Friday, August 22, 2014

Revisiting the 'Merry Hall' trilogy by Beverley Nichols

This review of the first book in the Merry Hall Trilogy was first posted on this blog over four years ago on July 30, 2010.  Since then I have enjoyed the entire trilogy which the library now owns. The second title is 'Laughter on the Stairs' followed by 'Sunlight on the Lawn.'

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols

A few weeks ago, Nancy Pearl, a librarian famous for her ability to recommend the right book for the right person and also for being the model for the librarian action figure with real shushing action, tweeted that gardening/readers who like P.G. Wodehouse's books and E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia series might enjoy Beverley Nichols gardening trilogy starting with Merry Hall. In any case, I retweeted her tweet admitting that I fit that trifecta of reader interests. What this all leads to is that BHPL staff member, Mme. P.,  who follows our Twittering, offered to loan me Merry Hall, because the library does not own this 1951 memoir of British journalist Beverley Nichols.
Mr. Nichols' book tells the story of restoring the gardens of an old country house outside London just after World War II. His passion for gardens, bordering on obsession, crossing the border actually, is told with dry wit and some withering accounts of local ladies with whom he has gardening disputes. The book combines British wit with the memoir genre, gardening trivia, eccentric characters and rambling country house dreams.
A sample: "I wanted a house. And I wanted a Georgian house. And I wanted a garden of at least five acres. A garden which, for preference, should be wrecked and lost and despairing...I was in a rescuing mood..." (p. 20)
The author finds a house and it's the spectacular lilies that seal the deal. He must have those lilies. His friend tells him it's "lunacy" to buy the house, but his manservant Gaskin rises to the challenge of taking care of the mansion single-handedly. The gardener Oldfield conveys with the house along with his stubborn methods and gardening opinions and oddly inpenetrable accent, as is the stereotype for gardeners in English books. The neighbors are nosy and opinionated, especially Miss Emily and "Our Miss Rose" whose rivalry regarding decorating the church results in a comical confrontation during the Harvest Festival about whose flowers should adorn the altar.
These scenes of English village life recall Bertie Wooster's visits to his aunts' houses in the country, or Lord Blandings dithering about the pigsty whilst admiring the porcine Empress of Blandings.  I'm pretty sure the church decorating rivalry popped up in the Mapp and Lucia books, or if not, it's a familiar theme. So, Nancy Pearl was right: this is a good book for fans of those authors or for gardeners. Although nothing touches the Master, P.G. Wodehouse, in my pantheon of authors, for he truly loves his characters and never condescends. Nichols' humor is arch and a bit mean at times, so be forwarned. Since "snarky" is in style now, perhaps he is due for a revival.

Related links:
Read Mapp and Lucia online here
The Wodehouse Society website for fellow Plum fans
A list of gardening memoirs from GoodReads

8/22/14 In memory of Mme. P.; many thanks for the book recommendations.

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