The Morville Hours

There are the people we really are, and the people we wish we were. I really am a reader, and a teacher, and a little bit of a writer. These are the things I do despite myself, reading in corners, explaining and teaching even when others would rather I didn’t. Much as I wish I were, and tell myself encouragingly I could be, I am not a gardener: if my garden is not practically maintenance-free, it goes to rank weeds every time.

Katherine Swift, the author of The Morville Hours, is a reader, a teacher, a writer, and a gardener. Twenty years ago, in a bid to bring her home from Dublin, where she was Keeper of Rare Books at Trinity College, Swift’s husband found the Dower House at Morville in Shropshire. It was a National Trust property, up for lease for twenty years at a time: Swift could take the acre of scrub and make a garden of it, something she’d always longed to do. She hesitated — she had no formal horticultural training — and then applied. Morville was hers.

The Morville Hours is, in a way, the story of the making of that garden. But it is so much more. The book is built — or I should say, rather, that it is trained, like an espaliered tree — around the twin frames that structure her gardener’s time: the Benedictine hours of divine office that toll from the nearby church clock (vigils, lauds, prime, etc), and the seasons of the year. She calls upon the traditions of the countryside, religious and pagan, and their rootedness in the land; she notes the long history of Morville and its owners; she reflects on the way a garden is necessarily always here and now, but also reflects on what has been, the long cycle of life going all the way back to the geological history that began it all.

Swift’s voice is beautifully personal. This book is, of course, about how the garden came to be what it is, but it is just as much about how she came to be who she is. Her parents come into the picture, along with the ancestors of the Morville garden, and as she lovingly constructs knot gardens and cloister gardens and nut-orchards that Prior Richard or the Elizabethans would have loved, she is also planting her father’s own cuttings of lavender.

The experience of reading this book was deep, peaceful, meditative. Swift is sharp and astute, well-informed, and always profoundly engaging. She loves the garden. Every job, every time of year, she repeats, “I like that.” Digging, working the manure, doing winter tasks, breaking the ice in the Canal, planting bulbs by moonlight before the first hard frost: I like that. She does, you can tell. Everything she writes about — even the manure! — is a  poem, praise and thanksgiving for all that pleasure, all that life. In the chapter called Vespers, near the end of the year:

The mornings are cooler now, with night-time temperatures hovering a degree or two above zero. When I open the door in the morning the smell of quinces wafts across the garden — sweet and musky on the chilled air. The cold breath of condensation lies on the red berries of the honeysuckle. I cross the lawn, my footsteps trailing behind me in the cold dew. Spangled spiders’ webs lace the tapestry hedge. The quinces are furred like cats, weighing down the little trees like great golden pears. One or two lie on the silvered grass. They will hang on the trees until late October or even November, perfuming the air around the house. But once picked they will not keep. Cooked, their plump goldness is transformed into the dark red of cornelian. Raw, they light up the garden like lanterns.

Swift urges us to use our days, as the monks did, for rest and work and thankfulness. Sitting and enjoying the garden, she tells us, is not doing nothing: watching and noticing is a sort of sanctification by use. Indifference, she says, is the real sin. It is impossible to walk away from this book not seeing more, noticing more, trying to live alongside this natural world even when we must let a given garden go. This book was sheer delight to read, and I thank Litlove for recommending it to me. What a rich, lovely book. Go find it yourself.

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18 Responses to The Morville Hours

  1. litlove says:

    I was so thrilled when I saw you’d read this, and then even more excited that you’d enjoyed it! What you say about it being a peaceful, meditative experience to read is so true. Even my mother-in-law, who doesn’t seem to like much of anything since my father-in-law died 7 years ago keeps it by her bed to dip into when she can’t sleep at night.

    • Jenny says:

      I can’t thank you enough for recommending it. I kept gushing about it to my husband (who was trying to do his own reading, poor man) and I’ve already sent it to my mother. It’s a completely wonderful book.

  2. Joanne says:

    This book sounds great. I have a small, overgrown garden that makes me feel defeated just by looking at it. Perhaps if I read this I will be inspired.

    • Jenny says:

      I felt the same way! I am really not a gardener, but I kept wanting to go out into my frosty garden and deal with the tangle, just the same.

  3. Victoria says:

    Oh I loved this too! So so much, and I really want to pick up her second book, The Morville Year. The quote you pick out is one I copied into my notebook while I was reading. It really is the sort of book that gives you back your faith in life. Also, like you, I’m not at all a gardener but would like to be and so this was vicarious green-fingeredness.

    • Jenny says:

      Perfect for that. I would have loved photos of the garden! I haven’t seen The Morville Year but would go almost anywhere with her now!

  4. Lisa says:

    I had this out of the library once, and then I got distracted by other books and it went back unread. This reminds me that I need to put it back on my list – thank you!

  5. This sounds WONDERFUL! The combination of gardening and reflection is one I love. It’s a definite must-read for me – thanks for the recommendation!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, my pleasure! And if this is the sort of thing you like, then you might love it even more than I did — and it was one of my top reads of 2011.

  6. When I started getting interesting in gardening, this was one of the first books I put on my To-Read list. I’ve checked it out of the library before but still have never cracked it open – definitely something to remedy, ideally this winter to help get me even more excited to be back in the garden once the weather warms!

    • Jenny says:

      Claire, if you’re a gardener, it will make you want to be in the garden NOW. It’s just the loveliest thing. Definitely read it sooner rather than later.

  7. Lu says:

    This sounds like just the sort of blog I would like to read right now. I will definitely be picking it up soon.

  8. Eva says:

    You convinced me to go and request it from the library right away!

    I’m not a gardener, but can’t let go of a hope that future Eva might become one. ;)

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Eva, I think this is right up your alley! I was just visiting your blog and thinking about you (I visit often but don’t comment much for lack of time) and I do think you’d love this one. The writing is exquisite. I’ll keep an eye out for a brief review. :)

  9. Amanda says:

    Wow, what a beautiful review. This sounds just delightful. Onto the TBR list it goes! I love gardening books, but am a terrible gardener in real life. Thanks for the recommendation!

  10. Stefanie says:

    Isn’t this a marvelous book? I do garden but not this Swift does. After reading the book though I had dreams of moving to England and spending all my time restoring and creating a garden and some national trust house. But alas, I must be happy with my little urban yard where I plant prairie flowers and imagine wide open spaces.

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