In All Passion Spent (1931), Vita Sackville-West’s eighty-eight-year-old protagonist thinks back over her life:
“She had plenty of leisure now, day in, day out, to survey her life as a tract of country traversed, and at last become a landscape instead of separate fields or separate years and days, so that it became a unity and she could see the whole view, and could even pick out a particular field and wander round it again in spirit, though seeing it all the while as it were from a height, fallen into its proper place, with the exact pattern drawn round it by the hedge, and the next filed into which the gap in the hedge would lead. So, she thought, could she at last put circles round her life.”
Thinking now about our forthcoming book, Women, Literature, and the Arts of the Countryside in Early Twentieth Century England, we also found that we could put circles around our work. We began it as a sequel of sorts to our earlier Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape: England’s Disciples of Flora, 1780-1870, where we argued that women’s engagement with the garden could shed light on how they negotiated the complex, gendered demands of domestic life with culture, politics, and education. But in the period just beyond, we broadened our subject to the landscape beyond the garden gate. What happens when women’s interest in gardens, landscape, and nature-related material culture meets with new visions of a professional life and of educational opportunities, all in the shadow of war and of profound changes in the countryside?
Here we found women engaged in what we call the “arts of the countryside,” a term we use to encompass the work that women did in gardening, writing, designing landscapes, founding schools, and making artifacts to reflect and to be used in the garden. Most of these women chose to live in and commit to the revitalization of rural life, seen quite literally in the title of one of Marion Cran’s gardening memoirs, The Story of My Ruin: yet they were sophisticated and self-conscious about their engagement with the rural world. We decided to focus on eight literary and artistic figures, some better known than others, in order to put the pieces together and form, if not a “whole view,” then at least a pattern of understanding and interconnectedness. We indeed found revealing connections: for instance, potter and artist Mary Watts provided gardener and educator Frances Wolseley with terra cotta for her gardens, and they, as well as Vita Sackville-West, knew Gertrude Jekyll from professional and familial connections as well as from her books. The stories they tell of these networks bring the material to life.
Likewise, the story we tell of these women is grounded in archival work, most of it in England, and often inspired by the actual gardens and material objects that remain. In some cases, as in Dora Carrington’s paintings, Edith Nesbit’s novels, or Flora Thompson’s mediations of the countryside, their creative words and images helped us reimagine the countryside. In others, such as with Beatrix Potter or Sackville-West, the writing and the places they created and that endure today became a part of our story. Who could stroll through Sackville-West’s garden Sissinghurst without wondering how it came to be and what connection it has to her life as a novelist and poet, or how Potter’s garden and collection of artifacts relates to the production of her little books? Although touched by war and by the rapid social and cultural changes during this period, the English countryside serves as an important reminder of resilience, as do the artists and writers we discuss who worked creatively to renew the land and to find their places in it.