A few months ago I found myself in a bookshop with an almost impossible choice.
Two books. First editions with dust jackets in lovely conditions. Desirable titles that I might never see again. The prices were more than fair, but I could only justify buying one. What to do?
‘More Talk of Jane Austen’ by G B Stern and Sheila Kaye-Smith came home. It had to; it was just too perfect to leave behind.
And so I thought that ‘Memories and Gardens’ by Marion Howard Spring (wife of the novelist Howard Spring) was lost to me. I tried to tell myself that it was probably mainly a gardening book, and I’m not really one of life’s gardeners. But I wasn’t convinced.
Some time later it occurred to me that the Springs had lived in Cornwall for many years, and that maybe somebody in the Cornish Library Service had thought to put a copy into reserve stock. Somebody had, and so I placed my order. It wasn’t a first edition, it had no dust jacket, but it came into my hands for me to read.
I realised when I read the introduction that Marion Howard Spring was a very near contemporary of my grandmother (my mother’s mother). She was born in the 1880s, she remembered Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, she saw the coronation of Edward VII, indeed she lived the reign of six monarchs, and through two world wars.
But this wasn’t a book about that …
“Now that I am an old lady, with grandchildren growing up, I am going to write about my life and gardens, an unhistorical subject indeed. The lovely thing about growing old is that the beautiful moments of life – the love of one’s family, music, gardening, poetry – all become more precious with the knowledge that they must soon be left behind. In spite of having lived through terrible wars, I can look back on much happiness. This, then, is nothing outstanding or spectacular; just the every-day life of an every-day person.”
Marion’s memoir begins with stories of her childhood. She writes with wonderful warmth of home, school, church and, best of all, summer holidays to Cornwall. She writes well, in a conversational style, offering much colour but not too many specifics.
I could believe that she was telling tales to entertain her grandchildren, but I would have liked to read a little more about her parents, her siblings, and her friends.
Marion went to art school, hoping to earn her living ‘by pencil and paintbrush’, but it wasn’t to be. Her mother died and when her father married Marion struggled to get along with a step-mother determined to do things her own way. And so she took a secretarial course and struck out on her own.
She went to work in the London office of the Manchester Guardian and stayed there right through the 1914-18 war. She notes that it was a sad time but she loved her job, and being at the centre of things.
And after the war she met a reporter from the Manchester office: Robert Howard Spring.
Reader, she married him! And they lived happily ever after!
Marion writes of a wonderful honeymoon on Dartmoor; of trips to the theatre when Howard wrote about theatre and music hall for the Manchester Guardian; of family holidays to Cornwall; of her homes and gardens; and of her husband’s growing success as a novelist.
It was obvious that she was so proud of him, and of her foresight in using her small savings to buy him a typewriter as a wedding present, and she quotes from his work in many places. The contrast between her warm conversational style and his literate, descriptive prose was rather nice.
His success allowed them to live their dream, and move to the coast of Cornwall.
Marion writes of their homes, of their gardens, of days out, of visits from friends, of their church, of life during wartime … but most of all she writes about her gardens.
There are chapters about trees, about shrubs, about borders, about greenhouses, about flower arranging …
It was engaging, and her enthusiasm was infectious, but for someone who lives in Cornwall and already knows what grows well here and what doesn’t the wealth of detail was just a little bit too much.
Though it’s only fair to say that the clue was there, in the title!
The book ends on a quiet note. Howard was in failing health and his wife knew he wouldn’t be with her for much longer. She knew though that they had been blessed.
I’m so pleased that I met Marion, and she has inspired me to read more of her husband’s work. I’m going to start with ‘I Met a Lady’ now that I know that it uses a cottage we have often looked down on from the hill at Trencrom as a setting.
But I know now that I bought the right book, and I can easily say goodbye and hand this one back to the library.