Gardens and gardening in the detective fiction of Margery Allingham
What follows is the text of an extended talk given by the Chairman at the Museum of Garden History on 8 April this year. The talk was accompanied by a visual display of some of the flowers and plants in Margery Allingham's books, presented as a running slide-show by Lesley Simpson, who took many of the photographs herself.
This book has two more gardens: one at the Hotel Magnifique in Mentone, described as 'semi-tropical and very formal but pleasant enough for a country in which there seem to be no birds in the trees and no freshness in the leaves'; and, at the end, Jerry's own garden where the truth of the killing of Eric Crowther is finally revealed and where the 'overbushy tree-tops' of 'the elms at the far end' 'stir themselves heavily like fat oxen in the sun'.
At one point. Jerry's father, the celebrated W.T. Challoner of Scotland Yard reveals that he might have been a market gardener had things been other than they are: 'Personally, I've always felt that I should have liked a nursery somewhere - one of those quiet little places where one grows poppies and sweet peas for seed'.
There is a range of gardens in this novel. We enter briefly the 'cottage garden' of George Willsmore in the village; and visit St. Swithin's rectory, which has an 'ivy-covered porch' and is approached by way of a 'long, ill-kept gravelled drive lined with heavy shrubberies and tall trees'. Flowers, if any, are not mentioned.
At the Manor there is an 'old sunken garden' with a 'shrub-encircled lawn': the kitchen garden is 'on the east side'. In the courtyard is the D'Arcy Spice apple tree that St. Swithin planted. Biddy's letter informs us that it is 'bearing this year' and will be 'just eatable' when Albert joins them later in his convalescence. The D'Arcy Spice is the golden apple that Margery grew in her own orchard. She probably first encountered it as a girl at Layer Breton.
The Dower House has 'an old walled garden'. The house itself is 'covered with climbing roses' and a 'high yew hedge' hides it from the green. The Manor is hidden by a 'thick wall of elms'. At Redding Knights Alaric Watts lives at 'an old vicarage, whose walled garden was further protected by high yew hedges at least three feet wide'. The house is 'ivy-covered and half-hidden by towering cedars' and there is a 'creeper-covered conservatory' running all along one side of it. From this, stone steps lead down to 'a sloping lawn'. A great barred gate helps to protect the Vicar's privacy. His fossil-hunting neighbour has 'a somewhat hefty back garden' in which, long before, 'the early Britons built a church, bits of which he ferrets up from time to time'.
In the park at the Manor is the maze from which Crowdy Lobbett so dramatically disappears. It is 'a dense square of yew' 'over on the east side of the park'. In the centre is a 'stone bird bath with… decorations of bulbous amorelli ..... covered with creepers and moss'. The grass is 'sparse and rank in the sunless ways' and one of the yew trees is dead. There are 'blind alleys', 'a cul-de-sac on the west side' and a 'false exit from the centre'. The 'key is, turn to the left wherever possible'.
Apart from the roses at the Dower House, Mystery Mile is short on flowers; but the Kettles do have an aspidistra in their living room.
At The Tower, there are 'slight signs of neglect' in 'the lawns and gardens', owing, Margery suggests, to 'a sudden rise in the cost of labour, combined with a strangling land tax'. The positive result is a 'mellowing and softening' of 'the pretentiousness of the estate', so that 'in the haze of the morning' the grounds look 'kindly and inviting'.
Later, we enter the flower garden, after wandering 'round the east wing, through a small gate at the side', Here Mrs. Dick Shannon holds forth in her characteristic hectoring, badgering manner. She is unimpressed by Colonel Gyrth's roses, dismissing them as 'a very poor show'; and she goes on to say that 'Roses are like horses - If you don't understand 'em, better leave 'em alone'. Later still, Mrs. Cairey, Beth and Penny are seen 'admiring the flower-beds', but what these contain is not revealed.
Rather surprisingly, garden references in Police at the Funeral are few and far between, although those that do exist serve to give some idea of the immediate surroundings of Socrates Close. The house itself, a large and forbidding early Victorian edifice, is covered with ivy and virginia creeper, and there are cedars on the lawn which make 'fantastic shapes against the night sky' when Albert and Joyce first arrive. The high walls surrounding the property are now not high enough to prevent people passing in buses from seeing over the top, and according to Joyce Great-aunt Caroline is thinking of having them heightened to protect her privacy.
Immediately under the library window is the flowerbed where the grotesque footprint is discovered, and beyond it is a bowling green, so the garden is obviously on a similar scale to the house and must cost a small fortune to maintain. Having despatched one of his men to search for further tracks, Detective-Sergeant Bowditch says the task will not be easy because 'it's all this short, well-kept grass', and one visualises a small army of gardeners keeping things in order under Mrs Faraday's eagle eye. However, at least part of the garden is given over to flowers, albeit unspecified, as at the very end of the book she tells Albert that William was often to be seen from her window 'pottering among the flowerbeds, where he does a great deal of damage, so they tell me'.
