A slim tome about a short-lived Edwardian plant collector with a passion for alpines that took him to the eastern Himalayas and north Burma. Reginald Farrer doesn’t sound like a particularly pleasant chap. “Of his time”.
The book was on The Guardian’s Top 10 books about the Himalayas. I’ve been working my way through the ones I bought last year, including The High Road to China by Kate Teltscher and by Jan Morris’s wonderful Coronation Everest. For me, the Himalayan connection in A Rage for Rock Gardening is somewhat tenuous, not helped by the fact that I’ve not been to Gansu province in northwest China which is where Farrer did his mountainous plant hunting, presumably down in what is now Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
I would recommend the book to fans of garden history though as it covers the transition from gardens being formal to family, and Farrer and his contemporaries introduced many familiar flowering plants we know today including varieties of Viburnum, Magnolia and Peony, as well as the gorgeous Gentians that I know and love from my many treks in Nepal.
The writing style read “very posh” to me, as did the use of Mrs, Mr etc in the acknowledgements. And lo, when you look up Nicola Shulman, you realise why.
Part of what makes this a fascinating period of history is that, as John Keay concludes, none of these explorations would feasible today given the borders and accompanying tensions between India, Pakistan and China. I’d love to be able to trek from Leh to Yarkand…..
If you can ignore the very bloke-ish blurb on the covers and the fact that Fergus Fleming is Ian Fleming’s nephew, this is a thorough set of biographical snippets on an Arctic, Antarctic and Saharan explorer theme. After all, what is a desert but a hot dry version of the icebound wastes at the poles.
I still delight in the fact that one of the earlier and most astute explorers was William Scoresby. For a long time I’d assumed Philip Pullman had made up the name Lee Scoresby. Perhaps he did – although I doubt it – but I like the idea that aëronaut explorer Lee and and arctic explorer William share a surname and a sense of decency.
Back to the book – worth a read if you’re interested in 19th Century English Explorers.