Old Herbaceous: A Novel of the Garden–Reginald Arkell

Reginald Arkell creates a distinguished but loveable character in Mr. Pinnegar, aka Old Herbaceous.  Pinnegar begins life near the end of the nineteenth century having been left in a basket on the doorstep of a village household already occupied by six children.  One leg is shorter than the other and this, together with his unknown parentage, give Pinnegar a sense of inferiority that is dispatched through the kindnesses of his first love, Mrs. Charteris, who brings him to her household to work in the garden.   Pinnegar moves from boy in the garden to head gardener and continues to grow as he becomes known throughout England as a flower show judge.  Arkell does not take us to the end of Pinnegar’s life, but allows us to see him visiting Mrs. Charteris in her retirement home at the shore and to hear her reflections on his character and his life. 

I’m a sucker for anything  nineteenth century to begin with, but, even for someone without those tastes, Arkell’s drawing of his character is so expert and peppered with humor that I believe this book to be an unknown gem that deserves far greater attention.  It is part of the Modern Library Gardening series, but to say this is a book about gardens is to miss the point.  This is a book about a character who is placed in a garden.

Arkell begins one chapter with my favorite reflection:

“If you could peel the years from a man’s life, as you do the leaves from a globe artichoke, you would find him having his happiest time between the ages of fifty and sixty-five.  The awful anxieties of youth have resolves themselves–he no longer jumps at shadows…competitors are not treading upon his heels…achievement has not yet lost its glamour…ultimate success, glorious and satisfying, lies just around the corner….A golden, mellowing period which brings out all that is best in a man.  Kindliness creeps in; cheerfulness spreads its warming rays; even a little humor….”

Old Herbaceous was first published in 1950, when Arkell was seventy-eight.  It’s a highly focused reflection on an age gone by, but also on the ages of man.  A man who happens to love gardens.

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