Pontisbright is built 'round two sides of a square heath comprising some twenty acres of gorse and heather interspersed with short wiry grass'. Here Mr. Lugg finds - and loses - a corpse, conducting his employer to the spot by way of 'a narrow track' overhung with 'branches of prickly yellow flowers', The corpse has gone but 'the ancient God-help-us mark' has appeared in its place - which brings us to Dr. Galley.
Dr. Galley lives beyond the village proper in a white house which proves on inspection 'to be much more old-fashioned than they had at first supposed', 'The garden was well kept without being trim, and the flower borders were filled with herbs, whose pungent scents hung heavy on the evening air ..... The steps up to the porch were green with age'. Inside the house's 'long windows looked out over an expanse of flowers', and the whole building seems 'permeated by the scent of the herb garden'. When it is almost dark the Doctor takes Campion and his friends to see the garden, seeming to take it for granted that there is nothing odd in having waited so late to do so. He leads them 'down a passage to a side door and out into the tangled wilderness of flowers and herbs whose scent in the late evening air was almost overpowering'.
'"These are all plants under the government of the Moon, Venus and Mercury," he remarked casually… "The flowers of the Sun, Mars and Jupiter are in the front garden."'.
At the end of the garden is 'the burial mound of some prehistoric chieftain', but, unlike Alaric Watts' neighbour, Dr. Galley is not interested in what is within: '"It's never been opened and I don't see why it ever should"'. The mound commands a fine view of the valley.
We encounter 'the flowers of the Sun, Mars and Jupiter' again on the terrible night of Dr. Galley's party, when his mind finally gives way. Outside the storm casts 'an unnatural light, over the vivid flowers which grew round the rectory'. Those in the front garden seem 'to favour peculiarly bright colouring' and their 'aromatic scent' is, again, 'almost overpowering'. Amanda sets off 'down a path between two great banks of sunflowers' which must surely be the flowers of the sun. Albert himself tells us that the campion, his namesake plant, is 'a hot, fiery plant under the jurisdiction of Mars'.
One of Tennyson Potter's red sandstone lithographs - bought by the Duke of Caith in 1923 but not much in demand since - shows 'a bowl of narcissi with an inverted wine glass'.
Belle Lafcadio pauses 'for a moment on the Potter step to break off a dead rose hip left over from the autumn on the rather straggly seven-sisters tree which grew over the porch'.
This is a London novel in which gardens do not figure but flowers in the title must mean something - as they do. They are in the judge's nosegay, the 'formal bouquet' held by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lumley as he sits in his 'high leather chair' at the Old Bailey. This dates 'from the time when the air of the court room was not so hygienic, as modern cleanliness has made it and a handful of flowers and herbs was at least some barrier between a fastidious gentleman and the plague.' Lord Lumley seems suddenly to remember his nosegay 'for he leant toward and placed it carefully in the tumbler of water on his desk, where it stood for the remainder of the day looking like a motif from a Tudor tapestry or a chapter end for ALICE IN WONDERLAND.'
Pig Peters' supposed funeral takes place at Tethering, described by Margery as 'three square miles of osier swamp', its churchyard 'a sodden mass of dead cow-parsley in late winter'. But, as Margery says 'That was January' and most of the story takes place in June: when the country is more appealing.
Kepesake has 'a village cricket green with elms' and is 'frankly picturesque and mysterious in the false light' of the moon, its 'high trees ..... deep and shadowy'. The Dog and Fowl sits 'coyly under a bank of elms' and the corn is 'high and green, the pasture browned a little by the hot weather'.
The lawn at Halt Knights comes 'right up to the house in front', There is candy-tuft by the front door, which is at the side of the house. The parapet from which the urn fell on Pig Peters alias Oswald Harris is 'one of those long strips of plastered stone which finish off the flat fronts of Georgian houses', Leo describes the urn as a 'geranium urn' of the kind that 'sometimes have cherry pie in 'em', (heliotrope)
On a warm summer night the gardens at Highwaters have 'night scented stocks' below the terrace and 'nightingales in the ilex'. Other features are 'a quiet little path almost entirely hidden by the foliage of fruit trees'; a 'rose garden' and 'rose lawn'; a 'grass path between ..... lavender hedges'; and a lily pool, into which Janet pushes the Reverend Philip Smedley Bathwick.
En route to White Walls, the roads are 'hot and scented, cow-parsley making a bridal avenue of every lane'. On either side of the 'flint lane' where Chloe falls 'High banks, topped by a chase of limes and laurels' provide the privacy so dear to 'the hearts of an earlier generation'.
Alan Gregory's map of the grounds of the house shows two gardens behind, a kitchen garden and a rose garden. The text confirms that they are side by side and adds the information that a low wall separates them. Linda leads Albert 'out onto the terrace and into a formal old English garden, walled with square-cut yews and ablaze with violas and sweet-scented peonies'. Later, Albert looks for clues in this area.
