This Other Eden: Seven Great Gardens and 300 Years of English History By Andrea Wulf and Emma Gieben-Gamal. Little, Brown, 2005. £20
In This Other Eden, the authors set out to describe significant shifts in English garden history by recounting the stories of seven garden projects in their particular social, political, economic and cultural contexts.
Seven self-contained stories each work as carefully chosen, individual horizontal slices through time and, as the introduction explains, 'each [garden] was created at a pivotal point in English history. All were built at a time of political, cultural and social flux, and each heralded a new era of garden design'.
A restricted and rigorously researched time period is allotted to each tale: Hatfield House from 1606-12; Hampton Court from 1688-1702; Stowe from 1715-50; Hawkstone Park from 1774-1802; Sheringham Park from 1811-19; Chatsworth from 1826-51; and Hestercombe from 1903-09.
The flavour of each story varies immensely, from the highly political motives and devious fund-raising methods of Robert Cecil at Hatfield to the development of the extraordinary relationship between the Duke of Devonshire and the brilliant farmer's son, Joseph Paxton, that created the late 19thcentury gardens at Chatsworth.
Through skilful story-telling, each episode is fleshed out with engaging detail that enlivens rather than weighs down the text. Letters by the makers of the gardens are referred to, along with bills, accounts and unpublished manuscripts of the building projects.
Each tale is told independently and has a life of its own, but various themes develop to link them like beads on a string. For example, the gardens reveal clear and changing attitudes to the idea of nationhood as their creators respond to the shifts in domestic and international politics.
Without declaring itself obviously, the book also pivots around the development and decline of the ideas surrounding the Picturesque landscape movement, with the account of Hawkstone Park being central.
These more general concepts are made real by emerging from the individual tales.
The introduction to the book doesn't really indicate the riches that lie ahead.
The authors propose that the concerns of the times are 'mirrored' in each of the gardens, but this suggests a more finite and flat image of history than they create.
The stories, with the time gaps in between, function more like individual keyholes through which we see a particular set of circumstances from a particular point of view. Rather than claiming to be a seamless retelling of things as they were, as more linear accounts of history tend to imply that they are, the impression here is much more dynamic.
There is a sense that if we were to shift position by a fraction, other things would come into view, the glimpse would alter, and the stories would change shape. The apparently simple structure enables not only the clear presentation of a series of poignant tales but also a contemporary and appropriate way of viewing the past.
Julia Chance is an architect and writer in Cheshire