Twenty years ago or so, Katherine Swift was commuting weekly to Dublin, where she worked as Keeper of Rare Books at Trinity College. But her husband wasn’t happy with the arrangement – he missed her, and so he set out to tempt her home. Always knowing that she wanted above all to create a garden, he searched for the right project, and eventually found The Dower House at Morville in Shropshire, a National Trust property offered for lease to applicants for a period of twenty years at a time. Swift had no formal training and was not an artist, so rather than submit the usual drawn plans for the garden, she described it instead, in a long essay written from the point of view of a visitor walking through it, vibrantly alive to its richness, complexity and beauty. Having read her book, I’m not at all surprised that the unorthodox plan won the National Trust over. Swift moved in, and had an acre of rough grazing land at her disposal, to create the garden of her dreams.
Whilst The Morville Hours tells the story of that garden, it is only a small fraction of the hybrid, many-faceted narrative. No single description of the book will do. It’s a subtle treatise on living in harmony with the real, seasonal, material world, on regaining a primitive, profoundly satisfying relation to our basic selves, in a way that explains why the word ‘nature’ can refer to both the inner world and the outer one. It’s a meandering journey through the course of the year, reflecting on the traditions, religious and pagan, that structure it, and the wisdom, both of mythology and of good sense, that informs the way we organize our lives. It’s a love affair with the land, with its underlying geological history, a magnificent recognition of the powerful forces that went into its creation, so much greater than us mere mortals, and with the endless gentle cycle of life that flourishes upon it. It’s an artist’s appreciation of nature, exalting in the depth of perception that lifts us out of ourselves, shows us the true meaning of beauty. It’s a fragmentary autobiography about a miserable childhood, transcended by work, ambition, passion. It’s a lovingly reconstructed history of a house that weathered the ages and encompassed the varied and lively stories of its many inhabitants. How to reconcile all these different elements? Well, in some ways there is no need – Swift guides us with terrific elegance through the changing landscape of her thoughts. Hers is a gorgeously personal voice, evocative in its descriptions, zinging with senses, always sharp and interesting and astute. Reading The Morville Hours, what you get is the story of an informed, wise, appreciative mind, deeply engaged in what’s most real and enduring in life, yet also fascinated by the stories that cluster around a place and bring layer upon layer of meaning to the experience of living in it.
But what I liked best were the parts that Swift spoke from her own experience. Here she is, beaten down by the end of summer heat:
‘In August the garden begins to run out of steam, and so do I. These are the dog days, the days about the heliacal rising of the Dog Star, noted from ancient times as the hottest and most unwholesome period of the year, a period when malevolent influences were thought to prevail. A sort of inertia sucks at my heels as I walk through the garden, slowing my progress to a reluctant crawl. I visit the garden less and less, becoming a stranger – visit the far reaches of the garden not at all. Seed heads dry and shake their contents onto ground baked hard by the sun. The roses in the Long Border begin to repeat and I almost wish they wouldn’t. This second burgeoning of leaf and bud seems almost indecent. Let them die in peace. The peas bloom grey mildew in the heat. Pots go unwatered. The turf seats in the Cloister Garden turn brown and dry. There are flashes of summer lightning on the edge of the garden, like the twitch of a nerve, but still no rain.’
There are so many wonderful descriptions that I don’t know where to begin. This is how she describes her apple harvest: ‘These are not the flawless spherical fruit of supermarket shelves, but the Quasimodos and Cyranos of the apple world, humped and bossed, flat-round and oblong-conical, with basins ribbed, puckered and russeted, eyes open and closed, skin flushed, striped, spotted and seamed, flesh redolent of acid drops and honey, pear drops and strawberries, pineapples, hazelnuts, aniseed and cloves.’ This is such an alive book, a book where nature lives and breathes through the pages, bringing the lovely, funny, all-accepting realness of the world into the reader’s mind. Gardeners may be subject to all the deadly sins, as Swift confesses readily, but gardens, landscapes, skies, simply are what they are, and therein lies their beauty. So it’s not surprising that this book urges the reader to live in congruence with the truth of that world, alongside the reality of our deepest urges and instincts. ‘Sloth is more than mere procrastination,’ Swift writes. ‘The concept of time being sanctified by use is fundamental to the Hours [of the divine office that marked out the monastic day]: to waste time is to waste our most precious asset, time upon this earth. This does not mean we should everlastingly be working in our gardens. Simply sitting and enjoying the garden is not doing nothing: it is the attentiveness of which the Hours speak. To watch time passing, noting the changes month by month, day by day, hour by hour – to live, as Thoreau said, deliberately – is a sort of sanctification in itself. It is Indifference which is the real sin.’
There are not many books I end, thinking I would like to start them over again. The Morville Hours is undoubtedly one of them. Like the garden, it has its imperfect moments, sometimes the fragments from Swift’s childhood are too fragmentary, sometimes the information given isn’t uniformly engaging – a long description of different types of scythes almost made me laugh. But it really doesn’t matter, and it would be churlish to protest in a narrative landscape of such delight and richness. This was a book that stitched me into the natural world, something I daily transcend with thoughtless ease, and I was very grateful for it.