My rating: 10/10
In the early years of the 20th Century, Caroline Smith lives the quiet life of a dutiful middle class daughter with her widowed mother. Walks on the Common, occasional tea parties and church bazaars, helping with the housekeeping and pursuing quiet amusements; such is her life. Occasionally Caroline muses about her place in the world, and wistfully thinks of what her future may hold, but all in all she is of an accepting nature.
Caroline’s one weakness is gardens; on her strolls with her mother she peers through gates and quietly and deeply absorbs what she sees. We pick up Caroline’s story during her seventeenth year, as she takes possession of her first garden; the abandoned wilderness of an empty estate house. Caroline finds a secret way in, and there in the garden she has her first innocent encounter with romance.
Time moves on, and that first garden is lost to Caroline, but after some secret mourning she accepts it as something that must be. She marries a good (though not romantic) man, has two children, and does her duty in all of her relationships even though they are not always what she’d hoped for. The second garden, very different from the first, is a balm to Caroline’s sometimes troubled soul, and is the backdrop of her early wifehood and motherhood, darkly overshadowed by the Great War.
Circumstances change for the better; Caroline is presented with a chance at a new life and a rise in her social position; she gracefully takes it all in stride, though she quietly remains the same thoughtful, uncomplaining soul. Her third garden is one in which a didactic gardener holds sway; Caroline secretly mourns her new distance from physical contact and a real relationship with the plants and the soil, but she does the correct thing as always and goes forward into this newer, more luxurious world as staunchly as she faced adversity in her younger days.
The fourth garden is the one Caroline creates for herself when her situation again changes; though the smallest and most makeshift, it is perhaps the most satisfying. Life has come full circle, and there is a strong sense of the fitness of things.
This is a gentle but not sentimental book; Margery Sharp keeps it crisp and interesting by allowing us to hear the ongoing commentary of Caroline’s innermost thoughts. Though I continually call Caroline gentle and accepting (and rightly so), she is also keenly perceptive of both her own and others’ motivations and reactions; her inner voice is wry and quietly witty. We are therefore thoroughly on her side as she copes with difficult social situations, troublesome relationships, a well-meaning but emotionally distant husband, and confusingly complex and progressively minded (but by-and-large loving) children.
Not as full of parody as some of Margery Sharp’s works, Four Gardens is a touch more serious and thought-provoking. Beautifully written; often very funny; occasionally very poignant. By the end, the story has become something of a celebration of the quiet satisfaction of dealing well with the not always exciting commonplace life one is dealt by fate, keeping one’s head up, and carrying on.
Very highly recommended.
Updated to add a contemporary review I have just discovered, from the New York Times Saturday Review of Books, February 1, 1936
FOUR GARDENS. Margery Sharp. Putnams. 1935. $2.50.
There is refreshment in this book of Margery Sharp’s, a cool sanity that is infinitely restful. She has by nature something of the Jane Austen touch, springing from a detached, quiet power of observation, a delicious, satirical way of relishing affectation, and a respect for sensible, genuine people.
It is a quiet book, the life-story of a woman to whom very little ever happens, a woman as undistinguished as her name of Caroline Smith. But it is a pleasure to read about her and her great good sense; she is lovable in her simplicity, and because of the gentle, irrepressible spark of humor that she possesses. But for all her simplicity she has maturity and wisdom. There is a note of high comedy, rare enough in these days, in the deftness with which she copes with her two ultra-modem children.
All the details are so right and neat, the shades of social difference in the little English town where Caroline lives shown to such nicety, the varying relationships between people set forth with so much exactness and delicacy, that the book makes delightful reading.
Note: Four Gardens may be a bit hard to come across, as it was published early in Margery Sharp’s long career and was eclipsed by her later, much more highly publicised works. A few copies show up on AbeBooks, but be prepared to pay a premium price, $40 into the hundreds, for a hardcover in good condition. There appears to have been at least one reissue in paperback in the 1960s, so there should be reasonably priced editions out there in the used book world for a patient collector to track down.