How To Garden Like Colette and Virginia Woolf

Editor’s Note: The following article is excerpted from “My City Highrise Garden,” a new book by famed feminist author Susan Brownmiller about the garden she maintains atop her Manhattan apartment building.

One summer day the editor of a women’s magazine visited my garden with her assistant. They were preparing a feature on how the busy new woman allocates her time, or something like that. My golden coreopsis was looking particularly lush; I pointed to the row of troughs with pride.

“And every month the gardener comes in and changes the flowers?” the editor prodded.

“I’m the gardener!”

She was crestfallen. The busy new woman she had in mind would delegate garden work to others. To “people.” As the editorial team made a hasty departure, I heard the assistant mutter, “She hasn’t changed her look, either.”

That was catty.

Here is another story: On a rare trip to a manicurist I apologized for my rough hands, and explained that I had been gardening.

“Rough hands are a small price to pay for a garden,” the manicurist sighed. Now, that was a smart woman.

Dirt under the fingernails, rough hands, and scratches on arms and legs are the routine occupational hazards in a gardener’s life. I do not wear gloves when I plant roots — I need to untangle and spread their growth in their newly dug holes before I cover them in fresh soil, tamp them down, and give them a bubbling drink of water. After many hurtful engagements with thorns, I wear long gloves and long sleeves when I prune the roses; rubberized gloves are the best. For general work — adding manure or fresh soil, dragging the hose, weeding, pinching and snipping — I‘m usually in clothes that I don’t mind getting dirty. A wide-brimmed hat shields my face from the sun, and if the wind sends it flying I put on an old rain hat with drawstrings that tie under my chin. Add my eyeglasses and you get the picture: not glamorous. I should have worn that rain hat on a long-ago spring day when I shook the yews to rid them of winterkill and a shower of dead needles fell into my hair.

Old shoes are so obvious for garden work — why am I bringing up the subject? E.B. White’s emotion-laden preface to Katherine White’s “Upward and Onward in the Garden” will do the explaining. His meticulously organized wife, The New Yorker’s fiction editor who died before her book was published, would forget she was wearing her good Ferragamos when the impulse to get down in the muck of their New England spread overtook her. But of course! When the impulse to garden strikes, you garden!

Barring the occasional hornworm or beetle, I am the least attractive presence in my oasis. The garden’s mission is to look fantastic when I’m working in it, not mine, yet I admit that when I’m suited up for my chores, a vision of my eccentric appearance can creep into my consciousness. This is likely to happen when a neighbor calls down a cheery hello from the rooftop, breaking my solitude to remind me I’m on display here as much as my garden.

Do men worry about looking eccentric when they work in a garden? I doubt the thought ever crosses their minds; they do not suffer any counterpart to the judgmental weight of traditional feminine attire.

England’s influential early 20th-century landscape designer and author, the short, stout, myopic Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932) of Munstead Wood, Surrey, bowed to feminine convention in one regard only: she did not dare to wear trousers when she laid out her impressionist “drifts of color.” Outfitted in a snug cap, a workman’s canvas apron with pockets for tools, and a pair of laced up, hobnailed army-issue men’s boots, she kept her lower limbs encased in a full ankle-length skirt while she dug and moved plants and climbed ladders to survey the grounds. What an impediment to mobility that skirt must have been. How the fear of looking mannish must have haunted her esthetic soul.

On one embarrassing occasion early in their productive friendship, the architect Edwin Lutyens, Jekyll’s young friend and collaborator — he did the houses; she did the gardens — was steadying a ladder for Bumps, as he called her, when the wind upended her skirt to reveal her undergarments. Lutyens kept his grip on the rungs and averted his eyes, but he told the story. Miss Jekyll was still climbing ladders in a skirt at the age of 80. Her assistant gardeners knew when to turn their gaze elsewhere, though some did snigger behind her back. Remarkably, Jekyll’s army-issue boots achieved an iconic status in the 21st century. An oil painting of the boots, and a pair of the boots themselves, show up in museum exhibits and on Pinterest. From a recent biography I learned that Miss Jekyll once hand-embroidered a banner for a woman’s suffrage society. Hooray for her!

Vita Sackville-West struggled to understand her transgressive desires, as her son Nigel Nicolson revealed in “Portrait of Marriage,” the 1973 stunner that included her attempt a half-century earlier to write a confession of her “dual nature.” Violet Keppel, her friend since childhood, was visiting and Vita put on an outfit that “the women-on-the-land were wearing.”

Some background may be needed here: During the First World War, Britain called for ‘Land Women’ to replace male agricultural workers who’d been sent to the battlefields; the volunteers were issued a set of practical trousers that upholders of tradition protested were a horrific display of cross-dressing.

