‘This short book is personal, and therefore very arbitrary,’ begins Vita Sackville-West in the foreword to her book of essays on twenty-five of her favourite flowers. And at first glance down the contents page, the flowers she has chosen do appear to be haphazardly selected, heavily weighted as they are, for no reason that is immediately apparent, in favour of just a few genera with some oddities thrown in for good measure. In a list of twenty-five flowers that includes four types of old rose, three types each of primula and lily, and two types each of iris and fritillary, there isn’t much room left for the many other flowers that Sackville-West must have grown and loved. ‘What, no hardy geranium? No aster?’ you might well wonder as you begin to read, while also privately thinking, ‘What, so few of my favourites?’
But read on regardless, for you will shortly come to learn of the reason for Sackville-West’s choices. She has chosen ‘painters’ flowers’, though not the broad-brush flowers of the big border, not the flowers seen as an impressionist’s mass of blue or white from a distance. ‘The flowers I have chosen depend chiefly on their loveliness of shape, colouring, marking or texture,’ explains Sackville-West. ‘They are flowers which require to be looked at very intimately, if their queerness or beauty is to be closely appreciated. They are flowers which painters have delighted, or should delight, to paint.’
And it is refreshing that she has not restricted or restrained herself within self-imposed (or publisher-imposed) rules to widen the selection, a freedom that adds to the sense of casual. Don’t be fooled by her chatty, effortless style, which will transport you through the book as though riding a scudding cloud. Here is a mind alive with wit and information, and both are imparted as lightly as possible in a style that is by turns business-like, romantic, gossipy and indignant.
Always interesting and thought-provoking, she describes the many uses of mullein tea, which rose is the true York-and-Lancaster rose, and a memorable account of coming across a group of wild crown imperials growing in a dark ravine in Persia. But of course it is the descriptions of the flowers we are here for, and despite her admitting that it is ‘indeed very difficult to write about flowers’ we need not worry that she’ll fail us. Each is given its fair value in colour, texture, and the way light shines through translucent petals, while great care is taken not to descend to ‘purple’ language. A group of Verbascum Cotswold Varieties are fondly said to be ‘dusty, fusty, musty in colouring … as though a colony of tiny buff butterflies had settled all over them.’ Only about the Rosa gallica Tuscany does she get away from herself: ‘The velvet rose. What a combination of words! One almost suffocates in their soft depths, as though one sank into a bed of rose petals, all thorns ideal stripped away.’ She brings herself back to earth by pointing out that ‘We cannot actually lie on a bed of roses, unless we are very decadent, and also very rich,’ and then apologises for her ‘fanciful way of writing’ before running away from herself again when looking closely into the ‘quivering and dusty gold of its central perfection.’ Don’t you just love her?
The edition in my hand is printed under the National Trust’s imprint, and gorgeously illustrated by the botanical painter Graham Rust. For some reason best known to themselves, the NT decided to print the book’s title not on the actual cover, but on a large sticker that looks most impermanent and strange, rather like a ‘3 for 2’ sticker commonly found on books stacked on tables in the entrances of commercial bookshops. It was just asking to be peeled off, which of course I started to do in a moment of distraction while on the phone. Sadly it would not peel off and so now I have a half-peeled sticker on the front of this otherwise handsome book, which in the spirit of things have tried to disguise with Some Flowers.
Eighty years have passed since the book’s first publication, and some of Sackville-West’s flowers have since become much more common and popular in ordinary gardens: the witch hazel, the meadow fritillary, the iris reticulata, zinnias. Some, like the Gerbera daisy have come through fashion and out again on the other side. The flowers have become popular because gardeners hang onto Sackville-West’s every word, and they hang onto her every word because she writes with such restrained beauty and sense, disguised as casual conversation. I urge you to rush out and buy this book, and then after you have read it immediately order everything else that Sackville-West has ever written, which is what I intend to do.
Sackville-West, V. (1937) Some Flowers. This edition (2014), London: National Trust Books.