by EMILY HERRING WILSON
This year marks the centenary of Elizabeth Lawrence’s birth. Lawrence (who died in 1985) is known to many gardeners as the author of the luminous A Southern Garden (1942), one of the undisputed classics of American garden writing. In her biography of Lawrence, No One Gardens Alone (Beacon Press, 2004), from which the following article is excerpted, Emily Herring Wilson gives substance and depth to the appealing, if somewhat enigmatic, figure we encounter in Lawrence’s writings.
Elizabeth Lawrence is the garden’s biographer. She brings the garden to life and makes us feel as if we ourselves are in it. The titles of her books suggest the range of her interests: A Southern Garden, The Little Bulbs, Gardens in Winter, Lob’s Wood, Gardening for Love, and A Rock Garden in the South. A Garden of One’s Own is a collection of her garden articles that appeared in journals, and Through the Garden Gate includes a selection from her more than 700 newspaper columns. Her first book, A Southern Garden, published in 1942 and reissued in three editions, is regarded as a classic in garden literature. Each of her books has its own following, both among gardeners who go to Lawrence for information and advice that remains relevant today, and among readers who regard Lawrence as a gifted literary writer who knew poetry as well as she knew plants.
Elizabeth Lawrence had an implicit understanding of how essential her life was to her work, and she wrote from her experiences at home and in the garden. She had the ability to write about herself and her friends in a way that preserves rather than destroys privacy, a gift so rare in our time that we may underestimate its importance. In each of her books, she invites the reader inside: We see the red cardinal in the bamboo by the candle-lit window, where Elizabeth and her mother are having dinner; smell the scent of sweet olive; hear the sound of branches breaking under the weight of ice; and feel woolly thyme and lamb’s ears. Our senses are aroused, and, if only for a moment, time stands still. No one knew better than Elizabeth Lawrence how ephemeral a garden is, and she teaches her readers to savor every season because it will not last forever. In this lesson, we learn another way of being, imagined if not lived. In an age of speed, such moments of peace are essential, I must believe, to our well-being.
Elizabeth Lawrence was a woman of a certain time and place. Born at the beginning of the twentieth century, she revered the past. She knew her great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents and their Georgia and West Virginia homes. Her literary forebears were Virgil, Proust, and Jane Austen. But she was not stuck in the past. She wrote her own poetry in the style of Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose verses she read as a student at Barnard College in New York City. Her most insistent credo for gardeners was that they try something new, and she introduced hundreds of exotic plants into their gardens. Even before she died, her reputation was complex. Behind her back, some people called her “St. Elizabeth,” a title that may refer to her image as “the Southern gardener.” Some found her “shy”; others, “feisty.” A cousin remembered her as “rebellious” for having worn knickers when she visited her grandparents in Marietta, Georgia. She was, I believe, mysterious, for she could seem to be all of these.
Elizabeth Lawrence was an old-fashioned kind of garden writer, collecting scientific information—much of it from records of several thousand plants she had grown in her own gardens—and then personalizing it. Right in the midst of telling us about a plant we have never seen, called by a name we cannot spell or pronounce, she makes us want to go out and find Iris unguicularis so that we can enjoy the “whiff” of the first breath of spring.
A half-dozen of Lawrence’s admirers represent the breadth of her appeal: Katharine White, editor at The New Yorker; Joseph Mitchell, prose writer at The New Yorker; Eudora Welty, fiction writer; Stanley Kunitz, poet; Allen Lacy, garden writer; and Elisabeth Woodburn, book dealer. They and other reviewers have placed Elizabeth Lawrence in the top rank of garden writers. Not only in the South but throughout the United States and in England, she has a following among gardeners that is extraordinary—whether they take her books with them into the garden or leave them by a favorite chair.
Looking for Elizabeth Lawrence’s place in the history of American garden literature rewards us with the same satisfactions as looking for a plant—finding it is only half the adventure. Along the way, we discover treasures, almost by accident. Isn’t that often the experience of the avid gardener? It is certainly one of the lessons we learn from reading Lawrence, who describes how she sometimes found almost beneath her feet the very plant she had been looking for (and sometimes found it in her own garden). Lawrence also teaches us where to look—not only down at our feet, but in the gardens of neighbors and friends, in untrammeled woods (if we can find them), in nurseries, in farmers’ markets, and on street corners.