'He pottered round the terrace and the shrubbery between the kitchen and the music-room window, paying special attention to the water butts and the ornamental pool in the rosery. To his left the kitchen garden lay, prim and tidy. Its rectangular beds were divided by moss-grown gravel paths and were bordered by fine box hedges nearly two feet high. The mid-season clipping was in progress, and the plump round tops of half the bushes were already replaced by neat square angles.' The gardener's 'barrow and garnering boards were still there by the side of the path'. The kitchen garden has rows of lettuces, some currant-bushes, an onion bed and a marrow patch, yielding 'a fine collection of surprising gourds'.
In the rose garden Lugg is seen early one morning 'posed ridiculously in a flower bed as he indicated suitable blooms for Sarah to cut for the drawing-room bowl'. 'In the beds the blue butterflies flirted brightly with the flowers.' Besides the rose trees among which Linda stands near the end with fear in her eyes, the flowerbeds contain 'rainbow gladiolas and the second delphinium crop ..... blazing in the last of the full sunlight'. Shortly after, Jimmy Sutane's violent and explosive laugh echoes round the garden, startling 'the birds in the ornamental cherry trees'. Elsewhere in the grounds is a 'little lake', 'really no more than a large kidney-shaped pond, formed by widening the natural bend of a small brook which ran through the grounds. A past owner had planted willows on the stone pavement and the Sutanes had contributed a bathing pavilion ..... Just behind the bathing house there was a natural clearance between the trees. A wide strip of mossy grass which had been allowed to grow wild ran down to the ivy-grown relics of an artificial ruin. This structure had never been an unqualified success, even in its Georgian heyday, and it now remained a record of the failure of an uninspired British workman to reproduce the half-remembered majesty which his employer had seen upon the Grand Tour.'
Chloe Pye falls from a bridge into the sunken lane bordering White Walls between the Lower Road and the London Road. This proves to be 'a much more solid structure than it had appeared (to Albert) from the road. The parapets, although constructed of 'rustic' work, were astonishingly steady and were further reinforced by a tangle of American Pillar and wild white convolvulus. The bright red roses looked unreal and somehow Victorian in the artificial light of the torch as Campion examined the hedge of flowers carefully, his discomfort increasing.'
Chloe is presented unsparingly by Margery as a prize bitch. A telling small detail in the achievement of this effect is that she refers to the contents of a flower bed as 'the silly little red thingummies'.
We encounter two professional gardeners in the course of the novel, one working for Jimmy Sutane with whom Albert converses late in the action, the other routed out of bed by his employer, the formidable Doctor Bouverie, The fictional doctor is a portrait of Doctor Salter, known to Margery from childhood and the owner for many years until his death of D'Arcy House and its garden at Tolleshunt D'Arcy. In the Autumn 2005 issue of The Bottle Street Gazette we read of Margery's feelings after taking over his garden, which she did early in 1933 when D'Arcy House became her permanent home; and it is tempting to infer that, in the picture she gives of Dr. Bouverie's establishment, she is describing D'Arcy House and its garden as they were in Doctor Salter's day.
Albert becomes aware of the Doctor's enthusiasm for gardening (and, perhaps, specifically for rose-growing) when he notices in the back of his car 'a wedge-shaped wooden box fitted with small flower containers in little sockets arranged in neat equi-distant rows', This gives him his cue in his subsequent conversation with the doctor during the drive to the latter's home (which Albert has engineered by immobilising the older man's car): 'Campion took the hint and played his best card. "Isn't this a great district for roses?" he enquired, remembering the wedge-shaped box in the Fiat. His passenger brightened noticeably "Finest in the world. I take a little interest in roses myself," He paused and added with an unexpected chuckle: 'Twelve tickets out of fourteen at Hernchester yesterday. Five firsts for roses, and a cup. Not bad for an old'un, eh?" "I say, that's extraordinarily good." Mr. Campion was genuinely impressed. "Do you believe in bone manure?" "Not on my soil. I've a streak of the genuine clay." They discussed roses and their culture for several miles ..... Doctor Bouverie talked of his hobby with knowledge and the passionate interest of a young man in his twenties ..... By the time they pulled up in a darkened village the Doctor was engrossed in his subject. "I'll show you those Lady Forteviots. If you've missed 'em you've missed a treat," he said, "Here we are."'
Over whisky and water in the dining room the talk continues: '"Now these roses - they're extraordinary. There's not a rose to touch 'em for exhibition, unless it's the old Frau Karl Druschki. They've got the body. That's the important thing in an exhibition rose - body"'.
