I’m English, so naturally I love books, and I love gardening (although I must admit that my gardening is of the if-it-lives-it-lives variety). Still, I pore over gardening catalogues in between reading other books, so I was particularly pleased recently when I had the chance to meet Marta McDowell. She’s the author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, a beautiful and fascinating look at Beatrix Potter and the gardens she created and featured in her books.
I sort of knew that Peter Rabbit lived in a real garden, but I didn’t know about Miss Potter’s tremendous talent for drawing or much about her private life at all. So I have found this book absorbing, the perfect accompaniment to a nice cup of tea when I’m taking a break from my computer. In addition to the biographical element, the photographs and illustrations are lovely, and the list of plants she grew helps me dream of improving my own humble plot. The book would make a great gift for a gardening friend – perhaps accompanied by a copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit…
Marta McDowell was kind enough to let me interview her for this blog:
GC: Your previous book was Emily Dickinson’s Gardens. What gave you the idea of writing about famous writers’ gardens?
MM: I had a eureka moment on a chance visit to The Homestead, Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1990s. As a student I’d found the poetry of Emily Dickinson difficult. At The Homestead that afternoon I discovered that Dickinson had been an enthusiastic gardener. It was a tiny common thread — I was recently bitten by the gardening bug — and became a personal entrée into her life and work.
After that I was on the lookout for writers who garden. The pen and the trowel as I like to say.
MM: At an exhibition at the Morgan Library in 1988. It was a spectacular show that explored her biography and work: the Tales, her art including botanicals, and her life as a Lake District farmer and preservationist. I visited her home, Hill Top Farm, in 1997. Then I got distracted by Emily Dickinson and didn’t come back to Miss Potter until 2007 when Linda Lear’s biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature came out.
GC: You’re a horticulturist. Was it Beatrix Potter’s watercolor illustrations that first interested you, or the woman herself?
MM: The woman. Beatrix Potter was a person of grit. She reinvented herself several times, and classed herself with “people who never grow up.” I understand that. And the more I learned about her gardening and personal style the better I liked her. She was relaxed about her manner of dress, direct in her conversations, loyal in her correspondence, regular in her work habits. She described her garden as survival of the fittest (evolution was relatively new in her lifetime — equivalent to DNA in ours). Just ask my plants — mine is the same.
GC: How did you go about researching the book?
MM: There are many excellent archives with Potter material. The largest is with the Victoria & Albert in London, but I also spent time in the National Trust archives and the Armitt Museum in Ambleside in the Lake District. I worked at the Morgan Library’s Reading Room, at Princeton University and at Connecticut College. I was also able to find material online. F. W. Warne’s image database was a key resource. And I hired a photographer, Dayve Ward, in the Lake District.
GC: She seems to have been quite a private person. How easy was it to find the information you needed?
MM: I was blessed with researching a person who became famous in her lifetime and wrote engaging letters. So while, before she died, Beatrix Potter Heelis burned her correspondence, most people who received letters from her seem to have saved them.
When she was a teenager, she kept a journal, (in code!), that was painstakingly translated by an early scholar of Beatrix Potter. Because her father was a photographer, there are many pictures of the people and places (and plants) important to her life.
There are wonderful biographies and studies of Beatrix Potter, many fostered by the active and engaging Beatrix Potter Society. The members of the Society couldn’t have been more generous. They helped with material, ideas, reading drafts, making suggestions — I’m still amazed.
GC: What was your favorite part of writing the book?
MM: For me, I loved to step through Beatrix Potter’s garden with her, to try to see it through her eyes — what was growing, her favorite plant (snowdrops!), the work that needed to be done in the beds and borders — and how she honored her garden by including it in her letters, her illustrations and her writing. My best day of the research was one November morning when I got to work in her garden at Hill Top alongside the National Trust horticulturist, Pete Tasker. We were cutting back the perennials. Heaven.
You can connect with Marta on Twitter