Here is a question about the limits of readerly magnanimity: How happy for a writer can one possibly be? How much pleasure can we go on taking, on the page, in another’s good fortune? If this is a book dense in thanks and acknowledgements—and I don’t just mean at the back, when the narrative is over, I mean through and through, one heartfelt thank-you following another, to family, to friends, to colleagues, to Kent, to England, above all to Nature, as though he and Nature enjoy a family connection—that is because Adam Nicolson has more to be thankful for than most. Aficionados of the misery memoir may find it hard to keep their footing here, because this is the story not only of a privileged life but of a man made happy by that privilege.
The author is the grandson of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, a couple whose literary achievements it is hard to speak about without reference to the great garden at Sissinghurst, which Vita Sackville-West designed, and to the homo-erotic scandals in which, at the fringes of literary Bloomsbury (and closer if we include Vita Sackville-West’s affair with Virginia Woolf) they were separately embroiled. That we know as much as we do about the intimate details of their marriage is the consequence of the publication in 1973 of Portrait of a Marriage, a compilation of Vita Sackville-West’s diaries and letters by their son Nigel Nicolson, Adam’s father. So this is a family that, in fair times and in foul, goes on recording itself. And not, I think, out of some dynastic solipsism, but in answer to a more generous, and certainly very English, prompting: a sense of historical obligation, to pay back in words what has been given in advantage.
It needs to be said that it is Sissinghurst itself—the house and the garden, not the widely documented erotic ecstasy it has witnessed—that is the subject of this book, though Nicolson knows that our curiosity will have its way, and that the story of his more workaday quest to restore Sissinghurst as a working farm cannot be fully told without reference to the house’s history. The poetry of infidelity, but also of enduring love—Harold watering Sissinghurst with his tears when Vita died—permeates the landscape in which Adam Nicolson grew up. It is beautifully, not to say rhapsodically, evoked: the past reverberating in a way it can only to someone to whom that past belongs, ideal and yet practical. To take a single example out of hundreds, Nicolson recalls a tractor laying waste to swathes of soil “in repeated, rippling slices… as if the wavy hair of the field had been combed flat but kept its wave, gleaming early that brilliant morning, like oiled braids.” One “vision of perfection” succeeds another, whether it is the specificity of a particular meadow he remembers as “the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” or the wider Weald of Kent, “the root of what seemed good here.”
It is hereabouts that, for an urban reader at least, the sheer weight of goodness and perfection become hard to bear. This is not because one begrudges Nicolson the good fortune of his birth, or because there is anything preposterous in the claims he makes for Sissinghurst as a very education of the feelings, but because the writing becomes for a while mesmerically unreadable: the drowse from the fields—”piled high with straw bales”, where “eye-shaped lozenges of uncut grass” circle the trunks of ancient trees, overlooked by “white clouds of blossom in the pear and apple orchards”—creating a drowse of language from which one longs to wake to something harsh and cruel.
But Nicolson knows what he is about. “Inside this beautiful outer shell,” we are told at last, “was a pool of unhappiness,” and it is then that the book proper, the story of a struggle, begins. The particular unhappiness that breaks the spell is his parents' failed marriage—not quite a mirror image of what befell his grandparents, though again a sad and beautiful woman runs off with someone else. From the moment of his mother’s defection, the warmth leaves Sissinghurst. “The kitchen there never smelled good or right again.”
The picture of the bereft father, cold, clever, affectionate, but emotionally stunted, is a familiar one to readers of books about English sons and fathers, but it is sketched here with great sympathy. As for the mother, she simply vanishes from the book as she vanished from their lives. We could speculate about the nature of the hurt, but of this there can be no doubt: the impulse to warm the kitchen up again, to have Sissinghurst once more smelling as it should, is what lies behind the great ambition of which this book is the record—to restore the house not only to the glory it enjoyed in the days of Harold and Vita, when there were serpents enough in Paradise, but also to a grandeur of function and beauty that is nothing short of a reimagining of a perfected England, part history, part dream.
Philippa Nicolson will not be the first absconding mother to light a fire in her abandoned son’s heart; but this story is unusual, I think, for the persistence with which Adam Nicolson seeks the restitution of an ideal, and the book becomes important, at a time when the English are wondering about what has become of them, to the degree that it is not a private story only, but an attempt at a solution to that biggest of all questions: how to live.
“You can’t do the general unless you do the particular” is the writer’s creed, and Adam Nicolson is to his muddy boots a writer first. The struggle to make the house important again, to integrate it with a working organic farm, to establish “an intimately close connection between food, people and landscape”—all this is told in minute enough detail to satisfy the accountants and farm managers of anyone who might be thinking of investing. By the time we are through, we know all the drawbacks to a successful marriage of practicality and idealism, not the least of them the unimaginative obstinacy of the National Trust, that body that oversees so many of the great English houses, and which is responsible at one and the same time for the kitsch merchandise of the “heritage” business, and the fastidious de haut en bas condescension shown to those who buy it.
There are times, quite frankly, when the detail is so thorough that it is hard to go on caring. While the information that “a three-and-a-half-acre vegetable plot was laid out in nine different segments” will no doubt do it for some readers, it won’t for others. But when the enterprise enters the more abstract spheres of poetry and purpose, of landscape understood as language, of the point of things, it turns fascinating. By a roundabout route, via Steven Pinker on the function of linguistic wastage (a route he treads learnedly without showing off his learning), Nicolson gets at last to the idea that “redundancy is all.” It is an expression of exasperation with all those who have thwarted him in his struggle to restore a working farm at Sissinghurst, the men of money and practicality; but it is also an argument for beauty, “webbed, interfolded, everything connected to everything else,” which in turn becomes a defence of himself, his antecedents and his class.
We are thinking about this in England at the moment, where class has returned to politics and the men of the hour are suddenly the men we supposed we had dispensed with. We had thought history had rendered them redundant, but it would seem that in our disillusionment with the self-made millionaires and bonus-driven bankers who have ruined us we have turned again to men of property and family and privileged education. Though Sissinghurst does not address this subject directly, it chimes interestingly with it. Attending to the music of the nightingale, Nicolson writes “it is as if new and old in him were indistinguishable.” It is a plea for harmonious integration to which, this very hour, the whole country is lending an ear.
Howard Jacobson is the author, most recently, of The Act of Love.