PEOPLE WHO LEAD what Damon Young calls “philosophical lives” – philosophers as the Ancients understood the term – do not need to be card-carrying professional philosophers. His book is a set of 11 elegant “portraits,” framed by opening and closing chapters, of the philosophical lives of writers he admires. With only a few exceptions – Jane Austen, Voltaire, Emily Dickinson – the 11 literary figures are not among those that first come to mind as writers who have been inspired by gardens. They do not include the authors of novels in which gardens have a prominent role – Goethe’s Elective Affinities, say, or Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. There is no place for such distinguished garden essayists as Joseph Addison, Horace Walpole, and Karel Čapek, nor for garden makers – from Pliny to Vita Sackville-West – who lovingly chronicled their projects.
If Young’s selection of great writers is unexpected, it is also eclectic. Austen, Marcel Proust, George Orwell, Dickinson, and Friedrich Nietzsche cannot often have kept company within the covers of a single book. No explanation is given for this selection, and the portraits are discrete, with no attempt, until the final page, to compare and contrast the writers discussed.
Especially when the essays are as lucid and entertaining as those in Voltaire’s Vine, there should be no objection as such to an unusual and eclectic choice of subjects. More troubling, however, is that several of them really do not belong in a book sub-titled “How Gardens Inspired Great Writers.” The concern here is not that only some of the writers, as Young concedes, “regularly got their fingernails dirty.” (Though this makes it difficult to understand how one newspaper reviewer could describe the book as showing how “in working with the soil you see life’s big picture.”) For it is clearly possible to engage with, and be inspired by, a garden without wielding a spade, or even a pair of secateurs. One doesn’t envisage the refined owners of the Chinese literati gardens of Suzhou as grubbing about in the soil. The problem, rather, is that Young’s writers who kept their fingernails clean were only marginally, if at all, affected and inspired by gardens.