A Lady of Good Family

The shaping of a world-class American garden artist – Beatrix Jones Farrand (1895 -1920; told from Lenox, Massachusetts in backstories to Old World European and British gardens): Are you thinking, who is Beatrix Jones Farrand? If you’ve ever admired the elegant gardens at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, or the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine, or Bellefield on FDR’s Presidential Museum and Library site in Hyde Park, New York, or Yale’s Memorial Quadrangle gardens – some 200 public and private gardens – then you’ve delighted in the aesthetic legacy of Beatrix Jones Farrand. You just weren’t aware that these artistically landscaped gardens were designed by a pioneering woman, considered one of the most influential American landscape architects of the 20th-century. Thanks to the author’s gardening passion (echoed by countless others, see here and here), you’ll find A Lady of Good Family unfolds and blooms in its own delight.

The first pleasing seeds are planted when you learn that two of the lady’s Gilded Age connections were those wonderful chroniclers of the clash between the Old World and the New: Edith Wharton, Beatrix’s aunt (Wharton likened her writing to a “secret garden”) and Henry James, Beatrix’s friend. So too does Jeanne Mackin’s newest historical novel transport us back to the attitudes and customs of the gilded era at home and abroad, bumping Beatrix’s New World aspirations devoted to designing magnificent gardens that fit naturally into landscapes – Beatrix’s real history – up against an imagined Old World romantic love – the novel’s fictional “heart history.”

Your transporter – our narrator – is Daisy Winters, whose delighting, reminiscing prose flows like “daisies danced in the breeze. My namesake flower.” She’s a fictionalized confidante of both Beatrix and her kindly mother, Minnie. We trust Daisy’s storytelling about Beatrix’s heart because all three were close-enough in age to be believable good friends (and we’re privy to Beatrix’s warm, heart-to-heart letters to Daisy). When the novel opens, Beatrix is 23, Daisy 33, Minnie 47.

Daisy’s vehicle for confiding Beatrix’s life is told mostly as porch conversations she’s having with three strangers she’s met at an inn in the Berkshires, where she’s staying for a week. It’s nicely situated near Edith Wharton’s white mansion summer home, The Mount (some gardens were designed by Beatrix.) Sometimes Daisy interrupts her recollections with fond and melancholy glimpses into her own life and heart. While she greatly admires Beatrix, there’s regrets and jealousy too. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that Daisy’s character adds the perfect intellectual twist to the author’s creative intermingling of famous historical figures and details with famous literary ones.

Beatrix, you’ve gathered, came from a privileged, well-connected East Coast family. But like her understated landscape style, she didn’t flaunt herself (she “wore her wealth more lightly than most”). Rather, she quietly dazzled with her “Titian-colored hair” and “pale grey eyes full of sweetness” and “coloratura” singing voice. An only child adored by her mother, whose sincere charity-mindedness instilled a lifelong commitment to doing good works. (Daisy is also socially-minded, as she’s just returned from Tennessee, the last State to grant voting rights to women.) Beatrix, who found her life’s calling early on in spite of prevailing societal beliefs that a woman’s place belongs in the home, translated her mother’s ideals “to give back to the world” through the “pleasure and beauty” of designing beatific, spirited gardens:

“It isn’t enough to be beautiful … A garden must meet the needs of the soul as well as the senses. You feel at home and somehow enlarged, more yourself, in a good garden. Most of all the garden must suit the land … It was a philosophy of life as well as gardening: pleasure combined with work, beauty with practicality. The garden would both calm and awaken senses and memory.”

Beatrix felt deeply that “there is no more sensual activity than gardening,” so she couldn’t envision herself as the marrying type. Her determination and independent spirit were also fueled by a lack of close-up, positive role-models for marriage: Her father, Frederic, Wharton’s brother, was a floundering gambler; Edith’s marriage to Teddy was unhappy (eventually they divorced); Daisy, our outgoing and intimately chatty narrator, a mother of six who does not take well to a solitary life, is unrealistically optimistic about her also gambling husband; and Henry James, who never married, his sexuality affecting his novels, cautioned Beatrix (and Daisy) about making impulsive romantic decisions. Beatrix also keenly understood “reputation [is] a woman’s most important possession.” This is the mindset of the lovely young lady we’re introduced to when she embarks with her mother on a transformative journey studying and sketching some of the grandest gardens in Italy, France, Germany, and England (at the encouragement of Beatrix’s horticulture professor, Charles Sprague Sargent, founder of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum).

Where else should the novel’s dreamed-up, dreamy romance be sown than a very proper, formal Old World garden? In this case, the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome, which is where Beatrix encounters a mannerly, shy Italian, Amerigo Marrismo, who is as enchanted by Beatrix’s “newness” as she is with his look “as honest as the sun.” But his is an Old World “timelessness” and Beatrix has set her sights on the New, thus setting up Beatrix’s inner turmoil. The novel’s tension persists as the two keep meeting in other European cities amid Beatrix’s horticultural travels, where Amerigo is chasing after a “little family business.”

Offering a playful contrast to the refinement of the old-moneyed, upper-class society of the Jones and the Whartons is another fabricated character, Mrs. Haskett. She’s the obnoxious one, representing the “nouveau riche,” an American mother desperate to find suitable husbands for her three daughters. She’s also key to Amerigo’s popping up everywhere Beatrix is, making it impossible to forget him.

Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden
New York Botanical Garden
Designed by Beatrix Farrand
PHOTO: Jim.henderson (Own work) [CC0]
via Wikimedia Commons

Accompanying the charm and allure of the couple’s old-fashioned infatuation is the author’s depiction of gardening as metaphors for life. Chapters are introduced by three prologues, each summoning messages about the arc of the novel and, more poignantly, about life. It’s these tidbits of wisdom attached to flowers, plants, and gardening that shine throughout. A few examples:

  • Creeping speedwell evokes a life that is “full of uncertainty and unexpected happenings.”
  • An old apothecary rose signifies life is “not to be taken for granted.”
  • Daisy’s storytelling is not “embellished,” the same way “gardeners know better than to force excessive color or outrageous shapes into a flower bed.”
  • For trustworthiness and the “simple goodness of life” the gardener is advised to nurture the while alba rose, known for its “constancy.”
  • “Life was, after all, an experiment. What is the planting of a single desiccated seed if not an experiment in hope?”
  • “Life and landscapes require flexibility and a touch of serendipity.”
  • “A single plant does not constitute a garden, any more than a single decision constitutes a lifetime.”
  • “Walk a garden path and you walk a kind of eternity.”

Just as Beatrix left us lasting, pleasurable gardens, the novel leaves us lasting pleasures. You can’t wait to read or re-read Edith Wharton and Henry James, touch the earth, and contemplate what type of garden exemplifies the landscapes of your life.

Lorraine

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