The doctor sets down his glass and leads his guest through a shabby drawing-room to his conservatory, which is 'a magnificent sight ..... It was overcrowded but the show of begonias and gloxinias was astonishing, A tall thin depressed figure in a felt hat and a raincoat awaited them with a hurricane lantern. "Ready, George?" The Doctor sounded as if he were going into battle. "Yes, sir." They came out into a dark garden which felt and smelled like a paradise but which was, unfortunately, completely invisible. The roses were found, golden yellow blossoms fading into apricot on long, carefully disbudded stems. Little white canvas hoods protected them from the weather. The two old men, the Doctor and the gardener, pored over them like mothers. Their enthusiasm was both tender and devout, The Doctor put his blunt fingers under a blossom and tilted it gently. "Isn't she lovely?" he said softly. "Good night, my little dear," He rearranged the canvas hat. "You won't see a better rose than that in the county," he boasted.'
On his second appearance Dr. Bouverie has 'a cluster of Little Dorrit rosebuds in his buttonhole'.
This is largely an urban book and gardens get relatively short shrift. Georgia's son Sinclair sits in a 'little garden' at Caesar's Court reading his holiday task, Ivanhoe, in the sun. Later, he weeps in the shrubbery, sitting 'on the edge of a marble love-seat'. 'The hop-vine growing over the high wall, behind the seat made a yellow curtain and its scented folds hung down to spill over the stone. There were birds about and the lazy grumble of bees.'
As the murderer pulls up outside Amanda's riverside cottage with Albert unconscious beside him, 'The flowers in the cottage garden nodded together like small white ghosts in the shadows'.
Both the grounds at Caesar's Court and Amanda's cottage have lawns sloping down to the Thames. The Caesar's Court lawn met with the approval of George IV: it 'not only ran down to the Thames but presumably continued under it, since it reappeared on the opposite bank and went on and on for the best part of a mile like a strip of gigantic stair-carpet'.
In the late 18th century the grounds of Caesar's Court included 'The Pinery, the ice-house, the Vine Palace and the useful gazebo'. The seventh Earl Hurrell had also 'seen the Petit Trianon and it had taken his fancy'. His attempt to imitate it had been limited by faulty recollection and less money than French royalty but, nonetheless, 'he had achieved a little house. It sat solid and white, like an up-ended box of bricks, with pillars and steps and a fine flat lead roof.' Now the little trees, 'which had once matched its miniature magnificence', have grown much bigger, the 'tiny terrace' is 'moss-grown and charming' and there are 'chairs on the steps, and cushions and great stone urns of flowers'.
Unusually, Margery does not specify flowers in this novel, at least not growing ones. Amanda has 'a two-foot bowl of marigolds' in her cottage, and Val carries at Ramillies' funeral 'a pochette made from the chased silver binding of an old German missal, with three or four large real violets threaded through its solid clasp'. Caesar's Court, predictably, has 'the best florist in England', but whether their stock in trade is grown on the premises is not made clear.
When Val is shown her mother's letter, the 'thick cream double sheet with the well-known crimson heading, the single arrogant house name and county which had once been so familiar ..... even now brought a far-off memory of a peach tree of all things, a sprawling peach tree on a rosy wall'.
We no sooner meet Mr. Anscombe in this novel than he is found dead in his garden. This is adjacent to the Principal's House at Bridge and is approached by way of 'an old and narrow pavement made of the thin rectangular flags of other days'. Anscombe is last seen disappearing between the stucco pillars of his gateway, which later rise up 'white in the moonlight'. On top of one of the pillars is a 'heraldic leaden eagle ..... a nice piece of period decoration but too small and in no way remarkable'. The pillar also carries, 'in shallow relief' the number of the house, which is 15.
Anscombe's body is found to the left of his drive, where there is 'a little bit of lawn ..... very dark ..... hidden from the road by a wall', '.....in the middle of this lawn there's a sort of ornamental basin, a lily-pond ..... in a saucer-shaped hollow', with 'a ring of very shallow brick and stone steps leading down to the actual water'.
It is here that Anscombe's body has been discovered, 'on his back, lying across the flight'.
This book contains a reference to 'an absurd story about rare peonies', grown, it is to be supposed, by Lord Gonfalon in his greenhouses, It also renews our acquaintance with Lady Forteviot roses, one dozen of which have been delivered regularly over several years to Moppet Lewis, together with five cultured pearls.
At a desperate moment, Mr. Campion seizes a brass pot containing pampas grass and hurls it to prevent an escape. This is in the home of Miss Pork, that wonderful woman who feels you can take liberties with a parcel if you have known it long enough. Her garden has several notable features, in keeping with her startling eccentricity: 'a narrow drive flanked with too many shrubs'; a 'mock-Gothic porch'; 'a copper beech on a lawn cut into as many shapes as a sheet of pastry before baking' and 'a small uncomfortable concrete seat between two atrocious German gnomes'.
Late in the book we learn something of Mr. Campion's family home, which is called Nidd and is in Norfolk. Amanda is living in the chauffeur's cottage (together with her 'war-work', whom Albert has not yet met). The house itself has become 'an Alandel supplementary aircraft factory' and he is forbidden by a sentry to enter the grounds. Margery gives us a fair amount of detail, which is worth quoting in full, since apart from Val's fleeting recollection of her childhood home in The Fashion in Shrouds it is all we ever get on the subject.
