How the garden inspired Charles Dickens

Bryan Kozlowski explores Charles Dickens' love of the English garden.

He will forever be placed among the highest echelons of literature and his output was such that it’s hard to imagine Charles Dickens doing anything other than scribbling away furiously at his desk. But even great minds require sporadic doses of solace and inspiration and, whenever Dickens experienced, as he put it, the suffering and bitterness of ‘those who have been bound to pens’, he turned to a source of boundless delight just outside his office window.

‘His writing table was always placed near a window looking out into the open world which he loved so keenly,’ recalled his eldest daughter, Mamie, but Dickens was hardly passive to Nature’s beckoning call. As punctual as the afternoon sun, he habitually left his desk at 1.30pm and set off on a country walk. Out of his cramped office, he gloried in England’s expansive beauty, which he called ‘the one great garden’, with its ‘changes of glorious light from moving boughs, songs from birds, scents from gardens, woods and fields’.

On his return home, revitalised and mentally refreshed, his family remembered that he looked the personification of energy, ‘which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir’.

Significantly, one of his earliest memories took place in a garden happily trotting about the verdure with his sister, Fanny, before his second birthday. And as a schoolboy, he distinctly remembered leaving his monotonous studies and dashing off to Covent Garden, where his fledging imagination was inspired by ‘snuffing up the flavour of the faded cabbage-leaves’.

Later in life, Dickens would project these garden escapes into his stories, sharing them with the characters who most needed such solace. In Hard Times, there’s Sissy Jupe, who, despite living in an industrial ‘wilderness of smoke and brick’, finds solace wherever she can find flowers, even if they’re merely a pattern stitched into a carpet.

Miss Flite in Bleak House escapes the stifling atmosphere of the courtroom by retreating to a nearby green space. ‘I call it my garden. It is quite a bower in the summertime.’ And who can forget David Copperfield’s relief after running away from the miserable conditions of a London factory and sleeping soundly in an ‘extremely beautiful’ hop garden and ‘imagining some cheerful companionship in the long perspectives of poles, with the graceful leaves twining round them’.

Life imitates art, even in a garden, and Dickens made sure he was never without its comforts. His home, Gad’s Hill Place, Kent, was lush with geraniums, azaleas, chrysanthemums, primulas and burning-bush plants. Wherever he stayed during his travels, he always described, with noted joy, his garden away from home. ‘We live in a charming garden in a very pleasant country,’ he wrote, referring to his holiday home in Boulogne. ‘[There are] millions of roses’ and ‘vegetables cut for the pot, and handed in at the kitchen window’. Dickens was so convinced of gardens as sources for literary creativity that, during one such sojourn, he promised his friend Wilkie Collins ‘a Pavilion room in the garden, with a delicious view, where you may write’.

The allure of alfresco writing never left Dickens. Near the end of his life, he constructed a mini, open-air chalet overlooking his own garden at Gad’s Hill. ‘My room is up among the branches of the trees,’ he told a friend, ‘and the birds and the butterflies fly in and out.’

He would pen his last words in this treetop bower, exactly 18 years to the month after he spoke to the Gardeners’ Benevolent Institution in London, with the appeal: ‘The gardener who produces shapes and objects so lovely and so comforting, should have some hold upon the world’s remembrance.’

Little did Dickens know how accurately that statement would apply to his own legacy. Like the old gardener in one of his first stories, Dickens was endlessly honing his craft, ‘digging, and sweeping, and cutting, and planting’ the words that would go on to bloom in English literature forever. But he did it all ‘with manifest delight’, thanks to the inspiring world just beyond his writing desk.