After the series the book, of course. Here’s Alison Levey’s reflections on Monty Don’s latest, connected in some way to his French Gardens programme.
Anne Wareham, editor
When asked if I wanted to review this book I had to make a confession; I had watched the BBC series ‘Monty Don’s French Gardens’ and I had been underwhelmed by it. It did not appear to me half as good as his series on Italian gardens and that in turn had not met the achievements of his 2008 BBC series Around the World in 80 Gardens. On saying that I have always enjoyed Monty’s writing. He has a style that I like and in particular his gardening-related but non-practical gardening books I find very enjoyable. So I read the book, I read the book quite quickly; it is an easy book to read. It is almost what I would term a holiday read, good for a long journey or a sunny afternoon sitting in the garden.
The book is dedicated to Mme Tailleux; this is wonderfully mysterious and made me think of Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’. Mme Tailleux is explained in the book so this romantic image is shattered, but for a moment there was an element of unexpected intrigue.
Monty starts the book by explaining it is a personal book, it is ‘random’ and a ‘ramble’. That is a very good description for the book as it is all three of those things. The opening few chapters are not garden-related as such and are autobiographical musings of the start of his love affair with France. The book is steeped in his nostalgic memories all seen through rose tinted spectacles. As this is a personal journey this is all perfectly acceptable and also rather charming.
It takes two chapters before you start to get close to a garden, up until then it is just Monty’s story. His voice is very strong in his writing, you can almost hear him reading it out to you and see his facial and hand gestures. His connection and love of France is palpable, there is no hiding how significant it was for him to live there during this early part of his life.
The book moves around in time and at times I found I was confused whether we were in the present day or still in the past. As the book progresses it overlaps more and more with the BBC series, yet this book is not a tie-in to the series. This is not a BBC publication, it is not a glossy picture book with large colourful photographs of Monty wandering through fields or leaning on walls looking wistfully at a hedge. There is no mention of the television series on the cover or even in the introduction. If you did not know there had been a television series you could read this book and be none-the-wiser that there had been one. Monty does refer to filming vaguely a couple of times but it is definitely not the core of the book.
Yet he talks about the gardens that he visited in the series and just as when I watched the series I felt the same peevishness start to build. The chapter on Villandry was interesting, the book goes into more depth than the television sequence as I had hoped it would. It tells you more about the garden and different parts of the garden, not just focussing on the vegetable garden. Yet in the book Monty tells us that most of the vegetables are composted as they are grown purely for display, yet he makes no comment about what I see as an appalling waste. I remain surprised that this appears to be considered reasonable. I was reading this chapter whilst on a train and I think the other passengers could hear mutterings of ‘let them eat cake’ and ‘vive la revolution!’
This actually brings me to my greatest criticism of the book. The book is descriptive, it describes well yet it does no more. It does not seek to find meaning or really discuss what we are looking at. It accepts the gardens for what they are and goes no further. I found this very disappointing. I think I expected a bit more as Monty is not someone who is shy with his opinions. He makes clear his belief in organic gardening and I thought that freed from the shackles of what you can say on the BBC there might be a bit more commentary on what he was seeing.
We do however learn things; we learn that Monty has a deep love of French art. We also learn that peas became a fetish for Louis XIV. This was not quite explained so I was slightly disturbed about how this manifested itself. (I have since looked it up, he liked eating them a lot and so they became very fashionable).
Monty does not only visit the large and the wealthy gardens, he goes to ordinary gardens, allotments and more modern gardens. Some of these do feel a little glossed over, added more for completeness possibly rather than an actual interest in them. Of course there is a chapter on Giverny; I believe it is compulsory to visit.
The book finishes with the gardens of war graves. At this point Monty returns to the personal history and to his grandfather. I do feel that when he is talking about his life and his history he is at his strongest and most elegant.
As mentioned before this is not a glossy book in any sense of the word. The paper is rough and the few photographs that there are are in black and white. There is an understated deliberate ‘anti-gloss’ feeling of the book which I understand, but sadly if I am offered photographs of a garden I want to be able to actually see what they are. A case in point is the photograph of a shark-fin wave hedge which sounds interesting but the photograph is a dull flat picture in shades of grey. This is an opportunity wasted.
I started off liking this book more than I expected. As I continued through it I found that, like his random ramble, I sometimes lost the way a little. The book would benefit from more direction; it needs really to decide what it is: is it a personal history, a garden book or a travelogue? I think it attempts to be all three but does not quite succeed. That said I did enjoy reading it and if you enjoyed the television series I might go so far as to suggest you might like to read it.
Alison’s blog, The Blackberry Garden