Vita confessed in her manuscript, “In the unaccustomed freedom of breeches and gaiters I went into wild spirits; I ran, I shouted, I jumped, I climbed, I vaulted over gates, felt like a schoolboy let out on a holiday; and Violet followed me across fields and woods with a new meekness….” Vita’s exultation was her epiphany — she would not suppress the domineering lesbian side of her nature any longer. Costumed in full drag, she ran off with Violet to Cornwall, Paris and London where they registered at hotels as man and wife. It took three years for Harold Nicolson to put a stop to this scandalous threat to their marriage.

The restoration of Sissinghurst, a 16th-century castle and garden that had fallen on hard times, became the bedrock of an open marriage agreed to by Vita and Harold, a mild-manned diplomat in the Empire’s foreign service. They would each pursue their same-sex desires — her “muddles” and his “fun” — but Vita would not make another spectacle of herself that damaged his dignity. Violet was blamed for everything that had happened.

Jack Vass, the head gardener at Sissinghurst, oversaw the construction of the Lime Walk, the Yew Walk, the Moat Walk, the Nuttery, and the formal garden rooms, including the white one, while Harold and Vita planned and argued over the grand schemes in letters to each other nearly every day. An early photo shows Vita ill at ease as she digs with a long spade in a skirt and stockings; in later photos she poses grandly in high boots and riding breeches. The times were changing. When Vass retired three years before Vita’s death in 1962, Vita broke with convention and hired two women as Sissinghurst’s head gardeners; they stayed on when Britain’s National Trust, organized as a charitable foundation, made Sissinghurst one of its properties.

Frankly, I’ve never cared for Vita, her noblesse oblige, her books of leaden poetry that won major prizes in class-obsessed England, her overweening self-absorption. From what I’ve read of the weekly garden columns she wrote for the Observer, I’d say she was clueless about gardeners with tiny yards. Not that it mattered. Her readers adored being chatted up by the chatelaine of a grand estate: she dispensed advice from on high they couldn’t possibly use, reported at length on the habits of wayward shrubs, and pulled off clever one-liners: “The truth is probably that most plants are temperamental, except the weeds, which all appear to be possessed of magnificent constitutions.”

What did Virginia Woolf see in Vita Sackville-West besides an imposing presence, uninhibited sexuality and a lavish lifestyle? Obviously something very important, for after two fumbling attempts at sex the women segued into a lifelong friendship. Virginia recorded in her diary that motherhood made Vita “a real woman” whereas she was “a failure”; she was “a failure” as well next to her sister Vanessa, who bore three children. I believe Virginia knew from the beginning that Vita was great material for a novel, and novels, not motherhood, were what truly mattered to Virginia Woolf. She mined Vita’s life for the sex-changing hero/heroine of Orlando. Vita was flattered — she recognized, as did Leonard Woolf, that the mentally fragile Virginia was a rare genius.

Virginia and her Leonard, the “penniless Jew” with a hand tremor, had a small, leaky house with an orchard in Sussex, a place to retreat from the social whirl of London and their duties at the Hogarth Press; their Bloomsbury crowd lived nearby. The garden at Monks House became Leonard’s passion; Vita teased that one could not make Versailles on three-quarters of an acre.

Virginia wrote in a refurbished tool shed at the garden’s far end, and when the money from her books started to pour in, her private writing quarters were moved to a substantial lodge on one of their new terraces. There were times, she said, when she walked through the orchard so immersed in her thoughts that she bumped into a tree. She picked apples, made blackberry jam, played bowls with Leonard and their friends on a patch of lawn, and fretted whenever Leonard bought more land to expand the garden. He put in a beehive; she helped bottle the honey.

The sales of Orlando helped pay for a part-time gardener, their indoor plumbing, and a heated greenhouse. “Flush,” her whimsical “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, paid for two fishponds. A photo of one of Vita’s spaniels was on the cover. Virginia had given up her Edwardian dresses, but she couldn’t see herself in the riding breeches or the Turkish pants that Vita favored. The two friends went on a lark to get their hair shingled, but neither cared to dress like a jazz-age flapper. To resolve the eternal question of feminine-enough attire, the blazing feminist of “A Room of One’s Own” and “Three Guineas” chose a long skirt, a baggy jacket, and flat shoes.

Once E.M. Forster was invited to Monks House for a spring weekend. On Sunday his hosts read the newspapers and then retired to write, informing him that he was on his own until lunchtime. Forster stewed in the garden. Eventually Leonard popped out to cut the dead wood on a buddleia bush. Then Virginia came out and proposed that they take Forster’s photograph. “That’s a good idea,” Leonard murmured, continuing to saw the buddleia.

“I’m always losing him in the garden,” Virginia said in mock horror. “He’s up a tree or behind a hedge.” To Vita she wrote, “If only I could remember the names of the flowers, and what Leonard is proud of this summer, it would be like one of Miss Jekyll’s old letters, minus the common sense.”

