Monday, June 21, 2010
ADAM NICOLSON’S SISSINGHURST: AN UNFINISHED HISTORY
MULTIPLICITY IS ALL
Those indifferent to blossoms, Bloomsbury, Balliol and the fate of the hedgehog might find Adam Nicolson’s SISSINGHURST: AN UNFINISHED HISTORY hard going. Anglofiles, gardeners greenies and history buffs will love it. Nicolson writes with great tenderness and lyricism about the Kentian Weald, an area, in southeast England where Sissinghurst Castle is located. His scholarly forays into the rich past of this quintessentially English are a joy to read. He has a deft touch with geology, language, architecture, and economics and his knoweledge of the local fauna and flora is as deep as it is loving.
Sissinghurst once belonged to the Nicolson’s family. His paternal grandparents poet and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, author and diplomat Sir Harold bought the dilapidated Elizabethan buildings and adjacent land in the 1930s. There they created a celebrated garden where hedges enclose spaces planted with flowers of a single color. Its white garden became one of the most famous in the world. Their son, writer and publisher Nigel Nicolson, whose best known work is PORTRAIT OF A MARRIAGE, a biography that details Vita’s passionate affair with Virginia Woolf, inherited the property. He, in turn, donated it it to The national Trust in 1960.
Under the Trust’s stewardship Sissinghurst became a commercial success, attracting nearly 200, 00 visitors a year. Changes Nicolson came to deplore went hand in hand with success. He regretted the transition of the working farm that produced fruit, vegetables and meat into a monocultural, chemically dependant entity. That was a change he decided to reverse.His book is an account of how he worked in partnership with the Trust to restore the farm through traditional agriculture. It is a moving story filled with unforgettable vignettes and nostalgic illustrations. Besides the informative chapters on archaeology and place names, it is a story that also documents social change. Nicolson is the 5t Earl of Carnock. His democratic efforts to reach a consensus with the workers who maintain the Sissinghurst gardens, gift shop and restaurant are heart warming.