An Author and a Gardener: World War One – a prelude to a friendship

Layout 1Author Alan Ruff talks here about the parts played by Edith Wharton and Lawrence Johnston in the First World War, and how the events of the war shaped their lives and drew each in time towards the solace of the garden.

Edith Wharton and Lawrence Johnston were two very different people who shared a passion for gardens, gardening and the plants that filled them. The book An Author and a Gardener traces their lives and examines in detail the five gardens they made, as well as those of their friends.

Plate 74
Plate 74 The Northumberland Hussars on the road to Ypres in October 1914. Horses and motorized transport, the old and the new, mingle. (Imperial War Museum, London)

At the outbreak of the First World War, in August 1914, their meeting and friendship was still a few years away but the war shaped both their lives, as it did for so many. Wharton was in Paris when the Germans invaded Belgium and immediately threw herself into war work. She had been looking forward to spending time in England that summer, gathering her friends around her, so in late August she left with her considerable entourage for the country she regarded as ‘a great rich garden’ protected from world events. Major Johnston meanwhile, a reservist in the Northumberland Hussars, had been recalled to Newcastle at the beginning of the month. In the city there was great scramble to requisition horses that were required in large numbers, for the cavalry and to move guns and equipment. But though the horse was the ‘motor of the army’, times were changing and Johnston was at the forefront of that change. Like Wharton, he was an early car enthusiast and when the regiment moved to Lyndhurst in the New Forest at the end of August, Johnston was in charge of motorized transport. A new 7th Division was being formed to halt the German advance and save Antwerp, with the Northumberland Hussars as its cavalry.

By then Wharton was feeling isolated, there were no telephones in the house she had rented and the London papers were late and irregular. She realized the enormity of her mistake in coming to England; ‘until this moment I never knew how much I love(d) France and my French friends’ and in her diary she wrote ‘there was something oppressive and unnatural about the serene loveliness of those old gardens, the cedars spreading wide branches over the deserted lawn, the borders glowing with unheeded flowers’. Wharton received permission finally to return to France in October; on the 4th, the 7th Division had embarked for an unknown destination. Arriving in Zeebrugge too late to save Antwerp, they were redirected to Ypres.

Plate 77
Plate 77 Edith Wharton visiting the ruins of a village, her car would be stuffed with cigarettes, chocolates and other luxuries. (Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

The first Battle of Ypres began on the 19th of October. Three days later the glorious summer of 1914 gave way to a black rainy night and the Northumberland Hussars were ordered to move to Hooge Chateau. The following morning the Division came under heavy fire and with the Germans advancing on two sides, the Northumberland Hussars were sent into the attack and in the ensuing charge Major Johnston received a shrapnel wound to the chest. It was rumoured he was dead, saved only by the Officer in charge of the burial party who recognized him and saw movement. On the 31st of October Johnston returned to England, his first sally into the war over.

The mood in France changed radically after the first Battle of Ypres. Wharton worked tirelessly to help the many refugees who flooded into the city and on her visits to the front line, her car was loaded with medicines, bandages, cigarettes and chocolates. An outspoken champion of America’s entry into the war, Wharton wrote a report after each trip for Scribners magazine and when published as Fighting France the book became a bestseller. In 1916 Wharton was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for her tireless work. In that year Johnston returned to France as a staff officer but his failing health saw him return to England in August 1918, never to return.

After the trauma of war Wharton and Johnston needed the solace of the garden. Johnston completed his celebrated garden at Hidcote but for reasons of health, and a desire to extend his gardening in the winter months, he began a new garden in 1924, in the south of France, the Serre de la Madone, Menton where, in the coming years, he would spend more and more time. Wharton too, exhausted by the war, had grown tired of Paris and wanted a return to the two pursuits that never palled, writing and gardening. After the armistice she moved to a new home at Saint Brice, the Pavillon Colombe with its remnants of a beautiful old garden. She stayed there from late spring until autumn, when she travelled south to spend the winter in Hyères at the Château Sainte Claire. There in March 1923 she met Major Lawrence Johnston who would become her new gardening friend and guru. He would advise on her gardens and they would often stay at each other’s houses in France and England, visiting nurseries, collecting plants, enjoying delicious gossip about their gardening friends. It was a friendship that would last until Edith Wharton’s death in 1937.

By Alan Ruff

Images taken from An Author and a Gardener (Windgather Press: Oxford 2014)

Find out more about the book on our website.