Geri Waddington, Peacock Garden. Alexandra Harris on Katherine Swift

A Garden Litany

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From about the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, anyone who could afford it owned a ‘book of hours’ and kept it close at hand for daily use. It contained the prayers of the divine offices to be said at appointed hours, as well as psalms, lists of saints and a calendar, often tailored to the particular place in which it was used. My diary, the only book I use many times a day, is a paltry thing beside these medieval books, some of which are made visually beautiful with illuminations, and all of which are conceptually beautiful in their weaving of the hours of each day with the arc of the whole year.

Katherine Swift worked as a librarian of manuscripts and rare books until 1988, when she moved to Shropshire to make a garden. After twenty years at the Dower House in the grounds of Morville Hall, and drawing on a lifetime’s work with both manuscripts and plants, she published her own book of hours. There are no prayers in it, but here, still, are the hours of the day and the cycle of the seasons. We make our way from the silence of a December midnight (Vigils: the hour of darkness and waiting) to the high sun and roses of Sext. This is June, all life and busyness. Then on towards the last of the canonical hours, Compline, with its tonal character of completion, retrospect and thanks. I think The Morville Hours (2008) is quite as lasting as its forbears. There’s an intricate calendar mapped out here which is not to be found in the pages of my diary.

I knew a bit about Katherine Swift before her book was published because I’d read her gardening columns in the weekend papers almost as religious observance. The gardening section was always the last unclaimed scrap on the communal Sunday breakfast table when I was a student, but that was the one I was after. Perhaps students now have allotments or grow their own in window boxes, but there wasn’t much gardening at Oxford fifteen years ago. I wasn’t even sure about doing any diggin

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About the contributor

Alexandra Harris is the author of Romantic Moderns and Weatherland. She is Professor of English at the University of Liverpool and likes to watch the seasons turn there, as well as in Oxford and West Sussex.

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