The frontispiece to Gardener's Nightcap by Philip Gough
Gardener’s Nightcap is our first gardening book. We have been looking for one for a long time, but it is not easy to find something useful but not too ponderous, nicely illustrated but not kitsch, and well-written without being too prescriptive or too saccharine. Finally, here it is, a 1938 book that is perfect for the keen gardener or, in fact, for the aspiring, to buy for oneself or to give as a present. We hope this book will become as integral a part of the Persephone collection as, say, How to Run Your Home without Help – amusing, interesting, with historical resonance, and yet useful.
Muriel Stuart was a successful and well-known poet during and just after the First World War (she is in the ODNB because of her poems). She then had two children, gave up writing poetry and took to gardening with enormous enthusiasm and dedication. She wrote only two books, Fool’s Garden (1936), about creating a garden in Surrey, and the one we have chosen to reprint, Gardener’s Nightcap. After the war, for thirty years, she was a well-known columnist for gardening magazines. Although a great beauty, Muriel Stuart was shy and self-contained – and happiest in her garden.
This work of hers is indeed a ‘nightcap’: a soothing tonic to take in small doses just before bed. The subjects covered are many and variegated. They include: Meadow Saffron, Dark Ladies (‘fritillary to me spells enchantment’, which is why we have chosen them for the endpaper), Better Goose-berries, Good King Henry (‘quite a good substitute for asparagus’), The Wild Comes Back and Phlox Failure. Each of these pieces is only a few lines in length yet tells the gardener far more than extensive essays or manuals. Gardener’s Nightcap, a bestseller in its year of first publication, is illustrated by charming Rex Whistler-type drawings. And we end with the opening sentence: ‘There is an hour just before dark, when the garden resents interference. Its work, no less than the gardener’s, is done. Do not meddle with the garden at that hour. It demands, as all living creatures demand, a time of silence...’
Endpapers taken from 'Fritillary', a 1936 block-printed linen designed by Margaret Calkin James. Copyright Elizabeth Argent.