Reviewed by Rachel Fenn
Sissinghurst is the sort of place that you can’t help but fall in love with at first sight, even if you have absolutely no interest in gardening. It is the epitome of romance, formed of the remnants of a red brick Elizabethan castle smothered in sweet smelling flowers and surrounded by the green and pleasantly undulating Kent countryside. It is an idyll and should really be an illustration in a children’s book of fairytales.
The first time I wandered into its gloriously haphazard gardens, I had very little concept of how it had been created. I suppose I assumed that it had always been like this; a perfect little oasis that nature had reclaimed for its own, spreading its roots and branches and colourful explosions over the long since abandoned man-made structures that stood in its way. I knew that Vita Sackville-West, that most quintessential of early 20th-century literary socialites, had bought and put her stamp on it in the 1930s, but until I read Sarah Raven’s illuminating unraveling of the story of the garden’s creation, I had no idea just how much all we enjoy at Sissinghurst today is due to Vita’s incredible vision.
Raven begins this lovely, copiously illustrated volume with a very personal introduction, exploring her own experience of Sissinghurst and how Vita’s spirit still infuses the gardens and buildings today. Sarah Raven is enormously lucky to be married to Adam Nicolson, grandson of Vita, and so she actually lives at Sissinghurst and has an intimate knowledge of the garden in every season. Her descriptions of waking up to the smell of the roses Vita planted drifting into her bedroom window, and of having tea in one of the ‘garden rooms’ surrounded by the masses of flowers Vita chose are enchanting and jealousy inducing and make her depiction of Sissinghurst so much more vibrant than if they had been written by someone with no connection.
I loved reading about Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson’s first impressions of Sissinghurst, and of how Vita knew she had to have to it from the moment she set eyes on it; a woman after my own heart! Something that I found particularly interesting was that Sissinghurst was first built by an Elizabethan gentleman who turned out to be a great-great-great etc grandfather of Vita; talk about something being meant to be. This had an enormous amount of meaning for Vita as she spent her adult life in mourning for the loss of Knole, the nearby family home she loved so much, which was given to the National Trust. Sissinghurst enabled her to take back her family history and recreate an ancestral home of her own, and she did this in her own unique style from the very moment she bought it. Vita was anxious to move away from the Edwardian style of gardening she had grown up with and hated. The stubbly rose gardens her mother had favoured would not do at Sissinghurst; Vita wanted to ‘cram, cram, cram’, experimenting with different heights, shapes, colours and varieties to create a landscape that looked natural, unplanned and completely informal. Both she and Harold were always keen to try new combinations and methodologies, and loved nothing more than a weekend at Sissinghurst, sketching out schemes and measuring out paths, often with the help of their sons, Nigel and Ben.
Raven goes on to quote sections from Vita’s gardening books, giving advice on all manner of plants for different climates as well as indoor plants and cut flowers. I must say that these sections were not of great interest to me, as I am black fingered and have no garden of my own in which to experiment with Vita’s hints and tips, but if I did, I am sure I would find them incredibly helpful. As someone who has only ever read Vita’s novels, I was very impressed by her encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and how skillful she was at understanding which flowers and shrubs work together. She was no mere ‘lady gardener’, prodding gently at the soil with a trowel; she knew her stuff, and gardening was her passion. Sissinghurst was a labour of love that lasted until the very end of her life, and though she hated the National Trust, I hope that it would make her happy to know that people continue to flock to her beautiful garden year after year to enjoy and marvel at the incredible place she carved out of the Kentish soil. If you’ve never been, you must go, but make sure you read this brilliant book first!
Rachel Fenn blogs at BookSnob.
Vita Sackville-West & Sarah Raven, Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst: the Creation of a Garden (Virago: London, 2014). 978-1844088966, 400pp., hardback