Book Review: Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols

BOOK REVIEW by Kristine Glenn

In the depths of winter when the green and growing garden is covered by a blanket of snow, the heart of a gardener can wither away. This is the time to pick up a book like Beverley Nichol’s Merry Hall. The book chronicles the British author’s search for the perfect garden and the perfect house. More specifically, he wants a Georgian house and a garden of at least five acre: “a garden riddled with brambles, stung almost to death with nettles, and eaten to the bone with blight… I was in a rescuing mood.”

He finds the ideal place early in the book and Merry Hall describes his initial forays into rescuing and restoring the house, and especially the gardens. The book is written in the aftermath of World War II in a style reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, E.F. Benson, and Jane Austen. Deliciously witty, Nichols delves indiscriminately into horticulture, his talented and taciturn gardener (Oldfield), cats and more cats, nosy neighbors (Miss Emily and Our Rose), garden aesthetics, music, and more. But his first love is the garden and the book hones in on all things gardening. Nichols frequently rhapsodizes about the beauty of a blossom, warning the reader “when I begin to write about flowers, I lose all sense of restraint, and it is far, far too late to do anything about it.”

With every reading and re-reading, Merry Hall keeps me simultaneously laughing and in awe of Nichols’ turn of phrase and ability to cut to the heart of the matter, whether it is commentary on a passive-aggressive spinster or falling in love with a bank of Lilium regale. The story wends its way through the pages in an organic and enticing manner. Nichols cautions the readers that Merry Hall “is not really a book at all; it is only a long walk round a garden, in winter and summer, in rain and in sunshine; and if it bores you to walk round gardens you will have long ago chucked it aside.”

The book is meant for slow reading where each page is savored and the story visualized, absorbed, and chuckled over. It’s best read with a notepad close by so you can write down unfamiliar plant names and references for later research. It can take some work to adjust to the style as the setting is quintessentially British and the world it inhabits is from almost 70 years ago. But it is worth the effort. So I encourage you to settle down with the book – preferably in a comfortable chair, by a crackling fire, and with your favorite drink – and enter the entertaining, insightful, and somewhat cynical world of Beverley Nichols.

Note: Beverley Nichols was a prolific writer in a career spanning 60 years. Best remembered for his gardening books, his most popular is Down The Garden Path, which has been in nearly continuous print since 1932. Merry Hall is the first book of the Merry Hall trilogy. If you like it, the next book, Laughter On The Stairs, shifts the focus to restoring the 22-room mansion amidst life in the village. The final book, Sunlight on the Lawn, brings more stories of the house, garden, friends, and neighbors. All of the books are available on Amazon. Regrettably, they are not available at the Billings Public Library. I’ll remedy that if I find some spare funds.