A traveler of the imagination, Elizabeth Lawrence believed there was no place like home. After graduating from Barnard College and taking a long trip abroad, she returned to North Carolina. The Raleigh garden, which her mother had maintained in her absence, was so beautiful that she decided never again to leave it, at least not for long. She was the first woman to enroll in a new program in landscape architecture at North Carolina State College in Raleigh, and after completing her studies, she embarked upon a career as a garden designer, lecturer, and writer. But it was her garden that was the talk of the town. Her circle of interests included nearby St. Mary’s School, which she had loved as a young girl; the Episcopal Church, with the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer; a mission Sunday school, where she introduced children to music and poetry; and garden clubs, where audiences thought her the most “charming” speaker they had ever had and a “plantswoman” of encyclopedic knowledge.
Small, thin, and fair, Elizabeth Lawrence always seemed too delicate for heavy work, until she lifted rocks; quiet and reticent, she seemed shy, until she argued; kind and well-mannered, she did not tolerate fools gladly. Young or old she always looked like a girl, and to the end of her mother’s life (in 1964), she was a dutiful daughter. But her story has surprises, too, as unexpected as those at Misselthwaite Manor in Lawrence’s favorite book, The Secret Garden. And Elizabeth Lawrence, like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, found the key that unlocks the garden’s surprises. And of course, friends come through the gate, and we will find them, too.
After her father’s death in 1936 and her sister Ann’s move to New York City, Elizabeth and her mother (“Bessie”) filled up their large house in Raleigh with friends. During World War II they also entertained soldiers, many of whom had never seen such a garden, or eaten a four-course meal by candlelight, or been encouraged to talk so much about themselves. Elizabeth and Bessie got along well as mother and daughter, as Bessie and her mother, “Nana,” had. Elizabeth especially loved the old (her great-grandparents, her grandparents, and her mother) and the young (her sister’s son and daughter, children of friends, and neighborhood children).
Elizabeth always made good friends, and in Raleigh she was especially lucky. Most important to her were her neighbors, the Bridgers family. A widowed mother and three unmarried adult children made their home a center of good food, conversation, and encouragement. The two daughters—Emily and Ann Preston Bridgers—were successful writers, and they took Elizabeth under their wings. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, with their help, Elizabeth became the garden writer we know today.
Although Elizabeth liked to stay at home, in the botanical world she ranged as widely as a seed blown by the wind. Geography and time were no boundaries to her vivid curiosity. A favorite plant was as likely to come from Cape Town, South Africa, as from Marietta, Georgia, where her grandmother gardened. She understood the language of Southern farm ladies (“I gin ter you as gun ter me”) as well as Virgil’s Latin: Quid faciat laetas segetes, “What makes the crops joyous?”
Lawrence was a passionate letter writer, and in a steady flow of correspondence over more than a half-century, as she collected bloom dates for her records, she also collected friends. Although books about gardening were important, she believed that the most valuable source of information was other gardeners who had themselves grown the plants in all places and conditions, and she wrote to them across the country, from Maine to California. And when they wrote back, she put them in her books: Mr. Krippendorf in his old clothes and red bandanna, worn as he roams the woods in Ohio; Caroline Dormon exclaiming, “Come runnin”!”; and Rosa Hicks’s listing of plants, written with the stub of a pencil.
“No one can garden alone,” Lawrence reminds us, but it is a statement underplanted with paradox. No one was more conscious than she of a person’s need to be alone. She had the courage to be private. In our quest to satisfy that need, we may find the gardener ourselves, a discovery that may or may not require us to plant something (though it could not hurt us if we did).
Above: Lawrence at work in her Raleigh garden in the spring of 1942. Opposite, above left: The plan that Lawrence drew for the backyard of her Charlotte garden. She described it as “a small city back yard laid out in flower beds and gravel walks, with a scrap of pine woods in the background.” Opposite, above right: The famous portrait of Lawrence in her Raleigh garden, taken by Bayard Wootten. Opposite, below right: Lawrence in her later years, with her characteristic pixie haircut.