“For we think back through our mothers if we are women.”― Virginia Woolf
Four Gardens is a novel that tends to make us ‘think back through our mothers’. The lovely narrative leads us irresistibly back to the past. We follow a young woman—Caroline—down the streets of Town, over the green trodden paths of the Common, through one garden of breathless romance, then another garden of prosaic runner beans, a formal garden of wealth and social stature, and finally; a rooftop garden where Caroline can look back and reflect:
‘I’ve had a good life.’
Caroline Chase would have been of the generation just older than Margery Sharp. She would have worn Gibson girl hairstyles, and ’dressed in light cloth skirts, light cloth jackets with leg-of-mutton sleeves, and hard straw hats.’
She was also one of that unique generation—and we only know how unique by the benefit of hindsight— who was born in the Victorian age, grew to adulthood in the Edwardian age, lived through the searing time of WWI, and witnessed the shattering social upheavals of the 1920’s.
The tone of Caroline’s story is told so respectfully, and her portrait so faithfully rendered, that we must wonder…
…did Margery Sharp have her mother in mind when she wrote this? Or an aunt of whom she was fond?
This absorbing novel of the quietly unremarkable Caroline [Chase] Smith is told through the medium of four very different gardens that she finds herself the mistress of throughout her life.
After a prologue, the story begins at the close of the nineteenth century when Caroline is but seventeen years old. British class distinctions, at this time, were still well in place and abided by. The simple guide to understanding the social order in which this novel was set is efficiently summed up for us as only Margery Sharp could do. In part:
‘People on the Common,’ Margery Sharp informs us, ‘inhabited large detached houses, employed whole-time gardeners, and drove carriage and pair. People in the Town lived in streets, rows, and crescents, had the gardener half a day a week, and transported themselves on foot, in ‘buses, and occasionally on bicycles.’
Young Caroline Chase, as the grand-daughter of the town grocer, and growing up in a modest flat above the shop, is definitely ‘Town’. But Caroline is of a quiet, obedient nature, and does not look beyond what is expected of her.
‘She was no iconoclast,’ Sharp writes, ‘the social system, as exemplified in a high-class suburb of London, awoke in her breast no socialistic yearnings. It was the state of life to which it had pleased God to call her, and as such beyond criticism.’
That is why she could overcome, really quite sensibly, a flurry of romantic attraction in the first of her Four Gardens, on the deserted grounds of Richmond Lodge. The romance was doomed to failure, of course; for as Caroline herself plainly stated to The Fascinating Undesirable, Vincent:
“It’s because you live on the Common and I live in the Town.”
Vincent thus disposed of, we move on to the pragmatic Henry Smith in ‘the checked suit’, a sensible marriage, and Caroline’s next garden—adequately distinguished by having produced ‘runner beans’.
But Henry Smith has a head for business, and—astonishingly—our simple, unassuming Caroline becomes the wealthy mistress of a lovely manor home, formal gardens, and dearest friend to the lively Lady Tregarthen.
Even here, though, she keeps her sensible outlook. She rears two affectionate but disrespectful children (virtually unaided by her busy-at-work husband), and she wins our respect by courageously facing down a veritable Svengali of The Brave New World—artist Gilbert Chalmers. For all her unassuming modesty, Caroline is still a mother, and Gilbert Chalmers is the devastatingly attractive element that is about to destroy her daughter’s life.
‘For a moment, as they stood face to face, she looked at him searchingly, trying to see what it was Lal found so irresistibly attractive.’
‘“Wondering what they see in me?” asked Mr. Chalmers.’
“Yes,” said Caroline; and at that moment—just for one instant—she did see it. She saw him as something huge, untamed, like those creatures half-horse, half-man, that Ancient Greeks used to carve in stone. The image was gone almost before she could seize it; but she had, for that instant, felt the desire to know, challenge, and master something strange, powerful, and ruthless.’
‘Nonsense!’ Caroline told herself sharply. ‘He’s weak as water!’
Sensible Caroline. She was right. Gilbert Chalmers, for all his animal magnetism, was weak as water. He simply faded away.
Lal married a doctor and learned to make stew. Leonard, Caroline’s son, when we leave him, may be just stopping short of a life of artistic dissipation a la the Bloomsbury Group. But we’re not sure. He is an unknown quantity.
The closing garden on a tiny rooftop is the one that makes Caroline the happiest. It is—finally, thrillingly— her own.
“I’ve had a good life,” reflected Caroline.
Yet, in her modest estimation, she admits that ‘she had done nothing at all.’
Perhaps this story wasn’t about anyone that Margery Sharp knew personally. Perhaps she simply wanted, through the faithful rendering of the ‘unhistorical acts’ of Caroline Smith, to add to the ‘good of the world’.
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” —Middlemarch, George Eliot
I haven’t mentioned Fanny and The Whiners in this review because, well, I don’t want to spoil the ending. The concluding line of Four Gardens is, like in her novel ‘Rhododendron Pie, ‘a work of genius‘.
There have been some lovely reviews of this book, like this one here on the ‘Leaves and Pages’ blog.
Four Gardens had favorable reviews back in the day; one quoted here, in part, is from The American Review, November 1935:
‘Once again Miss Sharp has written a book whose main character is truly entitled to the name of “heroine”. In many ways the book will not appeal to younger readers quite so directly as The Flowering Thorn, but I cannot imagine a woman over the age of twenty-five who would not like all, or a large part, or this book. The humour is particularly feminine: sly without malice, emerging even in moments of strain. Miss Sharp inscribes a motto in her book, immediately following the title page, a motto from Jane Austen which inspires so much hope, which so nearly promises more books of this same standard, that this reviewer very nearly went out and cabled the author in fervent gratitude: ‘Let other pens’, she quotes, ‘dwell on guilt and misery’ ‘.