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