I had read and enjoyed two of Helen Humphreys’ books prior to picking up her quiet masterpiece, The Lost Garden. This short novel, which is set in Devon in early 1941, is described variously as ‘a haunting story of love in a time of war’, and ‘both heartrending and heart-mending’. In 1941, Humphreys writes, ‘the war seems endless and, perhaps, hopeless.’ The focus of her third novel is to explore the effects of war upon the population on the Home Front.
The protagonist and narrator of the novel, Gwen Davies, is a horticulturalist. She has moved from her London home, where she has been studying the effects of disease upon parsnips for the Royal Horticultural Society, in order to escape the Blitz. She has volunteered for the Women’s Land Army, and finds herself travelling to a country estate named Mosel in a remote part of Devon, in order to lead a team of women gardeners. Also billeted on the estate are a regiment of Canadian soldiers, who are awaiting orders to travel to the Front. Of course, the paths of the women cross with various soldiers, but, says the blurb, ‘no one will be more changed by the stay than Gwen. She falls in love with a soldier, finds her first deep friendship, and brings a hidden garden, created for a great love, back to life.’
From the first, Gwen is a fascinating character. She is described as ‘shy and solitary’, and finds it difficult to move from her previous existence as a quiet, almost isolated scientist, to having to guide the ‘disparate group of young women’ whom she finds herself in charge of. I immediately came to understand her thought process, and warmed to her instantly: ‘What can I say about love? You might see me sitting in this taxi, bound for Paddington Station – a thirty-five-year-old woman with plain features – and you would think that I could not know anything of love. But I am leaving London because of love.’ Gwen is immediately likeable; she details that she takes hardly any articles of clothing with her on her trip, knowing that a uniform will await her, but says: ‘my books are so many that it looks as though I am on my way to open a small lending library.’ There is such depth to Gwen; her worries and perceptions make her feel so realistic.
From the outset, Humphreys’ prose is both luminous and mesmerising. The novel opens: ‘We step into lamplight and evening opening around us. This felt moment. Our brief selves. Stars a white lace above the courtyard.’ The descriptions of Gwen’s adopted London home are poignant, particularly with regard to the devastation which war has already wreaked at this point in time. As she passes once familiar sights in a taxi, Gwen muses: ‘The wild, lovely clutter of London. Small streets that twisted like vines. Austere stone cathedrals. The fast, muddy muscle of the Thames, holding the city apart from itself… I have stood beside the Thames and felt it there, twining beneath my feet like a root.’
As in her novel Coventry, Humphreys sparingly captures the atrocities of war, and the changing face of the city: ‘Houses became holes. Solids became spaces. Anything can disappear overnight.’ Humphreys’ writing is very human, particularly when she articulates the displacement which Gwen feels, with all of the sudden changes, and with such volatility around her: ‘I do not know how to reconcile myself to useless random death. I do not know how to assimilate this much brutal change, or how to relearn this landscape that was once so familiar to me and is now different every day. I cannot find my way back to my life when all my known landmarks are being removed.’
Juxtapositions quickly come into play when Gwen explores the peaceful Devon garden, which has been left uncared for for many years. On her first foray into the garden, she observes: ‘There is the cheerful song of a bird in a tree by the garden well. When was the last time I heard a bird in London? Here, the war seems not to exist at all… Was there a wold like this before the war? A quiet world. A slow garden.’ The descriptions continue in this sensual manner; for instance, Gwen touches, smells, and tastes the earth of the garden, whilst observing its red colour.
The Lost Garden has been well built, both culturally and socially. On the day on which Gwen leaves London, for example, she spots a fellow train passenger’s newspaper, which has an article presuming that the missing author Virginia Woolf has been drowned in the River Ouse in Sussex. We feel Gwen’s grief when her death is later announced – in fact, part of the novel reads like a love letter to Woolf – as well as her grief at the ways in which London has been lost to her. The descriptions of war and loss here are often moving, as are those passages in which Gwen begins to come to terms with the war: ‘The thing with war is this – we cannot change ourselves enough to fit the shape of it. We still want to dance and read. We hang on to a domestic order. Perhaps we hang on to it even more vigorously than before.’ Later, she says: ‘And I realize that we haven’t left our lives. They have left us. The known things in them. The structure of our days. All the bones of who we are have been removed from us. We have been abandoned by the very facts of ourselves, by the soft weight of the old world.’
The Lost Garden is essentially a coming-of-age novel, with a protagonist a little older than one might expect to find in such a story. There is a wisdom to Humphreys’ prose, and everything about it has been so well measured. The story here feels simplistic on the face of it, but the writing is absolutely stunning, and I was immediately pulled in. Gwen is an utterly realistic construct; she is flawed and unpredictable, and filled with a wealth of doubts and insecurities. Other characters, too, are sharply defined, and have believable pasts which reflect upon their present lives. The novel is gorgeously layered, and has been so well constructed. The Lost Garden is a transporting novel, and one which I would urge everyone to read.