Digging up England: Subverting Austerity in Beverley Nichols’s Merry Hall
Milthorpe, N, Digging up England: Subverting Austerity in Beverley Nichols's Merry Hall, The Poetics and Politics of Gardening in Hard Times, Lextington Books, N Milthorpe (ed), Lanham, pp. 33-52. ISBN 9781498570206 (2019) [Research Book Chapter]
Merry Hall, the bestselling 1951 gardening book by the journalist, novelist and bright-young-thing Beverley Nichols (1898–1983), offers opportunities for queering the historical period of post-Second World War austerity, and the cultural practices associated with it. In reading this book we can uncover the anti-austerity utopia sheltered in his Georgian country-house garden. In this chapter I offer a preliminary close reading of this charming and under-read book, and seek to enter contemporary debates about the relationship between nature, sexuality, politics, economics, landscape and futurity, by examining a period of history that has hitherto been glossed as heteronormative and socially democratic, and a queer writer who has been neglected by literary critics. Much historical and literary-critical work on post-war British austerity has examined the impact of austerity on working families and particularly women (Zweiniger-Bargielowska 2000; Davies and O’Callaghan 2017), and the role of private and public gardening in austerity policy during and after the war (Bramall 2013; Ginn 2017). There is much that queer ecological scholarship can bring to bear on our understanding of this period. In Nicole Seymour’s emphasis on the positive relationship between politics and environmental justice engendered by the "being together" of the human and more-than-human worlds (Seymour 2013, loc.312), or in ongoing productive troubling of binary categories of natural/unnatural and the non/human (see Mortimer-Sandilands & Erickson 2010; Giffney & Hird 2008), such work proffers methodologies and politics of reading entirely fruitful to understanding this period. As Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson argue, the task of queer ecology is to "probe the intersections of sex and nature with an eye to developing a sexual politics that more clearly includes considerations of the natural world and its biosocial construction" (2010, 5). This chapter seeks to adapt some of these arguments in turning towards an environment that is often overlooked in the rugged narratives of ecocriticism, precisely because it is a space that is not-quitenatural: the garden. Moreover, it seeks to explore the ways in which Nichols’s garden writing can be seen to articulate a queering of the heteronormative, reprocentric, nationalistic and democratic utopias of both austerity culture and the English country house.
Research Book Chapter
literary studies, gardens in literature, austerity studies