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Friday Five: 5 Fantastic Gardens

This week's Friday Five guest is author Tiffani Angus. Tiffani is an ex-pat PhD Creative Writing student in Cambridge who is finishing her dissertation and an historic fantasy novel set over 400 years in an English country-house garden. Her published stories include fantasy, horror and erotica - and if you're interested in snippet of horticultural fantasy, check out her short story "Fairchild's Folly" in Irregularity. She also has a story in the upcoming Athena's Daughters, Volume 2.

Let's take a break from the horrible squishy January weather and go out to the garden, shall we?

800px-Diego_Velázquez_020These are not so much the five most magical gardens, or the five creepiest, but perhaps the five most memorable.

Gardens are special. They are also mundane. They are the space between your back door and back gate, or between your front door and the spot where you park the car. Some people have paved-over gardens, others have everything growing in pots surrounded by an army of concrete gnomes and tchotchkes. They can be formal or wild, colourful or just green.

Gardens are more than spaces: they are also time. I can get all theory on you and talk about chronotopes (based on Einstein’s theory of relativity) and heterotopias and polders and the Hortus conclusus. But I won’t (just wiki them for now while I finish my dissertation). What I will say, however, is that gardens are especially special in SFF. I’ve been studying this for the past few years on a Creative Writing PhD, and what I’ve discovered is that writers use gardens. The gardens don’t just sit there, green and verdant or dead and weedy. They are carefully chosen settings. They are characters. They are metaphors. Remember that intersection of space and time I mentioned above? Think of the fun writers can have with that.

In adult literary fiction (read: non-genre) gardens tend to be the place where adult stuff happens: betrayal, adultery, murder, even. There’s something fun for writers about using a beautiful setting as the backdrop for the worst parts of human behaviour. In SFF, however, gardens are too ripe a setting (pun intended) not to use to explore time and space, among other themes, and these five novels and stories do just that. 

“Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844)

The earliest of out list is a short story about a walled garden in which a doctor grows only poisonous plants. His daughter, having tended the garden her whole life, becomes immune to the poisons and becomes poisonous herself; a bug that comes in contact with her breath dies, as do fresh flowers that she holds. The tale has origins in Indian literature and has been an inspiration for other stories and characters (Poison Ivy, anyone?). And, it isn’t too much of a stretch to compare this walled garden and its poisonous heroine to Eve in the Garden of Eden. In this story it isn’t so much the garden itself that is fantastic, but the daughter; yet the story would make no sense without the garden. Without noticing it, we become our surroundings, and Hawthorne uses the study of plants and their various uses to show us that even a beautiful setting can have a nefarious influence.

The Last UniverseThe Last Universe by William Sleator (2005)

Susan is tasked with pushing her brother Gary, who is very ill and in a wheelchair, to the garden at the back of their isolated estate. There is a hedge maze that they’ve only ever seen from a high window, and against Susan’s apprehensions they find it only to notice changes to themselves and their current reality when they exit the maze. Gary, interested in quantum physics, forces experiments with the maze to see whether they can find a parallel universe where he is well. There’s also a visit by Schrödinger’s cat. This is the first book in the list with a hedge maze, a trope popular with SFF writers who use garden settings. It is also the most science fictional of the lot, using that maze to drive home the idea that gardens are time-travel devices.

The Changeling Garden by Winifred Elze (1995)

Probably the weirdest book on the list, The Changeling Garden starts off with a rather straight-forward idea: young couple with a five-year-old son move into a Victorian house with a rambling garden, and the boy and his mother both turn out to have rather interesting connections to the plants in the form of human-to-plant conversations as well as plant-as-body-guard moments: Your usual, King-ian sort of thing. And then everything goes pear-shaped. Throw in a murderer, a time-traveling Mayan, the Toltec he’s been feuding with since forever, and lessons in environmentalism, and what started as a fantasy/horror novel turns into a bit of a mess. Sort of like gardens themselves. You start out with a plot clean of weeds, stones, various bits of trash, etc.; you plant some seeds, water it all, and wait. And a few months later you have a jungle.

Lavender-GreenTom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)
Lavender-Green Magic by Andre Norton (1974)
Moondial by Helen Cresswell (1987)

This looks like a bit of a cheat, but I’ve clumped these three together because of what they have in common. So many children’s books that use a garden setting make the garden into a sort of TARDIS, which jettisons the child protagonists back in time, though not space. In Tom’s Midnight Garden, each night after the clock strikes thirteen Tom travels back to the 19th century in the garden that used to surround the house that has (in his time) been cut up into flats where his aunt and uncle live; while in the past he plays in the garden with Hattie, an emotionally abused young orphan living with her aunt and cousins, who has aged—sometimes by years—each time Tom arrives. In Lavender-Green Magic, a maze is once again a time-travel device; this time three African-American siblings are sent to live with their grandparents who run a junk yard in New England that backs into a hedge maze complete with strange topiary. Navigating the maze to its centre takes the kids back in time where they have to deal with witches and a curse that’s been put on the town. In Moondial, Minty can travel back in time when she touches the sundial/moondial in the National Trust garden where her aunt works; in the past she meets children from previous times who are in peril, either at the hands of abusive adults or the necessity of having to work until they dropped from exhaustion or untreatable illness. There is something charming about reading—as an adult—children’s books with time-traveling gardens. We adults walk around carrying the weight of layers of years, while kids see time in seasons; gardens for us are constant (and a lot of work), while for the young they’re flowers and fruit and crackly leaves and snow-covered humps waiting for spring. They’re magical. Sending child protagonists back in time a hundred years or more to deal with a past they cannot yet understand because they’ve not learned about it yet in school and haven’t yet grown up to fully understand adult behaviour seems cruel, but it makes sense in the context of a garden, a place that marks time—and holds it—so clearly.

The_Moon_and_the_SunThe Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre (1997)

Back to adult fiction now with a bit of pure garden pr0n. Louis XIV has sent an explorer to find a fabled sea monster whose flesh, when eaten, will bestow upon the king the immortality he craves. Two creatures are found: a male, brought back dead, and a female (a mermaid), who is kept jailed in the fountain in the garden at Versailles. In McIntyre’s book, the garden itself isn’t fantastic, just the creature kept in it, but it ranked inclusion on the list because of the flights of fancy that even the name Versailles inspires. As someone who grew up in the American Southwest where a green garden was a rare thing, I like my gardens formal and geometric; they are fantastic to me, something too unreal to exist. *Note: it looks like this has been filmed and will be a theatrical release later this year. Oooh!

Honorary mentions

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston (1954): Like with Moondial above, the garden in this novel actually exists and welcomes visitors, part of The Manor in Hemingford Grey, a 12th-century home. This, the first book of a series, features Tolly who is sent to live with his great-grandmother at Green Knowe, where he learns about his ancestors, including a trio of young siblings who died of plague centuries before. It is in the garden where he first sees the ghosts he has been hearing and sensing. This is another book about how gardens (and houses) hold on to memories.

In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker (1997): The first of Baker’s “The Company” novels finds cyborg Mendoza traveling back in time to the 16th century to collect samples from rare and now-extinct plants in a walled garden in Kent. Again, the garden itself isn’t magical, but it’s hard to resist a science fiction story set in a Tudor-era garden (the depiction of which is fantastical in itself since there are no extant Tudor gardens left).

Have other memorable, magical gardens that you'd like to share? Leave them in the comments - and tell Tiffani on Twitter at @tiffaniangus.

Don't forget to check out Athena's Daughters, Volume 2, a (very) fully funded Kickstarter anthology featuring fantastic new female voices in speculative fiction. There are still a few days left if you'd like to chip in and reserve your copy.