Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review: The Morville Hours

I find it really difficult to categorize The Morville Hours.  Is it memoir?  Gardening book?  Historical nonfiction?  It is all of these things, and more.  The Morville Hours was a fascinating read, and for the first time, I felt okay with skimming the sections that didn’t directly appeal to me because there were so many different things to discover.

The author, Katherine Swift, an English academic librarian with a focus on early and rare manuscripts, moved to the Morville Dower House in Shropshire and began a garden.  Not just your average flower or herb garden; no, Swift’s was an enormous, carefully planned garden in many sections, including a knot garden, fruit and nut trees, roses, a whole orchard, a turf maze, and even a stone-lined canal full of water.  She seemed to write this book to reminisce on her experience in moving to the country and becoming familiar with the people, plants, and wildlife there, but the book is also so much more than that.  If it were merely a gardening memoir, I couldn’t have liked it as much as I did, for I am not a gardener and long, lush descriptions of, say, picking quinces just doesn’t grab my attention for long.  There is something here for everyone, though.  Swift leaps from topic to topic in an eclectic, almost stream-of-consciousness fashion.  To name just a few of the fascinating topics she addresses: church bell-ringing; Benedictine hospitality; bee-keeping; medieval names of flowers, addressed to Mary, and their truncated names now; the history of the scythe; the use of the color blue in stained-glass windows; sheep-shearing; what makes a good hedge and how to build it; badgers; comets.

The book is called The Morville Hours, and it is structured around the monastic Hours, the Daily Office of Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.  The theme running throughout the entire book, through all the disjointed stories, is the passage of time.  She explains the passage of the day when structured by the Hours, but links that to the passage of the year in the liturgical calendar, and the changing of the seasons as experienced by a gardener who is nearly always out-of-doors.  She speaks of saints and church feasts and liturgical symbolism, snow and cold, drought and the heat of summer, and the seasonal flowering of all of her many plants.  She also considers the passage of time throughout history, telling the story of her own life and that of her parents, and also the history of Morville and its many owners.  She carefully plans each section of her garden as an homage to many of these owners and their own gardening preferences.

Swift’s background as an academic and as a professional writer of descriptions of roses means that this book is a joy to read.  It isn’t stuffy, as academic prose often is, but it is clear that the author is passionate about all aspects of history and eager to share them with her audience.  And her experience in writing visual descriptions of the natural world means that all of her sprawling discussion of the things to be found, savored, touched, eaten, smelled, and otherwise experienced in her garden are inspiring even to a non-gardener like me.  To give an example, I’ve opened to a page at random and am again delighted by the paragraph I find.  Who else would think to write about the blissful new smell of rain in April through so many different lenses?

“Even the rain smells different.  April is the month of sunshine and showers, rainbows and reflections, of small, puffy white fair-weather cumuli which bubble up into cauliflower-headed cumuli congesti behind your back and take you by surprise.  Intent upon some late pruning, I hear the rain before I see it, rattling on the leaves in a rising wind.  ‘Only a shower,’ we say, sniffing the air.  And it is: gone as quickly as it came, with ragged fragments of sky left in the puddles of the drive and a glaze of silver on the rose leaves.  Falling from high altitude, short and sharp and heavy, the rain brings a whiff of ozone from the upper air, a hint of the sea; soon over, unlike the steady downpour of February.  Indoors, a shaft of sunlight is reflected from the beveled edge of a mirror and shatters into pieces on the floor: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.  In the garden there are scarlet tulips, yellow jonquils, blue and white Muscari.  A rainbow spans the valley, one foot on Shirlett, the other on Meadowley: Iris, messenger of the gods.  She bore a son, Eros, child of the rainbow, fathered by Zephyrus, the West Wind.”

The Morville Hours was a quiet delight.  I found it easy to dive into in short chunks during my school day, because there were so many sections strung together, but it was even more impactful in longer doses, when I could dive in and be reminded of all of my senses and that the world outside, and life itself, is bigger than the academy in which I have found myself.


  1. Replies
    1. I'm told there's even a sequel - The Morville Year. I hope it's not too difficult to find. My library didn't have The Morville Hours, and I had to get it through ILL. This often implies that it's not a widely available book, but sometimes libraries just have odd gaps.

  2. A lovely review, Samantha. I have heard so many wonderful things about this book, from gardeners and non-gardeners alike, and I am looking forward to reading it one day in the hopefully-not-too-distant future.

    1. I hope you get a chance! I saw your interest in gardening; I bet you'd really love this book and would get a lot more out of it than I did.