This post is part of a series called The Exquisite, where I profile entries from the book “Encyclopedia of the Exquisite: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights” by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins.
Text from “Encyclopedia of the Exquisite” by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins
Two celebrated and serious-minded women of letters from either side of the Atlantic, Bloomsbury stalwart Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) and New Yorker editor Katharine S. White (1892-1977), took on the topic of gardening during the twentieth century, each working a breezy style that brought the arcane poetics of soil and seed to a brand new audience… both writers were at their best when debating gaudiness in the garden, and what to do with razzle-dazzle flowers such as dahlias and gladioli.
White, a true-blue New Englander who worked at The New Yorker for more than thirty years, despised ostentation, though she was plenty stylish. She refused, as her husband explained, “to dress down to a garden,” and dug up plant beds on their thirty-six-acre Main farm in a tailored tweed skirt and her Ferragamo shoes. But her experiment with a big, bright dahlia corssed the line. “The dahlia is a flower I have never been able to make up my mind about,” she admitted. The results were simply “embarrassing.” The flowers were so enormous, one was bright red and the other bronze, and both were as big as dinner plates,” she reported. “The only word for them was vulgar.”
Sackville-West, who wrote about her gardening triumphs and travails at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, loved a flourish. “I believe in exaggeration,” she declared in 1938. “I believe in big groups, big masses.”