Book Review – Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden, by Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven

Judy and I visited Sissinghurst late last summer, and we both loved it. Even so, I wish I had read this book before we got there. It certainly would have helped me to appreciate even more this remarkable garden, which began as the estate of writer Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat husband, Harold Nicolson. It is currently managed by the UK’s National Trust.

2013-09-12 10.18.31 Sissinghurst
This photo and those that follow were taken by Judy during our visit to Sissinghurst last summer.

Some readers may be confused by the authorship credits on the front cover of Sissingurst, Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden. After all, Sackville-West died in 1962, so she did not actually collaborate with Raven in writing the book. Rather, Raven selects passages from Sackville-West’s voluminous writings about her garden, particularly from the weekly column that was published for 11 years.

Raven then adds context and explanation. She is well qualified to do so. A well-known garden writer in the UK, Raven is married to Sackville-West’s grandson, has spent time living at Sissinghurst, and knows the garden intimately.

2013-09-12 10.16.29 Sissinghurst

The first part of the book, which covers the history of Sissinghurst and the early collaborations of Sackville-West and her husband to create a garden there, is almost all Raven. She also provides a brief but very interesting more recent history at the end of the book.

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It is mostly Sackville-West in the middle, annotated by Raven. Though she gardened on a far more lavish scale than I, in some ways Sackville-West was a gardener after my own heart. I warm to her when she dwells on her preference for gardens that are bursting and overflowing with plants: “Cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny … I like generosity wherever I find it, whether in gardens or elsewhere … Always exaggerate rather than stint. Masses are more effective than mingies.”

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She was also someone who could see the beauty even in humble plants: “I would not despise even our native Viola odorata of the banks and hedgerows … And how it spreads, wherever it is happy, so why not let it roam and range as it listeth?” (I looked up “listeth” and it is an archaic word for pleases or chooses.)

2013-09-12 10.18.24 Sissinghurst sunflowers

One advantage of this book over simply reading Sackville-West herself is the benefit of hindsight. The evolving presence of Sackville-West’s favorite plants at Sissinghurst is reviewed: some species remain (sometimes the same individual), others are reduced or removed for various reasons.

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A theme of the book is the creative tension of between orderly structure on the one hand and Sackville-West’s love of unbounded, romantic masses of plants and blooms. Sackville-West exasperated her husband Harold Nicolson, who designed the bones of the garden and liked a bit more formality.

Raven shows how these two elements actually support each other at Sissinghurst. She puts it well when she writes: “An enchanting garden like Sissinghurst is, I would say, at its most beautiful at precisely the point where its informality is about to tip over into chaos.”

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The book is nicely illustrated with both color and black and white photos.

37 Comments on “Book Review – Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden, by Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven

  1. Sounds like our Sara cashing in on her relationships. Don’t misunderstand I have a huge respect for Raven but she can be very strident in her views and not give very much credence to what anyone else’s opinion. It is however a book I would like to read, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  2. What a thrill it must have been to visit this garden–it’s on my bucket list! Sounds like an interesting book, one I will add to my winter reading list.

  3. Vita has been my inspiration for gardening for many years now….I have read everything she wrote….plus some of her novels… 🙂

  4. Sissinghurst is perhaps my favorite English garden, and I’ve had the good fortune to visit it twice. The photos are beautifully evocative of this great garden!! Visiting this garden early in my life as a gardener truly shaped how I garden. I’ve read many ‘Sissinghurst’ books, including Vita’s words about the garden, and I now know what to put on my Christmas list! One more book about Sissinghurst, unlike any other I think!

  5. About to tip into chaos is the best quote I have heard in referring to garden design….brilliant! There is always that struggle between the 2 for me. This book sounds fascinating!! Thank you for passing it along Jason! And what beautiful photos!!! Nicole

  6. I like the blending of old and new. Per Christina’s comment, I find opinionated writing highly entertaining (perhaps faced with the writer it might be less so). The photos are grand. I hope it will become available at our neighborhood library. Very few tomes make it into my own library these days since I devour them at first, then seldom crack them open again.

    • Yes, buying books is not a wise investment unless they are the kind of thing you are going to refer to on at least an occasional basis over time. And yet I keep buying more books.

  7. That must have been quite a garden to visit. I notice pink cleome next to white phlox in the 3rd picture…pretty. After reading your post I googled more on Sissinghurst and found gorgeous pics of the white garden. You must have seen that one too while you were there.

    • We did see the White Garden but in late summer when we were there it was not at its best. I would love to see it in spring or early summer.

  8. Great photos! I would love to see this garden. I found the first photo particularly inspiring – I could do that! I love the last quote because I am always struggling with wanting everything chock-full with lots of color and texture and orderliness! 🙂

    • My sentiments exactly! Though I’m told yew grows very slowly and only needs to be trimmed annually. Though that’s still a lot of yew …

  9. I read the book cover to cover in just a couple days and found it very enjoyable, and even admit to relishing the family bits provided by Sarah. That said, Christina has a valid point; the family (not just SR) has displayed great talent for rehashing the history of the garden and its makers, time and again.

    And you’re right about Great Dix. But I think Sissinghurst is on the upswing with new head gardener Troy Smith (previously at Bodnant, another great National Trust garden). I’m looking forward to visiting both again next year.

  10. I visited Sissinghurst a dozen years ago or so. I particularly liked the “white” garden and tried to recreate it in my Chapel Hill garden with only modest success. One of the great reasons to visit world class gardens like Sissinghurst is the motivation that comes to try new things in our own gardens. If they caqn do it, why can’t I?

  11. I love Sissinghurst, it’s one of my favourite gardens and is what I aspire to. The quote about the garden always just being on the verge of complete chaos is the style I go for and I hope to have that in this garden.

  12. Great pictures of the garden! This seems like a place I would be able to visit a few times and still see an almost totally new place.

  13. This is a garden I have longed to see and the book sounds like a great way to experience it through the designers eye in a way….the author is very lucky to know this garden intimately.

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