Jude Piesse, The Ghost in the Garden

Jude Piesse, a lecturer in English Literature at LJMU, chats about her fascinating new book about Charles Darwin’s childhood connection with nature through a Shropshire garden.

The Ghost in the Garden book cover

Why did you decide to write this book?

I decided to write the book because remnants of The Mount garden were opposite the house I used to rent in Shrewsbury, and I became very curious about them. I wanted to write a book that positioned the history of this forgotten site – central to Darwin’s domestic life and connection with the natural world – alongside my own experiences of bringing up a young family. I hoped that this would enable me to tell the garden’s story in a way that was emotionally, as well as intellectually, engaging.

Can you briefly explain what your book covers/why people should read it if they have an interest in Darwin?

The Ghost in the Garden blends biography, nature writing, history, and memoir to tell the story of Darwin’s childhood garden at The Mount in Shrewsbury. The book reveals how the garden shaped Darwin’s life and work, but also weaves together the narratives of many lesser-known people connected to the site, including Darwin’s mother and sisters. The book ultimately reconnects the garden with the broader ecological vision Darwin first glimpsed within its borders. I hope that people with an interest in Darwin will enjoy finding new ways of situating his story and legacy within the parameters of his Shropshire childhood, his family influences, and the love for gardens and the natural world that stemmed from his formative years.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?

I was surprised to discover how deeply On the Origin of Species and some of Darwin’s earlier essays are saturated with garden imagery. I also made many lucky discoveries in archives: from battered wax seals on Darwin’s Beagle letters that reveal the feelings of correspondents, to the Romantic account of motherhood contained within the artist Ellen Sharples’s unpublished diaries. Sharples portrayed Darwin and his sister, Catherine, as child gardeners in 1816 and this image was an important starting point for the book.

Can you describe the childhood garden of Darwin – then and now? What would have been his most treasured collected items/areas of the garden?

In its 1800s prime, The Mount garden was an impressive seven-acre site perched above the River Severn. It featured a circular flower garden, a vinery, an ample kitchen garden, hothouses, and many exotic plants and flowers. Darwin enjoyed climbing trees, collecting insects and stones, and fishing. Today, the garden only survives in fragments. Two acres, owned by Shropshire Wildlife Trust and mainly operating as a wildlife reserve, remain intact on the steep riverbank. Rubble from the old vinery can be found in a contemporary garden on one of the neighbouring streets, which was built over the circular flower garden in the 1930s. You need a clear spatial imagination and good walking boots to make sense of the site, as much of it exists in the mind’s eye or in old maps. However, the combination of semi-wild land and fragments is still very evocative.

What are some things that people might not know about Darwin/his childhood?

Darwin was very much a product of his provincial upbringing. Like other Shropshire boys of his class, he loved shooting, fishing, climbing trees, collecting, and – perhaps more unusually – gardening. I was surprised to discover how much Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle owes to these childhood influences, practices, and geographies. From comparisons between English rain and its foreign counterparts, to memories of partridges and shady lanes, this most exotic of travelogues turns out to have its roots firmly planted in the garden back home.

What is the significance of Darwin’s mother and his sisters and, also the servant-gardeners to Darwin’s interest in the natural world?

Darwin’s mother, Susannah, who died when he was eight years old, was a keen gardener and bred pigeons at The Mount with Darwin’s father, Robert. Susannah Darwin’s hobby is never referenced by her son, but it is echoed in the Origin’s use of pigeons as a key case study for illustrating principles of variation and inheritance. Darwin’s sisters also had a pronounced influence on Darwin’s development. For instance, Caroline Darwin looked after Darwin and Catherine in their early years, allowing the children plenty of scope to roam and play in the garden. The Mount gardeners were part of a long line of gardeners and domestic servants who contributed to the development of evolutionary theory by providing information, labour, and practical assistance with experiments. For instance, my book traces links between Mount gardener John Abberley and some of Darwin’s writing on bees.

Your book is timely considering during lockdown people turned to their gardens and were going outdoors more. Why do you think being in gardens/outdoors is important for wellbeing? Did Darwin have a view on wellbeing and being in the nature world at all?

On the Origin is often remembered for its ideas about struggle and competition, yet it also contains the seeds of a much deeper ecological vision that transcends individual perspectives. Darwin understood that everything is connected to everything else and that there is harmony and balance within nature at the broadest levels, even if that is not always felt by individual organisms. This sense of harmony is of course what is under threat today as viruses produced by unbalanced relationships between man, animals, and the natural environment spread. It is also what we are looking to regain in our outdoor spaces: Darwin’s own ecological vision was certainly grounded in his enjoyment and knowledge of gardens.

Why is it important that this land is publicly available?

Making Darwin’s garden, or what remains of it, publicly accessible is important not only because it casts Darwin’s story in a different light but also because it allows people to understand how important nature and family were as influences on his development of evolutionary theory. It is also important to retain it as a site for wildlife, as Shropshire Wildlife Trust are doing in the portion of land they own. The expiry of Mount House’s lease this year may lead to increased access to other portions of the house and its grounds in future years.

What is the most important thing you have learned from your research/writing the book?

I’ve learnt not to be frightened of tackling big subjects or of going outside of my immediate comfort zone into less familiar areas of research and writing.

The Ghost in the Garden: in search of Darwin’s lost garden (Scribe, 2021) is published on 13 May 2021. Bookshop.org link: The Ghost in The Garden: in search of Darwin's lost garden


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