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In winter, take solace in a garden love story.

Book Review: The Morville Hours: The Story of a Garden by Katherine Swift

Read The Morville Hours: The Story of a Garden in winter, when your soul yearns for a garden, and journey through centuries of history, among the people privileged to enjoy this garden as their home.

“I got in the habit of leaving the front door of the house open – not just unlocked, but standing open to the garden – from spring to autumn, all day long. I would open it first thing in the morning to smell the air and close it only at midnight as I went to bed. House and garden became extensions of each other. The kitchen filled with plant pots and tools and string, the hall with boots and jackets and gloves, the bathroom with tender seedlings.”

The Dower House Gardens at Morville

Katherine Swift left her career as a rare-book librarian in Oxford and Dublin to become a writer and gardener with a 20-year lease, offered by the National Trust, on Dower House, Morville Hall in Shropshire, England. Her devotion to the garden, and respect for its existence over hundreds of years led Swift to develop a passion for the place. For us, she provides a delightful mix of history, geology, folklore, botany and a look at her life, past and present, as she grows into the garden surrounding her.

As Swift learns to slow down and live with nature, she notes

“Unlike a watch, which marks off how much time has gone and how much remains, the sound of the bells ringing the quarters had seemed to say, ‘Stop. Think. This is here. This is now.’ In my previous life there had never been enough time, time was always running out. But in the garden, where I was acutely aware of the passage of time – the changing light as the hours of the day passed by, the shifting pattern of the seasons as the years passed by – there was paradoxically the feeling of having all the time in the world, of hours and days stretching and expanding into a shimmering pool of now.”

In this lively yet peaceful book, you’ll journey through prose about food as the basic reason for a garden, and how Swift would wake in the middle of the night, restless to get started on her garden.

“My garden was conceived in winter: a garden of ruler-straight lines and precise measurements, of black ink and white paper moonlight and shadows – the plan of a city which did not exist, a map of a place yet to be discovered.”

Swift takes us through the passage of time, with a librarian’s studied sense of history and always winding back to this garden at Morville, the garden she drew out on plans for an an entire winter and wrote about as if guiding visitors through the space. “For me the garden was already so real, I could smell the flowers.”

Holding the book together, through time, gardens and lives, Swift wrote the manuscript over a 14-year period and used the Book of Hours as a marvelous device to convey the passage of time, seasons, agriculture, horticulture and an arc of time past and time present.

Fragments of the book, about the weather, crops, neighbors, and plans gone awry are captivating, but The Morville Hours is also a memoir with Swift exploring her own life story and her memories. Here she ponders myths and Ovid’s Metamorphosis:

“These are ancient tales which seek to explain how the world came to be as it is – how the swallow got its red throat, why the daffodil nods its head … But they are also about the permeability of the human world by the natural world; how, in the extremes of passion or grief or terror, the boundary between humankind and nature dissolves, becoming transcendable. They are affirmations of our relationship with the natural world. Shooting stars, trees, birds. The wild is in us, and we are in the wild.”

You can wander through this book as if walking the soft paths and patterns in a garden, for indeed The Morville Hours is structured as thoughtfully as Swift’s lovely garden, helping us explore our senses, seasons and the circle of life.

Your fondness for this book may be like Swift's elegant prose about a rain shower:

"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 solver on the rose leaves."

Her life at Morville House ends for us, as the book does. When the 20 year lease comes up, she says “It was like falling in love: you know it will end in tears, but you do it anyway.” As the book ends, you may find yourself wishing to fill these winter days with books and flowers, reading and writing. Or, like me, you may just reread The Morville Hours again, slower this time.

Note: The Dower House Garden in Shropshire, England is open to the public and to groups by appointment.

(Review based on pre-publication edition, provided by publisher.)

About Helen Gallagher

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