Gardens have an enchanting quality that has not been overlooked by artists of all kinds. Many famous authors have featured gardens in their work and used them as a device for character and plot development. In literature, gardens represent spaces of great potential which can promote healing and learning, create romantic bonds, and even send characters into magical realms. These seven classic books all contain gardens that hold great significance and are artfully described. They just might inspire you to model your own garden after them, or at the very least give you some new ideas to dream about.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
“Will you tell me how long you have loved him?”
“It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”
Gardens in Victorian novels are important in-between spaces. In the nineteenth century, domestic areas inside the home were traditionally feminine and the public sphere was seen as a masculine space, but Victorian gardens, as spaces that are not quite private or public, create an area where men and women can interact as equals. In Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, only realizes her true feelings for the gentlemen she loves, Fitzwilliam Darcy, when she visits his manor while he is away.
Elizabeth strolls through the grounds at Pemberley and is taken aback by the gardens, and moreover by how well cared for they are. It is partially this care, given to the manor and its grounds by Mr. Darcy, which convinces Elizabeth that he is, in fact, a gentle and kind man worthy of her love. Reading this novel makes you want to stroll through a traditional English garden (and perhaps take a dip in the pond with Mr. Darcy).
Murder by the Book by Rex Stout (1951)
“’Look at this Oncidium varicosum,’ he grumbled. ‘Dry rot in April. It has never happened before and there is no explanation.’”
Murder by the Book, one of many wonderful Rex Stout novels featuring detective Nero Wolfe, is not just a riveting murder mystery, but a lesson in garden therapy. Nero Wolfe’s occupation is detective, but his passion is for growing orchids. When his cases get too tough, he retreats to his greenhouse to garden and, sure enough, after spending enough time ruminating among his orchids, he is able to solve the case.
The orchids play such an important part in the novel that there are even some orchid varieties named after the protagonist now! Reading Murder by the Book, with its inspiring descriptions of the sun room filled with exotic and fragrant orchids, is the next best thing to having an orchid room of your own, and it may even inspire you to create one in your home.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1895)
“Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.”
The garden in Oscar Wilde’s most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is the backdrop for many comedic and romantic scenes. It provides a space for characters to hide and overhear one another, and most of all it offers an escape for the young lady of the house, Cecily. Cecily is constantly wandering off to the garden to write in her diary or to water flowers, and uses the excuse of watering flowers to avoid her distasteful German lessons. Cecily’s joy at escaping into the garden to take care of her beloved blooms and daydream is a good reminder of the simple pleasures that getting out in the garden can bring.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
“she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains.”
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, gardens represent transition to a new space. It is in the garden that Alice finds the rabbit hole, and once she tumbles down it she spies another garden from inside a hallway which she feels she must get to if she is ever to find her way home. The image of the garden Alice is desperate to reach, with its cooling fountains and lush flowerbeds, sounds good enough to magically shrink yourself to get into!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (1605)
“What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?”
In this Shakespearean comedy, flowers carry a great deal of influence and have the power to control the way that people act and feel. It is the heady perfume of summer flowers which puts Titania into a deep sleep and casts a spell on her so that she falls in love with the next man she sees. A Midsummer Night’s Dream captures the enraptured feeling we get from taking an evening stroll through a flower garden in the heat of summer, and reminds us of the magic that’s there.
The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies by Cicily Mary Barker (1927)
“O little playmates whom I love!
The sky is summer-blue,
And meadows full of buttercups
Are spread abroad for you.”
Cicely Mary Barker’s Complete Book of the Flower Fairies has been delighting children and adults for generations. Her gorgeously detailed illustrations of each fairy and its corresponding flower are a wonder to look at, and make learning about plant identification feel positively enchanting. After reading this, children and grown-ups alike will want to make sweet little fairy houses for the garden to encourage the flower fairies to come and stay.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
“The things which happened in that garden! If you have never had a garden, you cannot understand and if you have had a garden, you will know that it would take a whole book to describe all that came to pass there.”
The Secret Garden is a charming coming-of-age story that shows how Mary Lennox, a malnourished, unhappy orphan girl is transformed by her discovery of an abandoned secret garden all her own where she can play in the fresh air and learn to nurture spring bulbs and help them grow. The garden’s power is so great that it even entices Colin, a bed-ridden boy who suffers more from hypochondria and refusing to leave the house than anything else, to venture outdoors and see the spring arriving in the garden for himself.
The secret garden, with its robin family twittering away in their nest, ancient sprawling roses, apple trees trained flat against the wall, and ivy covering up the hidden door, is a private space of mystery, transformation, learning, and healing.
What better way to appreciate these literary gardens than by reading outdoors? The books on this list are just perfect to read while curled up in a hammock or on a bench in your favorite corner of the garden. Grab one of these classic books and a glass of lemonade, get comfy, and prepare for some serious garden inspiration.
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