Most helpful critical review
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 29 November 2009
Having read widely about Vita Sackville-West, her husband, her lovers, her connection with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set, and also having a fascination with reclaiming old houses and gardens I was prepared to love this book, and some parts were indeed well-written and worth reading: the early history of the landscape where Sissinghurst now lies, the Saxon placenames that still survive after a thousand years describing very much the geography and soil types there today and the wide range of woodland and marshy areas that make the Weald so unique. Adam Nicolson's early memories of a place he clearly adores were also moving and beautifully described.. at least at first, though the prose became a little purple after the first few pages and the contrast with his later family life was jarring (and rather saddening).
What I was expecting from this book however, and did not find, was much detail of the process required to reclaim Sissinghurst from a rather over-sanitised National Trust version to something akin to its historical self - I thought there would be long, fascinating accounts of decisions made about soil and planting, the problems involved in reclaiming meadowland, ideas on seed mixes and farming techniques and the daily efforts involved. What I found was much detail about the problems of persuading the National Trust to try something new, greatly involved and ultimately dry historical details about exactly who did what at every step of the way from Sissinghurst's initial appearance in records to the point that Vita fell in love with it, and much writing and re-writing of Vita, Harold and Nigel's lives, opinions of each other, with Adam's view of same, none of which proved as illuminating or enjoyable as the various letters and accounts already published.
This was followed by a rather rambling look at the current state of agricultural practice and how plans for the future need to be taken into account, be it organic or science-driven - this I presume is the "extended version", but it seemed rather woolly and in need of editing.
Far from a look at how Sissinghurst's past is being reclaimed for a sustainable and more suitable future, this is more of a memoir with much reference to who said what and when, that rather peters out in the end - I suppose because the project is still underway, but a list of things achieved and things still needing doing is a rather meagre conclusion to a project the history and impetus behind which have taken up so many, many pages.
The author has an engaging style, when not buried under endless detail, and the book is far from dry, but very uneven: it added somewhat to my knowledge, but left me wanting more details about the very subject it was supposed to cover! I greatly admire Adam's goals and his vision for Sissinghurst and hope for another book a few years down the line that gardens more and meanders less.