Down The Garden Path by Beverley Nichols

Down the Garden PathI suppose it was inevitable, if sad, that the shine would have to come off eventually. This has been the Year of Beverley Nichols chez moi, but this is my first venture with him that hasn’t proved quite as runaway a success as the others. Would it have become the YoBN (yes) if this had been my first experience with him? Possibly not. But Down the Garden Path remains entertaining – if overshadowed by his later work.

I don’t know how popular this opinion is. I asked on Twitter a while ago, and those who replied agreed with my preference for the Merry Hall trilogy over the Allways trilogy (albeit I still have two to go). For those not yet in the know – in the 1930s, Nichols wrote three books about his house, Allways, and its garden. Fast forward to the 1950s, and he wrote three about Merry Hall – which I had always assumed was a pun on ‘merry Hell’, but am no longer sure. Based on Down the Garden Path (1932), they cover similar ground – moving to a new house; developing the garden; getting entangled with neighbours good and bad.

The main difference, I think, is tone. While Nichols is still light-hearted in Down the Garden Path, he has yet (to my mind) to develop the easy hilarity of his later books. The jokes hit home, but aren’t developed with the same glee. The neighbours and staff are half-portraits, compared to Oldfield (gardener) and Miss Emily (officious neighbour) in the latter trilogy. In the former, the neighbours don’t even get names – they’re all Mrs W and Mrs X. It’s hard to see what’s different except that the second trilogy is a better version of the first.

Having said that, the highlights in Down the Garden Path were, I found, those anonymous interlopers. If they don’t reach the heights of his jovial nemeses in the Merry Hall trilogy, then they certainly provide amusement. Nichols is at his finest when sassing people – and the visitor who prances through the garden imagining herself to be some sort of muse is only mildly less entertaining to read about than the neighbour who criticises everything she sees in his garden.

Ah, the garden. I read all these books as a fraud – somebody who doesn’t know anything at all about gardening. Occasionally curiosity bites and I google the flower he is mentioning (and find that our tastes don’t match; his favourite flowers look a little twee to me) but generally I read past, waiting for a more gossipy anecdote to take centre stage.

If you are a great expert, with a case of medals from the Horticultural Society on your mantelpiece… if you have written treatises on the Ionopsidium Acaule (which, by the way, is well worth growing)… if you have a huge drooping moustache and a huge drooping head-gardener, then you had better throw this book aside. I am not writing for you.

As you see, he claims that his gardening prowess is rather basic in this one – putting me even more to shame – but perhaps this book was more aimed at gardeners than the others were? Or, at least, Nichols got better at satisfying the ignorant and the knowledgeable at the same time?

I should mention, before I close, those intriguing snippet – ‘Mrs E. M. Delafield, who is the only living writer with whom I should ever dare to take a trip to Cranford, hurled dizzying insults at me in numerous publications.‘ – None are quoted! I want to know so much more!

So, it was an enjoyable read, for sure. But my hopes were a bit high, and I didn’t race through it as I did the other three. I’ll still read the two sequels (which I’ve had for ages) but perhaps not with quite the same alacrity. But, fear not, 2017 is still very much the YoBN.

11 thoughts on “Down The Garden Path by Beverley Nichols

  • August 6, 2017 at 4:04 pm
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    This sent me off to my notes from ploughing through Time and Tide back copies! There’s an EMD parody of Nichols in the 4 April 1931 issue. Annoyingly, I haven’t transcribed it, but I have noted that she make Nichols recommend financial abuse, marital violence and reminding your wife that she is ageing as a recipe for a successful marriage. Ploughing through Time and Tide is an ongoing project so no doubt there are more delights in store.

    I think this is the Nichols I’ve read, and it put me off trying any more …

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  • August 6, 2017 at 8:12 pm
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    Simon, I agree with you. This has been the Year of BN for me as well. I definitely prefer the Merry Hall books over the Allways books even though I still have to read the third book in the MH trilogy. Unlike you, I started with Down the Garden Path. I enjoyed it and liked his humor in it but I also found it laced with bitterness and a little malicious compared to his later books. I’m glad I continued reading his books because the MH ones are gems.

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  • August 6, 2017 at 8:31 pm
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    I wonder if we sometimes develop author fatigue through reading several books by a writer one after another? Several times I’ve been guilty of gobbling up too much of an author and it can diminish the experience. Recently, I discovered Elizabeth Fair’s novels through the Dean Street Press reprints and went on to read four in a row. It would have been better to allow time to pass between them, just as it would in the original publishing circumstances. So I’ll space the final two out later.

    Is Beverley Nichols one of those friends whose company you seek, but in intermittent doses? Probably yes! You enjoy hearing some of the same stories again, polished up differently each time, along with a few new ones.

    I would love to hear what you and your readers think about this.

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  • August 6, 2017 at 8:51 pm
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    I wouldn’t have read Merry Hall if it hadn’t been for your review, and I enjoyed it immensely. Sorry this one wasn’t as good.

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  • August 6, 2017 at 8:54 pm
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    I had never heard of Beverly Nichols until you started writing about him. Because of your blog, I knew enough to grab the copy of Merry Hall I saw on the discard shelf at my local library. It is now near the top of my overwhelming stack of books to read soon.

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  • August 6, 2017 at 10:54 pm
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    I think this series is more interesting to keen gardeners, that’s just one of the reasons I really enjoyed this one. I believe it’s very autobiographical and he was trying to make any characters anonymous by not giving them a full name. He got into a lot of trouble and eventually had to leave that neighbourhood when his weekend house guests caused mayhem amongst the local families.

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  • August 7, 2017 at 2:08 am
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    Down the Garden Path was my first Nichols and I was a bit underwhelmed. I enjoyed the other two books in the trilogy more. And I definitely agree with Michelle about the tone of Garden Path.

    Happy to hear that the Merry Hall books are even better.

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  • August 7, 2017 at 5:13 am
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    I doubt I will be able to find this author in my part of the world but I am making a note of this one. Eventually I’ll track him down!

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  • August 7, 2017 at 9:47 am
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    We need more info on the Delafield thing though I think a Delafield parody of Nichols would be sublime!

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  • August 7, 2017 at 12:58 pm
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    At least one of his later books I read (it was about cooking) was not great. Very bitter and snarky in tone. When he’s good he’s excellent company though, and I too would like to know more about his feud with Delafield

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  • August 7, 2017 at 4:14 pm
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    I am a gardening enthusiast, and I liked this first trilogy better because it did focus more on the gardens–and the garden in question was a cottage garden, rather than a stately home. I can see where the Merry Hall trilogy would have wider appeal.

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