Book Notes: An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter

Cover An Island Garden

Welcome! Today marks the launching of the Book Notes section of Plant Whatever Brings You Joy! My first offering was inspired by the introduction of 1800’s New England writer/gardener Celia Thaxter into my life by my friend David who lived in Portsmouth, NH for a number of years, and is very fond of that area and its history. David inquired if I was familiar with Celia Thaxter’s work, as he knew of my love for gardening, which Celia shared. This animated conversation led to my purchasing An Island Garden, originally published in 1894 by Houghton Mifflin Company, and most fortunately, republished and faithfully reproduced by the same company in recent years. The book is graced throughout with the exquisitely charming paintings of her friend, impressionistic artist Childe Hassam. The painting above appears (are you ready?) on the slipcase! And, inside, is a reproduction of the original cover, which you will see below, of the gold-stamped design of Sarah Wyman Whitman.

cover of Celia Thaxer's bk.

I found the entire package utterly enchanting.

In order to appreciate the text of An Island Garden it is important to know a bit of Celia Thaxter’s unusual life. Celia was born in New Hampshire in 1835. When she was four her father, Thomas Laighton, moved the entire family to one of the smallest of the Isles of Shoals, called White Island, in order to tend the lighthouse. There Celia spent her formative years surrounded by the sea. At age 15 she married her tutor, Levi Thaxter. The marriage led to her being transplanted to the mainland, much to her chagrin, and by 1858, to the births of three small sons.

As destiny would have it, Levi Thaxter and Celia’s father join forces and a hotel is built upon another island, renamed Appledore, after which the hotel is named, and so Celia’s life reclaims its rightful place in the Isles of Shoals, where she creates a small garden which, unbelieveably, these many decades later, is being kept to this day by devoted fans, who recognized its beauty and dedicated them-selves to its maintenance. Can you imagine, dear readers? Additionally Celia’s husband arranges for one of her early poems to be published in The Atlantic Monthly. Her writing career is born and she begins to attract writers and artists to Appledore in summers and thus an entire literary culture is born about her. (Why I was never taught about her as an English major in college escapes me.)

Tasha Tudor writes the foreword for the new edition and here she quotes Celia,
and I would wager that many many gardeners who happen upon this quote will strongly identify. You know who you are.

“Ever since I could remember anything, flowers have been like dear friends to me, comforters, inspirers, powers to uplift and cheer. A lonely child, living on the lighthouse island ten miles away from the mainland, every blade of grass that sprang out of the ground, every humblest weed, was precious in my sight, and I began a little garden when not more than five years old.”

Charm abounds in An Island Garden, as Celia deals with the universal struggles of slugs (she abores them, rises fitfully in the middle of the night to rid her garden of them, and in desperation has toads imported by the dozens to banish them, which nearly works); her battles with weeds (no instant fixes in the garden store, but relying heavily on homemade formulas of salt and wood-ash, needing to wash them meticulously off various plants later to save them); and her overarching love of flowers. The most noticeable fact in Celia’s life is that she is near-monastic, and completely undisturbed to focus exclusively on her garden-and does. The environ in which she finds herself enables her to meditate on each particular beauty in such exquisite detail that her renderings of the stories of each is rarely offered in our modern lives. Indeed, the sheer reading requires great attention to detail, so I’d say, the reading itself is a meditation and one well worth the attention for all who love their gardens. An Island Garden can only continue to capture the hearts and imaginations of readers who share a love of the land and of the sheer joy of planting a seed in the ground and watching in humility as the miracle of life repeats its sacred promise to unfold.

“Yes, the sowing of a seed seems a very simple matter, but I always feel as it were a sacred thing among the mysteries of God. Standing by that space of blank and motionless ground, I think of all it holds of beauty and delight, and I am filled with joy at the thought that I may be the magician to whom power is given to summon so sweet a pageant from the silent and passive soil.”

Celia Thaxter

You can well imagine why I say An Island Garden resonates within me and I thus declare it to be, “Highly recommended.”

5 Responses to “Book Notes: An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter”

  1. What a wonderful review! Thanks for sharing. I can’t wait to learn of your next discovery. Lovely quotes as well.

  2. Did you know it is possible to visit Celia Thaxter’s reconstructed garden on Appledore Island? see:
    2008 dates will be put up soon!

  3. Hi, Robin!

    Welcome! Yes, I did know that folks do visit each summer! It’s been suggested that I visit! Thank you so very much for that invaluable link. Much appreciated!


  4. Kathryn, a really good book review. I have the same edition of Celia Thaxter’s book, and I like it very much. I go back to it sometimes just to read a section or two. Blessings~~Dee

  5. Hi, Dee! Thank you for visiting! I’m so delighted that you have Celia’s book! Isn’t she wonderful??

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