UWA Publishing, $34.95
Katie Holmes is a thorough researcher. Many library hours – indeed, years – are invested in this collection, which analyses the way certain women wrote about their gardens last century.
Holmes has gathered correspondence, articles, and a diary, to determine how “women, through gardening, engaged in a much broader process of transforming the Australian landscape and cultivating a sense of place and belonging.”
This promise differs from what is delivered.
Most enjoyable of the nine essays involve better-known writers: Katharine Susannah Pritchard, Judith Wright, and poignant letters sent by Winifred Stephensen to her incarcerated husband, suspected traitor P R (Inky) Stephensen. Garden-esque correspondence, in these cases, benefits from knowledge of their writers within a wider social and historical frame.
Holmes’s academic style, at times, is so dry, this reader wonders if the stories would fare better as an edited series of extracts.
Curiously, in contrast to the book’s mainly “he said, she said” format, when Holmes chooses to embellish her subjects’ thoughts, her personal opinions veer off the garden path. For example, when writing about her Terachy garden for The Australian Home Beautiful, Ann Tully is supposed to give “the land itself a voice that shares Aboriginal resistance to white settlement” although no evidence is provided for this, save Holmes’s own suggestion of “unease with the legitimacy of her family’s ownership of it and a subconscious recognition of unlawful occupation”.
Like an ill-fated garden, this book fails to grow to the expectation of its original design.
Reviewed May 2011