Home and Garden

Reviewed by Dale Tracy

Shelley Boyd’s Garden Plots: Canadian Women Writers and Their Literary Gardens and Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei’s The Domestic Space Reader are valuable resources for considering domestic spaces within their compound social and political connections. Boyd’s study offers analyses of the garden, one domestic space that, as she shows, has moved importantly through the history of Canadian literature. The Domestic Space Reader has the scale of the overview: it ranges widely over time, place, discipline, and spatial category.

Briganti and Mezei arrange their text thematically. As they note, selections resonate across chapters; alternate categories and configurations are easily imagined. The provided chapter summaries defuse the difficulty this thematic border-crossing might have posed for locating particular subjects. These summaries sometimes have a necessary disjointedness that evinces the variety of material each chapter includes. Even when divided into themed sections, this arrangement suggests that ideas about domestic space are too diverse to flow neatly in a progression or to merge into a common point. In fact, the editors do not establish a program of study or organizing ethos for understanding domestic space. Rather, they collect an array of sources to survey diverse perspectives on material and conceptual aspects of houses and homes. Briganti and Mezei note genealogies of influence, providing a sense of historical development and context for commissioned pieces.

Since The Domestic Space Reader devotes its final chapter to “Literary Spaces,” this anthology would be notably useful for literature students developing an interdisciplinary understanding of domestic space and for those in other disciplines considering architecture’s influence on individual and cultural imaginations. The anthology’s final selection is an excerpt from a novel narrated by an interior designer sharing her thoughts about her marriage, motherhood, friends, and work. This conclusion indicates, as does Briganti and Mezei’s contributed selection, the anthology’s interest in interior, private spaces as they intersect with public art, intimate relationships, and social roles.

Boyd’s Garden Plots traces the appearance of gardens in Canadian women’s texts from the nineteenth century to the present. Boyd draws her framework from garden theory, adapting landscape historian John Dixon Hunt’s theory of three natures to literary gardens. Since gardens mix culture and nature, they function as a third nature providing an “interpretative lens” on the idea of untouched wilderness (first nature) and the socio-cultural realm (second nature) that Boyd describes as the familiar surroundings forming the conventional, or “second nature,” habituations of daily life. Considering the garden as a place from which everyday norms might be seen anew and potentially transformed, Boyd shows how literary gardens reflect and are read through their authors’ “socio-physical environments and time frames” while their interpretations over time are also tied to changing literary traditions.

Boyd is not only interested in the thematic appearance of gardens, but in texts that take gardens as formal inspiration. Examining gardens at the level of story and at the level of the text, she argues that a garden sets a text’s central concerns, forming a “garden plot” within the larger framework; the garden does in a condensed and heightened manner what the text does as a whole. Boyd also considers, in her attention to palimpsestic texts, the interpretational layers literary gardens can accrue. Through this study of texts rewriting or engaging with earlier garden plots, Boyd works up to the idea of garden as both product and process. She considers this idea explicitly with Lorna Crozier’s poetry, but it is present throughout her study of how palimpsestic texts re-frame, re-imagine, and re-circulate literary gardens in new contexts.

In tracing the significance of the domestic garden in Canadian literature, Boyd intervenes in the dominant ways these five authors have been studied and counters a national literary theory historically guided by the large-scale garden-archetypes of wilderness and paradise. As she demonstrates how gardens participate in and produce Canadian identities, Boyd looks within texts for garden themes and forms, but also at the real gardens in the authors’ lives. Garden Plots investigates the intersections between writers and gardeners in Canadian literary production and characters’ writing and gardening in Canadian literature. As Boyd concludes that these intersections show the importance of considering “daily experiences of the domestic,” she suggests the diversity of experiences that literary gardens represent, supplying examples in indigenous, post-colonial, and environmental literatures that demand further study.

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