January 27, 2013

"Well, No, You Can't Be As Desperate As That..."

Like everyone else in America, I am spending Sunday evenings this winter in front of my television watching ‘Downton Abbey’.  And, like every male watching the show (or at least I suspect this is the case), I was only half paying attention last week because Lady Edith’s wedding preparations and resulting tribulations can hold me spellbound for only so many minutes. But Betty loves the show and so I watch it, too, provided I’m allowed to read the newspaper, work a Sudoku or read email at the same time.

The Dowager Countess offers Lady
Edith some advice about gardening
At the risk of providing a spoiler alert, in last week’s installment it is 1921 and Lady Edith has been jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony Strallan (who appears to be on the wrong side of 70 but whom Lady Edith desperately loves).  Lady Edith takes to her bed, sobbing.  Then, after perhaps a month, we see Lady Edith trying to come to terms with her new status as Perpetual Spinster.  Seeking direction in her life, she goes to her grandmother, the Dowager Countess, and the following exchange takes place:

The Dowager Countess:  “Surely, there must be something you can put your mind to.”

Lady Edith:  “Like what, gardening?”

The Dowager Countess: “Well, no, you can’t be as desperate as that.”

At that point, I put down my crossword puzzle and started shaking my fist at the television.  How dare Downton Abbey put down gardening!

Gertrude Jekyll, a
contemporary of the
Dowager Countess
And then I started to think that, well, it’s 1921 and maybe gardening really was a ‘desperate’ avocation for a woman, and especially a titled woman.  Then, a couple of names popped into my mind.  The first one was Gertrude Jekyll.  Ms. Jekyll was born in 1843 and so would likely have been a contemporary of the Dowager Countess.  By 1890, Ms. Jekyll was the most sought-after garden designer in the United Kingdom and she would go on to create more than 400 gardens in Britain and America.  In 1921, Ms. Jekyll published Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden, a book that would inspires millions of mixed flower borders.  It was likely in the Downton Abbey library.

Beatrix Farrand.  Martha Levinson
could have made the introduction
The second name that occurred to me was Beatrix Farrand.  Born in 1872, she was American and so wouldn’t have had a title, but it is quite likely that the Levinsons (the American family that married into the Crawleys and replenished their fortune) could have arranged an introduction, as Ms. Farrand was the niece of Edith Wharton, who would have been a neighbor of Martha Levinson in both Newport and New York City.  Ms. Farrand began designing gardens at 25; roughly Lady Edith’s age.  And, Ms. Farrand was working in England in 1921, designing the magnificent garden at Dartington Hall in Devon.

Vita Sackville-West.  Although
titled (she was Lady Nicolson),
she did a little gardening.
But, even knowing that the Dowager Countess was rather openly class conscious, it would have been impossible for her to ignore Vita Sackville-West (or, to introduce her more properly, Lady Nicolson).  Born in 1892 and so only a few years older than Lady Edith, Lady Mary already had several successful published novels by 1921 (‘The Dragon in Shallow Waters’ was published that year).  In 1930, she and her husband would acquire Sissinghurst Castle, where Lady Mary would go on to do some very nice gardening.

I realize that Downton Abbey is drama and that it is the product of the imagination of Julian Fellowes.  But Mr. Fellowes seems to have it in for gardeners.  In Season One, we learned that since the Norman Conquest, the Dowager Countess has won the annual prize for ‘Best Bloom’ at the Downton Village flower show.  But the Dowager Countess actually has nothing to do with growing those roses.  It is her gardener who does all the work, and she simply shows up to collect the prize.  Moreover, in doing so, she is deliberately slighting the work of her own butler’s father, whom everyone in Downton knows has exquisite rose-growing skills and who ought to have been winning the competition all along.

All right; so maybe I’ve been paying more attention to Downton Abbey than I let on.  But darn it, Mr. Fellowes, go a little easier on us gardeners.


  1. Well done, Neal! And by the way, I believe the Queen enjoys some time in the garden. Can't get much more highfalutin than that!

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  3. I opened our February meeting of the San Diego Horticultural Society with this quote. Thanks for looking into more of the gardening history of the time.