthplace for the nation, owns not only that house in Henley Street but also Mary Arden’s Farm, where Shakespeare’s mother grew up, Hall’s Croft, the house he gave to his daughter, Susanna, and New Place, his final home where he died in 1616.
Bennett uses these houses to take us on a journey not only through the biography of Shakespeare’s life from Stratford grammar school pupil to national poet but also through the development of gardens from “necessary food-producing plots to fashionable, flower-filled showpieces”.
She does not limit herself to Stratford but starts with a general overview of gardens at the time and touches upon London plots, such as those at the Inns of Court, that he may have visited.
Along the way, we learn about Elizabethan garden style with its ‘foot’ mazes and topiary; the influx of new plants, such as marigolds and nasturtiums; and the medicine of the time, and its use of herbs.
Much of this information is slotted into the chapters in the form of ‘standalone’ sections and they include passages on roses, daffodils, herbs and Tudor food.
Understandably, little in the Stratford gardens has withstood the passage of 400 years and one of the challenges for the Trust is what style to adopt in each garden, whether to take them back to a more Tudor design or keep what has evolved; it will be interesting to see what course they follow in the future under the leadership of new head gardener Glyn Jones, formerly at Hidcote Manor Garden. In the meantime, the book charts their development from the plots Shakespeare would have known to the planting of today.
Trademark quality photography by Andrew Lawson and an easy-on-the-eye layout stop the book being merely an exercise in historical research, while the detail makes it more than just a brochure for what is already a popular tourist destination.
• Shakespeare’s Gardens by Jackie Bennett, photographs by Andrew Lawson, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £25 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)
• Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.
• Also available from The Suffolk Anthology
• For more book reviews, see here