'Mr. Campion left the tiny station which could offer him no conveyance and walked down the lane with the high hedges on either side ..... He turned at the water-mill, and took the wooden bridge. Before him the woods of the park clustered dark and friendly. He followed the rosy wall built in serpentine waves for strength and would have turned in at the iron gates where the stone griffins kept guard had he not been stopped by a sentry ...... The lean man in the horn-rimmed spectacles turned away. He walked on, still following the road which ran along the wall, until he came to the corner where the bank rose high. There he paused and looked up anxiously, It, was all right. The beech still hung long arms to the wiry grass. He swung himself over even more easily than he had done thirty years before and dropped lightly on to what might well have been the same heap of rotting leaves with the same exciting aromatic smell. From where he stood he could just see the house far away on its carefully chosen eminence, looking like a dolls' house or a detail from the background of an eighteenth-century portrait ..... Picking his way carefully among the trees he found the narrow path which led through the rhododendrons. It took him by graceful and leisurely stages to a wicket gate and a clearing beyond, where a little house stood with its back to him. Mr. Campion opened the gate, crossed the vegetable patch and, skirting the cottage wall, turned on to the little grass lawn which had a muddy path running through it'.
Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens
Gardens do not much feature in this book but plants undoubtedly do. We begin with Stanislaus Oates' invitation to Mr. Campion to accompany him into Hyde Park to 'look at the flowers'. Once through the gates he heads for 'a nest of small green chairs arranged cosily at the foot of a giant beech', 'some sixty yards distant' from 'the only blossoms in sight', which might be gladioli (Oates is unsure on the point). Later, Albert looks back on the scene, with Oates still under his tree and Jessica Palinode on her bench, 'slapping in' the answers to her crossword. Behind Jessica, 'between the bushes, the flowers glowed like coloured lanterns, brighter than the sun'. Not far away is a 'tamarisk clump' behind which Clytie White and Mike Dunning seek to avoid Jessica's notice (though she has in fact seen them).
The garden of Portminster Lodge has 'variegated laurels' out of which Detective-Officer Corkerdale's torch beam springs 'like a sword' on Mr. Campion's arrival at the 'iron gate'. On the day of Miss Evadne's conversazione 'a sheaf of dusty laurestina, obviously cut from the garden' has been arranged to hide a 'patch of bad wall' in the hall.
Laurence and Evadne Palinode converse in code, some of which draws on flora. Laurence refers to Clytie as 'the heliotropium', the plant into which the daughter of Oceanus of that name 'was changed, after the habit of nymphs'. He also asks his sister if she has forgotten 'the daisies which never blow', another reference which Albert is able to track to its source, which is poetic, He is defeated by the verb 'to Cawnthrope', part of the 'one unbreakable code known to man, the "family allusion"', but he sorts out 'the Foreign Wheat' at once as referring to the late Ruth Palinode, whose Biblical namesake stood in tears amid the alien corn, Miss Evadne's response to Albert's disingenuous suggestion that Laurence includes horticulture among his interests is a gentle laugh - if he is so, it is 'only on paper'.
All the other plants in the book are introduced to Portminster Lodge by Jessica Palinode, who uses them as the raw material for food and drink, She concocts her dreadful dishes and fearful drinks after everyone else has gone to bed, and it is in the small hours that Albert accosts her engaged in this activity. His nostrils alert him to what is going on - the stink is perfectly awful. She offers him 'a nice cup of nettle tea ..... quite as nice as yerba maté and very good for one as well'. She gets the nettles from Hyde Park, where there are 'a lot of weeds - I mean herbs' for the picking. She acknowledges ruefully that 'You have to be exact ..... with plants and I was quite ill several times'. Laurence dislikes the nettle tea but drinks it and 'the yarrow tea' she makes, To Albert 'the grey beverage' 'tasted like death'.
Jessica provides the refreshments for the party towards the end of the action, when Lugg gives his view on them, offering Albert a choice between a 'cup o' yerba mat or a small nettle hot, There's a ration of somethink else as well, smells as if it comes out o' the flowers in the 'all. There's not a lot of call for that'. Clot Drudge is of the same mind and he advises Mr. Campion to 'avoid the yellow stuff'.
Other herbs figure in the recipes in Herbert Boon's book How to Live on One and Six. He advocates adding 'chopped sage, chives or, as a luxury, watercress' to make more palatable 'the residue of sour milk often left by ignorant housewives in bottle or can'; and he suggests that one should be vigilant 'on the road home from the butcher' (where the large and nutritious shin-bone of an ox can be purchased for one penny), since 'the Wise Man may descry in the hedge a root of dandelion and, if he is in luck, garlic'.
