This is National Gardening Week, and with three Bank Holidays in quick succession, many of us will be inspired to get out and take stock of our plots, tubs and window-boxes. Not surprisingly in view of the British fondness for horticulture, one of the first and most popular works by Karel Äapek to appear in English translation was ZahradnĂkĆŻv rok (âThe Gardenerâs Yearâ: Prague, 1929; YF.2005.a.31522 ). With its lively illustrations by the authorâs brother Josef, it quickly became a favourite, and the translation by M. and R. Weatherall, which ran into multiple impressions, was succeeded by a more recent one by Geoffrey Newsome (London, 2004; ELD.DS.288828), testifying to its lasting appeal.
Äapek himself was an enthusiastic gardener, and part of the enduring charm of his book is his lack of illusions about the cussedness of nature and the sheer hard labour involved in maintaining a garden. The text consists of a chapter for every month of the year, interspersed with others on topics such as âHow a man becomes a gardenerâ, âSeedsâ, âOn the Cultivators of Cactiâ (Czech cousins of the Kaktusfreunde portrayed in paintings by Carl Spitzweg?), âThe Blessed Rainâ and âOn Market Gardenersâ.
British readers familiar with Dorothy Frances Gurneyâs poem âGodâs Gardenâ, (in Godâs Garden, & other verses: London, ; 011641.df.93), with its claim that âOne is nearer Godâs heart in a garden / Than anywhere else on earthâ, may be pulled up short by Äapekâs far less sentimental view of things. Nature, one senses, is never more belligerent than when assailed by the gardener. From the very first attempts to lay out a garden (âthe best way is to get a gardenerâ) to the conclusion that âthe gardener wants eleven hundred years to test, learn to know, and appreciate fully all that is hisâ, Äapek leaves us in no doubt that the way of the gardener is a stony one â in every sense. Indeed, the chapter âThe Gardenerâs Mayâ deals precisely with âthe greatest pleasure and special pride of the gardener, his rock or Alpine gardenâ. This, he suggests, is so called because it âgives its owner opportunity for performing hazardous mountaineering featsâ as he lunges and scrambles among the âpicturesque and not altogether firm stones of his rock gardenâ in his attempts to plant and weed it.
The intrepid rock-gardener in May
Nor does Äapek underestimate the crimes of passion of which the fanatical gardener is capable in the pursuit of some prize specimen for his rockery, from stealing Campanula morettiana by night to outright murder. Those too fat or too cowardly to accomplish this shamelessly weep and implore the proud owner for a cutting, or wheedle one from the local florist. However, once acquired these treasures frequently fail to come up to expectations: the hard-won campanula proves to be nothing but a horse-radish.
A generation earlier another author, Mary Annette Beauchamp, had described the trials and pleasures of making a garden in East Prussia with the intervention of itinerant Russian labourers and her redoubtable German husband, Graf von Arnim, âthe Man of Wrathâ. Such was the popularity of Elizabeth and her German Garden (London, 1898; 012643.cc.34) that her subsequent works appeared as âby the author of Elizabeth and her German Gardenâ before she adopted the permanent nom-de-plume of Elizabeth von Arnim. Yet there is nothing sweetly quaint about her sharp perceptions of the Anglo-German clash of cultures in the garden and the drawing-room, where her acid perspicuity frequently recalls Jane Austen. Nor is she a mere armchair gardener who scorns to get her fingers dirty; from the excitement of ordering from catalogues to the headaches of persuading her acquisitions to take root in sandy Prussian soil with the fitful help of her sometimes incredulous staff, she shows not only a deep love of gardening but a thorough understanding of the challenges which it presents.
Like her, Äapek is often thwarted by the resistance of his local terrain to adapt to English models of horticulture. âI know an excellent recipe for an English lawn,â he declares. âLike the recipe for Worcester Sauce â it comes from an âEnglish country gentlemanââ who concludes âIf you do this for three hundred years, you will have as good a lawn as mineâ. In the meantime he has to contend with bald patches and dandelions, and to persuade his neighbours to look in and water it when he goes away on holiday in August. Failing to persuade a little old lady to bring her goat to eat the clippings, he has to pay a reluctant dustman to remove them (âYou know, sir,â he says, âweâre not supposed to take it.â)
It is well known that following a spell of fine weather A&E departments in hospitals throughout the country see an influx of patients with all kinds of gardening-related injuries from infected wounds inflicted by rose-thorns to backs strained by over-enthusiastic lawn-mowing. In a sense Karel Äapekâs death was linked to his love for his garden. Although offered the chance to go to exile in England, where he had many friends, to escape persecution by the Nazis, Äapek refused to leave Czechoslovakia. While repairing flood damage to the family summer-house and garden in StarĂĄ HuĆ„, he caught a cold which turned to pneumonia, from which he died on 25 December 1938. In the final paragraph of The Gardenerâs Year he writes, âWe gardeners live somehow for the future âŠ I should like to see what these birches will be like in fifty yearsâ. Sadly, he did not live to do so â but every gardener can draw comfort from the words, âThe right, the best is in front of us. Each successive year will add growth and beautyâ.
Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services