Book Review: Virgins Weeders & Queens by Twigs Way


I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Virgins, Weeders and Queens A History of Women in the Garden by Twigs Way. The book looks at the history of women in the garden through the ages – however as you can imagine the early history covering up to the Elizabethan period is all in one chapter.  This is primarily for two reasons: firstly women werent involved in the large gardens apart from as weeding women and secondly because there is minimal evidence of women’s involvement on a more domestic level at this time.

Subsequent chapters go on to look at the involvement of Queens in the development of garden as far back as Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 – 1204) who created an enclosed garden at Winchester.  Many of the female royals of Britain have been involved in designing gardens including during the Georgian period when Princess Augusta who was married to George II’s son Frederick.  Frederick purchased Kew in 1731 (approx) and after his death 20 years later Augusta spent 10 years adding to the buildings and landscape at the park. 

Interestingly there is a theme that runs through the book of women, mainly high society women, turning to gardening as a way of dealing with widowhood, spinsterhood or scandal.  Several of the high society ladies mentioned where banished from court because of a scandal involving them.  Not only does the book describe how they developed their gardens but it hints at and implies much about the society at the time and how women lived.  However, these women did not garden as we would garden – they directed their gardeners.  It was thought to be unseemly for a women to even be able to recognise a spade let alone use on.

In another chapter Twigs Way describes how the Victorian obsession with ferns and fernery came about and this was partly due to the need of women to be involved in the garden.  At the time the Linnaean system had been introduced and this way of identifying plants was based on the plants reproductive organs.  The Victorians being the Victorians did not think it was appropriate for women to look at plants in this way (they were banned from the Orchid houses as Orchids were considered to have sexual connotations).  However ferns reproduced a-sexually and this was considered to be acceptable for women to be involved in. 

The book goes on to describe the difficulty women had in finding out information as there were no gardening books written for them and they were not encouraged to get involved with gardening.  Those books that were written, often by other women, did not touch on areas such as vegetables and orchards as this remained the preserve of men.  There is a description of a wonderful pair of ladies, who became known as the Ladies of LLangollen. Sarah Pononby ndEleanor Butler met in Ireland and fled to Wales after Eleanor was being forced to join a convent (being unmarried at 30) and Sarah was being encouraged to marry.  The ‘eloped’ in 1778  and stayed together until Eleanor died in 1830.  They sound a remarkable couple and their garden was very much a rustic one and included Model Diary.

Many of the women seem to have turned to gardening as a way of escaping penury and there is a whole chapter on the establishment of gardening schools for young ladies which is fascinating.  The book finishes with a discussion of the change in women’s roles in society and mentions a few modern gardeners and designers such as Beth Chatto and Rosemary Verey.

Not only is the book well written but it has wettedmy appetite to find out more about some of these women.  There are some real characters in the book.  Whilst Gertrude Jekyl and Vita Sackville-West are included they are not the ones that grabbed my attention maybe because we seem to know alot about them anyway, or think we do.  No the ones that have fired my interest at Ellen Willmott, Vicountess Frances Wolsley and Daisy Countess of Warwick.

Whilst I borrowed this book from my library I think I will now buy  copy and have a look at some of the further rasing that is helpfully mentioned at the back.  I would recommend this to any one interested in the back ground to gardening -male or female.  It is a fascinating read.

3 Comments on “Book Review: Virgins Weeders & Queens by Twigs Way

  1. Helen, I think this is a must for my next book. I have seen several write ups about it but never got round to buying it. I have just started reading The Bedside Book of the Garden by D.G. Hessayon, which is interesting, though light reading. Thanks for a very interesting review.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  2. Sounds like my kind of book-about the history of gardening and women. I enjoy learning all I can about both of these two. A good pasttime in the winter too.

  3. Helen, I will definitely be checking with my local library to see if they have a copy. Thanks for such a thorough review. Have you read ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’
    by Elizabeth Von Arnim ? If not it’s worth looking out for. Elizabeth married a German nobleman in the late nineteenth century and went to live in Germany. The book is the story of her garden and gardening activities which allowed her to escape from her domestic duties to another altogether more liberating world.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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