The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly 2021
as reviewed by Gail M. Murray
With meticulous period detail, international best-selling author, Julia Kelly, transports the reader, immersing them in three different time periods. The fictional garden she creates at Highbury House is central to the plot and theme – a garden like a person, is never static requiring nourishment to change and grow.
After moving to London and visiting historic Hidcote Manor, Kelly was inspired to set her novel in Warwickshire near Stratford. She paints an engrossing portrait of her fictional garden filling it with luscious garden rooms similar to Hidcote as garden designer Venetia’s vision evolves.
In 1907 Venetia Smith is hired by the wealthy Melcourts to design a grand garden. Although ahead of her time, she is privy to 19th century propriety so if exposed her secret and passionate love affair with Helen Melcourt’s botanist brother Matthew Goddard could not only ruin her reputation but her livelihood.
In 1944, the British government requisitions Highbury House as a convalescent hospital. Later, local farmers and ‘land girls’, arrive to plough up the huge lawns for crops. Much conflict is at play between the imperious mistress of the manor, Diana Symonds, Cynthia her controlling sister-in-law and cook, Stella Adderton. At times, lines between the classes blur when Diana offers assistance to Stella and befriends land girl Beth (both beneath her class). This section has a sweet romance between land girl Beth, who loves to sketch the gardens, and the dashing Captain Hastings.
Diana is the most compelling of the heroines. Though proud, she is gentle with children, her son Robin and Stella’s orphaned nephew Bobby. She is the one most associated with the winter garden, her retreat, whose respite turns to tragedy. The winter garden motif runs throughout the novel. Perhaps it is symbolic of man (woman) at rest with promise to bloom.
In the present, cell phone toting Emma Lovell, owner of Turning Back Thyme, is hired by Sydney, Diana’s great-granddaughter to restore the neglected gardens to their former glory. It is through her digging we finally become aware of the women’s connections.
At first, I found it confusing, keeping so many characters straight. In the 19th century portion many are called Miss or Mr. as well as their given names e.g. Mrs. Symonds is introduced formally and later referred to as Diana; cook is Miss Adderton to her employer and Stella to her new friend Beth.
The novel’s strength lies in the individual stories, which in themselves could be their own separate novels. In the last few chapters, we piece together the clues and the connection between these women becomes apparent. I almost wanted to read all the chapters on Diana first and then go back and read all the sections on Beth etc. On a second reading the novel is more fluid and relatable and you can see how Kelly is planting the seeds to solve the mystery of this rich and satisfying read.
The scenes Kelly depicts when Matthew teaches Venetia to cross a rose creating a new variety – the rose to become Celeste’s rose – are poetic and erotic. They are clearly soulmates. Matthew, a botanist and a sensitive soul, who has been wondering about her garden rooms, expands on her choices:
Each room represents the life of a woman. The tea garden is where polite company comes to meet, all with the purpose of marrying a girl off. The lover’s garden speaks for itself…and the bridal garden…and the children’s garden. I would guess the lavender walk represents femininity…..the statue garden. Aphrodite, Athena, Hera, depictions of the female form. (No one had ever noticed before, yet this man saw right to the heart of it.) The one thing I don’t understand is how the water and winter garden fit, he said. (p149)
Gardeners and garden aficionados will love the garden descriptions sprinkled throughout the narrative. I leave with you the prologue, Venetia’s poetic and poignant farewell to her creation:
Stark and beautiful, with its clusters of silver birches broken by dogwood, blood red stems violent against mournful grasses bending in the wind. Pure white hellebores – the Christmas rose, dot the border. In a month the first greenheads of snowdrops will burst forth through the snow in elegant white blooms before purple crocus and yellow stamen follows. She will not see these heralds of spring.