The other property of herbs is medicinal, of course, and Jessica is no slouch in this department, also: 'She's been giving the old man at the dairy cups of poppy tea'; and she is seriously suspected of having provided, wittingly or otherwise, whatever it is has disposed of her siblings. Luke discusses with Mr. Campion the hyoscine that proves so important in the case: '"Hyoscine-hydrobromide. What is it? D'you happen to know, sir?" "Henbane, I think." "Really. What, the weed?" "I think so. It's very common." "I should think it is, if it's the plant I mean ..... Henbane, yes, I know, little yellow flower. Awful stink." "That's it." "Grows everywhere." The D.D.I. was lost in wonder. "Damn it, you could find it in the park."
At the party, Laurence finds 'a scrap of leaf' in his glass and is sufficiently alert and astute to recognise it as hemlock, the 'classic poison'. Jessica defends herself as best she can from the charge of having poisoned him; '"I did not make a mistake ..... I followed Boon's recipes very carefully, except where I had to make omissions ..... I brewed two tisanes, a nettle and a tansy. Evadne purchased the yerba maté and made it herself. That was a lightish brown, It's nearly tea, you know. The nettle drink I made was grey and the tansy was yellow. They tell me the stuff Laurence drank was a deep bottle green," "With leaves in it," said Mr. Campion involuntarily. "Had it?" She picked him up at once. "Then it couldn't have been anything I made. I always strain everything very carefully ..... Don't you remember what Boon says? "The residue constitutes a valuable vegetable addition to the diet."'
St. Petersgate Square has a magnolia, 'two or three graceful laburnums' and a tulip tree, all of which have been allowed to overgrow 'unmolested', the railings round the square garden having remained intact despite the demands of the war. Also, Amanda recalls the 'clumps of willows' at the Mill in Pontisbright but this book is otherwise intensely urban until the final scenes in France at Ste-Odile-sur-Mer. Here we encounter a garden of sorts and a remarkable piece of garden furniture.
Meg leads the way. 'They followed her through the wreckage of what had once been a formal garden sloping to the edge of the cliff and bounded there by a wall in which there were now many breaches, Despite its position, it seemed strangely airless ..... Amanda sniffed. "Rosemary," she said, "and box and what is it? Oh, yes, wormwood. Here it is. That silver stuff. Smell it. Oh Albert, this garden must have been so sweet."
Later, Havoc stumbles 'out into the airless garden, yellow and overgrown and reeking with its strange bitter smell,' Near the end, he drops 'down behind a dark bush' and rolls into 'a ditch which had been completely hidden by the long grasses'.
Geoffrey has been looking for 'the uncompromisingly Victorian cement garden figure which kept a mildewed guard' in the icehouse. He knows that 'the treasure is hidden in the statue', which proves to be 'a clumsy, cumbrous affair which had never been beautiful or even pleasing. It was an insipid shepherdess, much too large for life, seated on a formalised tree-stump and holding a very small vase in an ill-proportioned hand. Her wide skirts were large as a barrel and about as graceful, and since she was now crumbling badly, and had flaked with an effect frankly piebald, she was, as Lugg might have said, "no ornament."'
Willows over stream
'The green waves of ribbon grass and periwinkle had parted' as Little Doom's body passed into the ditch, to lie there day after day, unknown to those who paused 'on the stile for a first glimpse of the water-meadows, flower-spangled and lace-edged in the yellow light'. We are back in Pontisbright, where the 'pocket-sized heath' is covered in 'harebells and white violets' and the Beckoning Lady lies among 'the deep meadows where the cricket-bat willows look like egret feathers ..... tucked about it like a pile of green cushions. There were white fences and little white gates about and everywhere a mass of flowers which outrivalled Aunt Hatt's own.'
Luke falls asleep 'on the spongy turf of the heath, where the wild thyme and the coltsfoot made the air aromatic' and he awakes with 'a large wild rhubarb leaf over his head' to protect him from the sun. Old Harry reclines nearby on 'a bed ..... of pulled thyme'. Beyond Harry's cottage is a low piece of ground 'enclosed ..... with enormous hollyhocks and burgeoning with sufficient greenery to feed a cow'. At the Mill, Luke stares at 'a clump of Russell lupins, tall, narrow blossoms, cream fading to yellow fading to brown; odd, formal flowers, but beautiful and very unusual'. Before it is released to float downstream into the party, Miss Pinkerton's body is held for a time by 'a bank of yellow irises'.
There are flowers in great profusion in this novel, not least in the garden of The Beckoning Lady. 'On the first landing there was a magnificent leaded window overlooking a flower garden and (Mr. Campion) paused to glance at the blazing mass of colour. The drive was a little shaggy he had noticed coming along and the kitchen garden was a wilderness. But here there was a display which would have done credit to a Dutch bulb-grower's catalogue. The effect was blinding; arches and trellises, vines and crawling roses, massed one on top of the other in ordered glory. The wide river, shallow as a ford, was almost obscured by the show. One small opening draped with clematis and lace-vine had been left, however'.
