Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern English Gardens

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Rebecca Bushnell, Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern English Gardens (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 198 pp., illus. in black-and-white, £18.95 (hbk), ISBN 0- 8014-4143-9

Sometimes it is difficult to take seriously the earliest English gardening manuals. They tend to make suggestions so far alienated from a modern audience’s sensibilities – such as the need to acclimate field crops to loud noises by ringing bells or firing canons so that the sound of thunder will not startle and damage them – that it is too easy to discredit and dismiss them. Green Desire, however, reclaims these books and places their gardening desires in their appropriate cultural and historical context.

Through a clear and often-engaging organization, Green Desire works through a constellation of issues that shape early modern gardening manuals (those printed before 1700). Because this is a book about books, rather than about actual gardens, Rebecca Bushnell includes a good introduction to early modern books and the cultural role they played, factoring in the importance of elements such as the size of the book, the presumed readership, the dedicatee and the information included in that dedication. She draws from a broad range of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century printed sources, such as chorography and curiosity books, which are not generally consulted for gardening analysis. Included is a discussion of the profession of gardener, and some biographical information is given for authors most often referred to in this period – Hill, Parkinson, Lawson, Tradescant, Hartlib, Switzer and others. She is particularly keen to distil in her chapter ‘The Ladies’ Part’ what can be known of women’s experience in the garden from the scanty available evidence.

Two sections in Green Desire stand out as genuine contributions to scholarly understandings of early modern gardening. First, Bushnell carefully travels the complicated territory of class difference and labour practices as they appear in this material, particularly the anxieties of the leisured gentleman in his garden (with his gardeners), and the husbandman and the necessities of his labour. Second, she convincingly shows how the ‘secrets’ of gardening (i.e. changing the colour of flowers or grafting together completely different plants), which are often the potential stumbling blocks for modern readers, actually operate in a popular scientific discourse, especially in the seventeenth century.

Perhaps most importantly from a garden history standpoint, Bushnell focuses effectively on the relationship between nature and art as it was expressed in the Early Modern period. She notes that ‘books of practical gardening were in fact deeply engaged with art in their pursuit of profit and delight’. As evidence, she discusses how plants were ordered in pre-Linnaean systems of classification, and how they could be manipulated as found in books of ‘secrets’.

For scholars of Early Modern literature and history, to whom Green Desire is geared, this is an important and eye-opening book. It offers a selection of texts that are generally not considered in the academy and a way of reading and understanding them that significantly enriches current academic understandings of early modern culture.

The disappointment for some readers may be that Green Desire does not ever refer to evidence for physically extant gardens, and horticultural practices and design possibilities are only cursorily mentioned. This is a book about theory and not about practice, which Bushnell acknowledges. But it deals with the sources that are constantly used to determine early modern horticultural and even design practices. Therefore, as a serious overview of the garden books available before 1700 in England, it is invaluable – an analytical complement to Blanche Henrey’s British Botanical and Horticultural Literature … before 1800 (London, 1975). Green Desire is an important book to read alongside Sir Roy Strong’s The Renaissance Garden in England (London, 1979, republished 1984) or Paula Henderson’s The Tudor House and Garden: Architecture and Landscape in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries (New Haven, CT, and London, 2005), both of which treat design practices, but without the depth of contextual material Bushnell includes.

Erika Mae Olbricht
Humanities Division, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA, USA

33:1 (Summer 2005)

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