22 December 2020

The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift

Oh this is such a beautiful book for so many reasons.  Won during my early days of blogging when dovegreyreader offered it up as a promotion on her blog.  In fact, it would have been in 2008 when The Morville Hours was first published.  While busily in the throes of discovering the work of various neglected female writers from the twentieth century, I promptly popped this book onto a shelf where it suffered the same fate - neglect.  Finally, the time came when a book about a garden called loudest from the shelves.  What took me so long!  This book offers so much more than that and has gone straight onto my list of favourite reads.

   I came here to make a garden.  In the red earth I find fragments of blue-and-white willow-pattern china, white marble floor-tiles, rusted iron nails.  A litter of broken clay pipes in the flower-beds, their air holes stopped with soil.  Opaque slivers of medieval glass, blue as snowmelt.  Flat wedges of earthenware dishes with notched rims and looping patterns of cream and brown.  Who drank from that cup, who smoked that pipe, who looked through that window?

Oh Katherine Swift....we are going to get along. 

Swift was commuting between Oxford and Dublin where she worked as Keeper of Early Printed Books at Trinity College.  Her husband owned a bookshop in Oxford and all of the toing and froing must have been arduous because, as Swift writes....Morville was his plan to lure me home.  The Dower House in Shropshire was taken on a lease for twenty years.  A short walk away from the house is a church built in the twelfth century where four wooden Evangelists sit, chroniclers of the village for four hundred years.  Rich with details about the history of both the house and land I absolutely wallowed in every tidbit from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons via Mercia and how languages merged to the house's previous owners.  Before the history lesson could get too weighty, Swift turns the spotlight on her daily life, such as how her cats hate the snow, preferring the warmth of the Rayburn.

The cat flap in the kitchen door lifts open, horizontal: the cats flatten their ears and narrow their eyes before breasting the tide of freezing air like Christmas Day swimmers taking the plunge.

As a National Trust property, plans nurtured by Swift were closely scrutinized before she was allowed to put spade to grass.  She had ambitious plans involving a Cloister Garden and creating several large areas for other ambitiously themed plots.  Despite having a shy folder when it came to experience in a venture of this size, the people at the National Trust were won over.  And Swift also included three beehives which tied in nicely with a recent read about bees that I enjoyed very much.  Other anecdotes about butterflies and birds being welcomed into the Dower House through an open door made for warm images.  And I smiled at the notion of watering your lawn in the evening to conjure the worms so badgers can eat their fill.  We don't have badgers here in Ontario but it seems like a nice thing to do...unless you're a worm.

Every now and then, the author shares stories from her childhood and the tenuous relationship she had with her parents.  At times both touching and sad, the writing is never syrupy or maudlin.  And I could so relate when Swift admits she can feel a bit fed up with all of the work in the garden by August.  Ignoring sections, leaving them to do what they will, Swift was often surprised to see that seeds blown from other beds nearby will create an unstructured beauty of their own.

I have a burning desire to find out what damsons taste like and will buy the next jar of jam I find.  Apparently doctors knew when it was damson season because villagers would start coming in with broken limbs from reaching for the fruit on weak branches.

Reading back through my notes it's so tempting to go straight back to the beginning and enjoy its pages all over again.  Previously housed in a bookcase in the spare room The Morville Hours will have a new home on the bookcase in my bedroom and I'll return to it often.  Find a copy for yourself and anyone else you know who will enjoy a book filled with rich history, wonderous nature, fascinating memoir and some trials and tribulations in the garden.  I loved this book more than I can say.


 Garden at Morville Hall
(photo credit here)

8 comments:

  1. I know a couple of damson trees, Darlene - shame you're not a bit taller but if your travel insurance covers self-inflicted foraging injuries, we'll be fine!
    Of course, they do sell them in Tesco!
    Bonus is that it's not far from a good spot for robins!


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    1. I suppose a stop at Tesco would be safer than attempting a climb (you know my history of klutz-induced injuries) but a bit of robin watching would be fun!

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  2. This sounds lovely, I must have missed it when it was published. I love any book set in, including or even name checking Oxford!

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    1. You would really enjoy it, Nicola, but the bits in Oxford are brief. Trust me, you won't mind in the slightest once you're a few pages in.
      There's a copy at my library so I've already made a pain of myself for pressing people to read it.

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  3. I also loved this book but found it a bit melancholy. It's been years since I read it but that's the feeling I remember. I also have The Morville Year on the tbr shelves so must get to it.

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    1. Lyn! Lovely to hear from you! I think of you often and miss your blog posts...and the kitties, of course.
      I see what you mean about there being a melancholy tone, and who would have thought a Canadian winter combined with a pandemic would be the perfect time for such a thing, but it worked! And thank you for mentioning the next title because I wasn't aware. All the best!

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  4. I bought this after reading your post, and had to stop by to thank you - I'm about two-thirds of the way through and am loving (and savouring) every bit of it! Perfect reading for pandemic February in Canada!

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    1. Oh Susan, you made my day with your comment! On Friday I ordered a copy of The Morville Year and from the reviews I've read it's every bit as good as The Morville Hours. And you're so right about it being a perfect read for the times we're in. Swift's writing blocked out the news and was a bright spot during a a dark month.
      All the best!

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