Synopses & Reviews
A hundred years ago there was a pronounced change in the direction of British gardening. The garden was transformed from a plaything for the rich to a democratic exercise, a hobby for the millions. Few figures were more central to and prominent in this transition than eccentric Reginald Farrer, whose passion for alpines would put a rockery in the backyards of countless enthusiasts and whose adventures in Tibet and China collecting elusive and exotic specimens, including the wild tree peony, a new buddleaia, and even an entire new genus called Farreria, were the stuff of legends. But Farrer was a strange man, a tortured soul. Tormented by physical disabilities (he had a hare lip, a "pygmy body," and a cleft palate) he developed a personality to match: defensive, restless, yet productive and endlessly energetic. Although "born to endless night," within his realm of horticultural exploration and exploitation, he was a giant, parlaying his disadvantages into advantages, becoming one of the great plant hunters of his age, repeatedly travelling to Japan and Tibet to collect new species and, through the influence of his extraordinary series of books, changing forever the art and practice of Western gardening.
"When it was published in the U.K. in 2002, this slim volume earned considerable praise from both garden writers and literary critics. That's fitting, because while Farrer (1880 1920) virtually invented rock gardening as it is now practiced and revolutionized garden writing, his ambition was to be a 'literary figure.' His novels ranged from 'entirely mortal' (The House of Shadows) to 'dreadful' (Through the Ivory Gate), but represented what he thought of as his higher calling. Journalist Schulman's biography puts Farrer's highly successful horticultural activities in the context of his frustrated grander aspirations. It is a balanced portrait of a brilliant but 'touchy, reproachful, extremely demanding, painfully solipsistic' man, told succinctly and tastefully. Farrer's relationship with his rigidly Christian parents was poor and became abysmal when he converted to Buddhism. Letters to his Oxford classmate Aubrey Herbert strongly suggest a homosexual orientation. Schulman presents this information simply and directly; it's relevant but not central to the story. What is central is Farrer's talent for observing, growing, describing, cataloguing and discovering alpine plants. He literally traveled to the ends of the earth to find new ones, braving hardship and danger on expeditions to China, Tibet and, finally, Burma, where he died. With this brief work, Schulman reveals a brilliant, charming and idiosyncratic character. Illus." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)