Besides protecting Luke from the sun old Harry helps the police by naming the place where the ploughshare that killed Little Doom has been lying: 'Old Harry took the weapon ..... and repeated his truly remarkable performance', sniffing assiduously at it to get it to reveal its secrets, '"I'll tell you where that's been the last few days," he volunteered. "That's lain in wormwood, that's been near rust, that's known Johnwort ..... You gentlemen follow me".' He takes them to '"Battus Dump ..... That's where the wormwood grew"'.
He also makes posies. 'These were tight bunches of flowers, very formal and conical in shape and doubtless of some ancient significance, but they were beautifully made out of the choicest blossoms which the gardens of Pontisbright could produce ..... There was one for Minnie, tipped with one of her own red roses, one all-gold for Amanda, for she was of the nobility, and a small white one for Annabella. But the biggest of all was a glowing crimson pyramid smothered in buds and cradled in maidenhair, which was "special for a lover"'. This, to some embarrassment, Charlie Luke receives. Albert identifies it as a wedding trophy, having seen something similar in the V & A on a piece of antique French tapestry lying 'on top of a little coffer'.
Most picturesquely, The Beckoning Lady deals in the language of flowers and the two scenes in which a message is reconstructed are among the most fascinating in the book. In the first, Rupert lays 'a bunch of wilted greenery on his father's knees', having been persuaded to act as messenger. Amanda accompanies him: '"We thought it could be a message but this is the only one I know - cypress. That means ..... Death, I think". "Mourning," a voice at her elbow corrected her, and Charlie Luke sat up suddenly, surprising everybody ..... "Rhododendrons. I don't know what that is. Monk's-hood. God knows what that means either. Wait a minute. Eschscholtzia, That's more like it, That means 'do not refuse me' ..... And pink ....." He looked up. "A pink means 'make haste'. Mourning? Do not refuse me? Make haste? Sounds like the same old story ..... Someone is broke again and unusually restrained about it, That's my translation"'.
Amanda produces The Language and Sentiment of Flowers published by Ballantyne & Hanson in London & Edinburgh in 1863 at the price of 6d. Mr. Campion consults its pages: '"Rhododendron: danger, beware." He looked up. "Eh? Where's the other one?" He took the final wilted stalk on which a few purple buds were just visible. "That's monk's-hood, is it, Charles?" "Was when I went to school. What does it say? The bums are in?" Mr. Campion turned the pages ..... "Monk's-hood," he said at last. "Well, well. A deadly foe is here".'
Albert sends the second message, 'a wilted bundle' which Luke produces from the floor at his feet; '"Here are your flowers, if that's what you want," he suggested ..... Campion ..... took the herbs ..... and spread them out on the table. "Snap-dragon, that's all right. But this thing ought to be wild liquorice, which is beyond me." "That's mint," said Luke ..... "I know," Campion took a piece of stamp-paper from his wallet, affixed it neatly to the woody stem and wrote 'liquorice(wild)' on it ..... "Then there's meadow saffron," he said, "which is out of season, so the tiresome chap must have the bulb ..... And a sprig of elder, which he has tied to it. Finally, there's this handsome bloom, the best of the lot." "Petunia?" Luke got up, his dark shiny eyes very curious. "Snap-dragon means No." "That's perfectly correct." Mr. Campion was temporarily jaunty ..... "Snap-dragon: No. Wild liquorice: I declare against you. Meadow saffron: Beware of excess coupled with Elder: Zeal. And Petunia: Keep your promise. I ought to have added a red, red rose." "Which means love?" "How true. It's a very laborious method of correspondence but it has its uses." "No. I declare against you. Beware of excess zeal, Keep your promise. Love," said Luke. "That's a funny message to an insurance company.
In grim contrast to the floral and arboreal abundance everywhere else in Pontisbright is the headquarters of Sidney Simon Smith, the S.S.S. Man. Campion and Luke gape in dismay at what has 'overtaken Potter's Hall, Fanny Genappe's little farm where the larks once had nested'. 'Now the whole of the older buildings, gardens, trees and duck-ponds had been smoothed away, so that all that remained was something which looked like an architect's elevation or the facade in a child's box of bricks ..... The same disconcerting clearance had been made to the surrounding land. Not a hedge, not a tree, not a ditch remained, only a bare, open plain sloping gently to the river some quarter-mile distant where a fringe of greenery still flourished, and away in the southern valley a large, unwieldy knot of trees, roofs and pocket-handkerchief fields which was the ten-acre Beckoning Lady estate taking a deep bite out of the area.' Not surprisingly, 'The gardener ......only seems to work (there) the odd day or so'. It must be a disheartening job.