Leonard added a second greenhouse to the property; their part-time gardener was hired fulltime. “We are watering the earth with money,” Virginia scratched in her diary. By 1924 the income from her books had outstripped Leonard’s earnings from his books and editing jobs, but she understood that if she’d married the formidable Lytton Strachey, or any of her early suitors, she might not have written anything. Life with Leonard had given her “pure happiness.”

In 1941, when the Nazi blitz came to Sussex, Virginia suffered another of her bouts with madness. Leonard worked heroically, as usual, to monitor her sleep, coax her to eat, and stay out of her way when she became violent and called him her enemy. One day in March when a servant rang the lunch bell, Leonard in the garden thought Virginia was in the house. She was not in the house. She had written him a letter to say she was hearing voices again and could not fight them any longer, and then she’d slipped out and walked to the river Ouse to drown herself in its currents. Leonard found her walking stick. Her body was found several weeks later.

Nobody did trangressive better than Colette, the most popular novelist and essayist in France during the first half of the 20th century. After an odd start as the precocious author, barely out of her teens, of the naughty Claudine novels that her first husband published under his name, her genderbending was wilder than Sackville-West’s. She was equally narcissistic, just as scandalous, and even more exhibitionistic than Vita as she conducted torrid lesbian affairs, toured in a risqué music hall revue with Missy, her highborn, titled, cross-dressing lover, and seduced the 12-year-old stepson of her second husband, who said he was grateful. Her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, protected her from intrusive admirers like a sophisticated incarnation of Leonard Woolf (coincidentally both men were Jewish).

During her long career Colette published more than 80 books; Americans know her best for the Chéri series and for “Gigi,” the novella she dashed off in the last year of the German occupation of Paris when she was 70, and that was adapted for the stage and screen in many versions, including a musical. Colette’s signature style in her essays and fiction was the outrageous pronouncement, which she’d imbibed from her combative mother, Sido. Her mother’s garden, a marvel in their Burgundy village, gave her a lifelong love of nature and horticulture.

Colette knew her plants and flowers — their country names, their botanical names, and the precise moment in different parts of France of their triumphant season. She praised the anemone that “opens all at once, like a parachute seized by a gust of wind.” She excoriated the iris “that passes for blue, thanks to the unanimity of a host of people who know nothing about the color of blue.” She railed at a shop selling “roses that travel by air” and “stand erect on the end of a disdainful stem, and smell of peaches, tea, and even of roses.”

Late in her life, when she lived above the gardens of the Palais-Royal in Paris, crippled by arthritis, immensely obese, and confined to her bedroom, a publisher made her an offer she could not refuse: He would deliver a bouquet or a potted plant once a week and she would send him her musings that he’d make into a little volume. Between rhapsodies and digressions she wrote that peonies smelled like dung beetles and the vanilla scent of the heliotrope was nauseating. That’s Colette for you— crouching as always for a pounce.

The first author to tackle male chauvinism in horticulture head-on was an American. Eleanor Perényi was a biographer and magazine editor in New York who had gardened on her husband’s estate in Hungary before World War II (he was a baron) before she moved to Stonington, Connecticut, with her son and her mother, a popular novelist of the day. “Her Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden,” researched while feminism was roaring, devoted a fierce chapter to the prohibitions, dissuasions, and patronizing remarks women endured over the centuries for their “little hobby” or their grander desires, while the repetitive task of weeding was always encouraged.

And yet, as Perényi argued, women were the world’s first planters and cultivators, and today one can find scholarly research on women as inventors of the hoe, the woven produce basket, and other gardening equipment while the names of a few women who hybridized famous roses and daylilies have slowly come to the surface. Perényi suggested that someone should write a full treatise on women’s place in gardening history. It hasn’t happened.

So, is there “a woman’s way” of gardening, and more to the point, is it something to celebrate? Not to keep you in suspense, my answer is No. Physical strength was never one of my attributes, but then, people who garden for pleasure have always employed others to handle the heavy manual labor. I’ve never cottoned to the theory that women are particularly attuned to nature because of the internal reproductive rhythms of our bodies, nor do I think that “eco-politics” is a naturally female endeavor, though I understand full well that when men wage war, women and nature rank high among the deliberate damage. Especially now that I’m an old lady, I gladly pay others to do the strenuous labor. I am still agile enough to climb ladders, but I would never climb one in a skirt, nor would anyone expect me to. That, gardening friends, is true historical progress.

Susan Brownmiller is the best-selling author of “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape” (Bantam, 1980) and “In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution” (The Dial Press, 1999). This is excerpted from her new memoir, “My City Highrise Garden.”

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How To Garden Like Colette and Virginia Woolf

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