Sissinghurst, in the Kentish part of the Weald, is the estate that prose author and poet Vita Sackville-West bought in 1930 after it became clear she would not inherit the lease on Knole, her family property.  (It went instead to an uncle.)  Though Sackville-West is notorious for her liaisons with Virginia Woolf and Violet Trefusis (among others), Sissinghurst is another source of her fame—or is she the reason why it is well known?  The phrase on the dust jacket of this volume—“The Quest to Restore a Working Farm at Vita Sackville-West’s Legendary Garden”—suggests that both the estate and its former owner partake of an unusual renown.  In earlier centuries, much British history was made on such estates, grand and less grand—places where, Adam Nicolson writes, “nature and culture were more intimately bound together” than now.  Even today, in a much-changed England, they are recognized as an indispensable inheritance; Country Life, founded in 1897, remains a locus classicus of the English mind.

The author is the son of Nigel Nicolson and the nephew of Ben Nicolson—an art historian—and grandson of Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, a Foreign Office secretary and writer, whom she married in 1913, after having declined socially brilliant offers.  Vita was not the only one to indulge in same-sex relationships; Harold and Nigel also had homosexual affairs.  Adam lived at Sissinghurst as a boy—often unhappy, though he survived the exposé his father published of Vita and Harold (Portrait of a Marriage, 1973).  He returned to Sissinghurst in 2004, shortly before his father died.

This book, which contributes to the small but important subgenre of garden and landscape writing, shows why England is the preeminent nation of gardeners.  “Everywhere around us,” writes Nicolson,

the celandines were emerging in the hedge banks and the garlic along the stream, the anemones and the first of the bluebells were out in the wood.  The cuckoo was cuckooing, there were yellowhammers and blackcaps, and some larks were singing high above us, embroidering their song on the glowing air . . .

To the vein of horticultural writing are added elements of architectural history, autobiography, biography, geography, history, and social and economic critique, plus local lore.

Nicolson resides at Sissinghurst but is not its owner; it was deeded to the National Trust in the 1960’s by Nigel, who could not pay the inheritance taxes after Vita’s death.  Even arranging for the donation was difficult; the Trust is wary of white elephants.  Sissinghurst had been open to the public since the late 1930’s, but Trust ownership constituted a new stage of alienation.  Nigel and his immediate heirs retained residency rights, but little else.  The Trust properties are administered by bureaucrats and their committees and local representatives.  Disagreements on goals and management are routine; budgetary considerations are foremost, yet costly studies must be ordered before decisions are made, and mediocrity often prevails.  Visitors’ fees are expected to furnish part of the funding, so the appeal of properties must be maintained and even increased by architectural preservation and horticultural maintenance.  Inevitably, alterations must be made for staff, roads, car parks, tea rooms, and shops.

Such modifications lead to disputes over principles of restoration and authenticity.  What is “authentic,” and how does it prevail against financial and practical restrictions and aesthetic misjudgment?  When alterations and repairs are made, what precedents should be followed?  This question arises with any work of art and design—including landscape design—for which cleaning, shoring, mending, redecorating, planting, and so on must be done to prevent or reverse deterioration, or for other improvement.  Sissing­hurst consists of 260 acres of fields, woods, and gardens, in addition to outbuildings and a vast castle, originally medieval, to which Elizabethan and other period elements were added.  Should the gardens be planted as Sackville-West first created them?  What about the house and other structures?  Should the fields be used as in earlier centuries?  Think about liability.  Often treacherous stone steps and floors must be replaced or repaired, lighting improved, tottering wings razed or rebuilt.  What, Nicolson wondered, was the “essential Sissinghurst”?  It was not he, however, who would decide, but committees; he could only plead.  He felt an outsider.  At one of the Trust meetings, a head gardener said, “Do we really have to have you here?”  When he and his wife went to live in the house, another gardener said that it was “like having white trash move in.”

Sissinghurst also presented questions of the sort now called “environmental,” once viewed as matters of stewardship.  One does not have to be (better not be, in fact) a Sierra Club member or an Al Gore admirer to be concerned about the land—its maintenance and the proper means of utilizing it.  Nostalgic farming, based on earlier use, was impossible; hops, for instance, had not been profitable for years.  Some nod to the past might be made.  Profit was essential, however—achievable, it was believed, only by large-scale industrial operations, whose chemicalized products—commodities—would be shipped to international markets.  But Nicolson wanted various smaller crops, raised organically in improved soil, with a minimum of mechanization, for local consumption.  One means of realizing this controversial plan was to have the acreage furnish food for the tea room and preserves for the shop.  That measure is, however, more costly than purchasing such items at wholesale prices, as on other Trust properties; and so the plan, like others, has been carried out only partially.  In this and other matters the story of Sissing­hurst, the Trust, and the Nicolson family remains indeed “unfinished history.”

This volume is well made, with a good type design, many black-and-white photographs, fine colored plates, and an Index.  The publisher, like the author, deserves commendation.  To be deplored, however, is the publicity notice, sent to bookstores, reviewers, and editors, in which one reads that the author, as a boy, spent his days roaming the land at Sissing­hurst, racing boats, and “laying” in the meadows.  Shame, shame.  Language is part of our patrimony.  It, too, demands stewardship.


[Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History, by Adam Nicolson (New York: Viking) 341 pp., $27.95]