This is another urban book, with signs of city wear and tear even in the open space of Garden Green, with the gravestones 'set round the boundary wall'. 'Sunlight, yellow and crystal in the mist, glowed through the wet black branches of the plane trees, while the fallen cream-coloured leaves made a fine carpet hiding the bald patches, the cigarette cartons and the bus tickets which in the ordinary way disfigured the discouraged grass.'
Number 7 Garden Green is 'a pretty little house, built on the corner and separated from those on either side by a mass of shrubbery on the left and a high walled garden containing a studio-like building, presumably the museum, on the right'. The wall is 'nine or ten feet high' and is 'hung with the evergreen variety of honeysuckle'. Later, it is useful to Richard, who swarms up the creeper. Inside, Polly Tassie has pots of gloxinia and musk 'of all things' on her kitchen window-sill. Gerry recalls to Edna 'our little cottage at Bray', about which he claims to remember nothing 'except that it smelled of jasmine and the river ran through the garden'. It is clear from the context and the hints Margery gives that he remembers much more than this and none of it to his credit.
The gardener in this novel is the husband of Nanny Broome, whom we see at one point only, wheeling 'a new barrow slowly across the gravel drive' of The Keep at Angevin.
Angevin Keep [Layer Marney]
Julia takes 'the upper road which wound through the fields to a pair of neglected iron gates leading into a park so thickly wooded with enormous elms as to be completely dark, although their leaves were scarcely a green mist amid the massive branches'.
Later, Nanny Broome takes her to 'the old summerhouse at the end of the View', known as 'the piggy house when Tim was a baby', 'It was a little ornamental temple with a tesselated floor and pillars, designed perhaps as a music room in some far-off Victorian age of extravagance.' The two women move on 'round the side of the building to the broad terraced path which led up the slope to the front of the Keep'. After they have 'reached the last terrace ..... only a lawn separated them from the tall graceful facade' of The Keep.
Mrs. Luke's garden in Linden Lea also figures briefly: 'The window looked out on a neat, bright garden with white stone paths smooth green grass and geraniums all in a row'.
Marshes at Mersea
Near the 'collection of Nissen huts' on Godley's Island in which Mr. Campion renews acquaintance with a very old associate he notices 'sea lavender among the grass and cigarette packets of civilisation', Otherwise it is 'all rough salt grass', 'coarse grass and white sand' and 'a wide expanse of marsh and sky'. During his encounter with the island's mole Albert turns his 'treacherous right foot on a tussock of slippery grass'.
Off on his own, Edward settles 'himself to rest against a plane tree' in 'the hilly triangle of public land' that provides a brief uncomfortable sanctuary, 'It was cold under the tree and inclined to be misty, The dead leaves were damp and odorous in the sparse grass.'
Even St. Petersgate Square is cheerless: 'The Square was empty and the tulip tree in the midst of it was blank and forlorn.'
There is a range of vegetation in this novel from the 'scrawny woodland' of 'elm trees ..... gnarled and bent by coastal wind' on the approach to Saltey to the 'new-cut grass' in Soho Square, the scent of which 'bewitched the air', At Cheffins' Farm 'the solid Georgian house of grey brick and slate had a cold unwelcoming air even in sunlight, emphasised by untrimmed laurels and a large weeping willow which sprawled like a yellow octopus beside the pillared portico'. In the churchyard the 'coarse grass and cow parsley' conceal 'everything but the tallest headstones'.
Best of all is the account of Miss Kytie's house, The Hollies, now Dido's home. For the last time Margery creates a fictional garden in some detail. The house is flanked by 'dark hollies ..... and at the far side was a brick wall concealing a lady garden with tall trees beyond. A white five-barred gate stood open at a rakish angle and gave onto a circular drive in the centre of which was a group of forlorn rose trees guarded by a miniature box hedge., Weeds sprouted from the pebbled pathway.'
The greenhouse is a 'sort of garden room built on the side ..... a green overgrown arbour full of ferns and smelling faintly of eucalyptus', At times the room is 'heavy with the aroma of eucalyptus from the thrusting rubbery tree which was rapidly outgrowing the glazing of the roof', 'With nightfall came a small, chill wind which shivered the last of the may blossoms to the grass.'
Beyond the immediate grounds of the house are 'shrubs and trees' and 'a clearing ..... centring on a Victorian summerhouse, a Gothic rustic affair of split logs with stained-glass windows and a conical roof'. Further off still lies 'the copse which marked the boundary of The Hollies: an overgrown thicket where limes, chestnuts and thorns fought dourly for survival,' As Morty moves through it 'brambles clawed at his ankles'.
In The Beckoning Lady, Charlie Luke is described as unconcerned about 'being absent in the Spring. Birdsong and the deep vermilion of the rose meant little to him at any time.' Though she shared his love of London, where most of her books are set, Margery would certainly have hated to be 'absent in the Spring'.
Text © Barry Pike
Photos of Margery courtesy The Margery Allingham Society
All other photos © Lesley Simpson
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All text and photos copyright © The Margery Allingham Society unless otherwise stated.