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Archive for the ‘Nicola Shulman’ Category

Brevity requires the sort of genius I do not have, which makes me all the more admiring when I come across it.  It is hard enough to do in fiction, where the author controls all, but to do it in biography, as in A Rage for Rock Gardening by Nicola Shulman, is extraordinary.

A Rage for Rock Gardening tells, in a brief 120 pages, the life story of Reginald Farrer.  An author, gardener, and plant hunter, I’ve come across mentions of Farrer and this book repeatedly in Ursula Buchan’s writings and been intrigued.  Farrer was a member of John Buchan’s Oxford circle, alongside Raymond Asquith and Aubrey Herbert.  For the most part, this group was brilliant and charismatic – with Farrer as the exception. Farrer hung on, determined to prove himself and equally determined to attract the attention and affection of Aubrey Herbert, whom he considered “the personification of joy”.  He would manage one but not the other.

While Asquith’s combination of beauty, brilliance, and polish was no doubt alluring, it is perhaps telling that Farrer’s focus was Herbert, a “dishevelled boy, half-blind, not altogether beautiful”.  Though Herbert would go on to be a hero of the Gallipoli campaign, a champion of Albanians (who twice offered him their throne) and the inspiration for John Buchan’s Greenmantle, he must have seemed at least somewhat relatable to the ugly, dwarfish Farrer.  Born with a cleft palate, Farrer had been educated at home until coming to Oxford due to his speech impediment, fussed over continuously through bouts of ill health by his mother.  Which made him all the more determined to live once he was free in the world.

Upon graduation, he set out for Asia with Herbert, who was taking up an attaché role in Tokyo.  Already keenly interested in gardening, Farrer had the time to explore and his interest in oriental plants would be a passion that drove him for the rest of his life, alongside his enthusiasm for alpine gardens.  Back home, he began a successful career as a garden writer, driving the huge popularity of rock gardens and introducing a new, more personal style of garden writing.  And he would keep returning to Asia as a plant hunter, tramping through the wilds of the Himalayas in search of new alpine specimens, until he died of an illness there at the age of only forty.

Farrer was a complex and troubled soul, never content and never able to stop competing with those he loved.  Shulman manages to distill the essence of his life and his relationships into this slim volume without it ever feeling rushed.  She cannot answer every question, but it intrigues you to want to learn more.  Sadly for Farrer though, it is his extraordinary peers who I longed to learn more about.  Even in his own biography, he is overshadowed by the men he admired, loved, and envied in equal measure.

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