The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a beautiful spot in the city and has also provided a literary highlight of my holiday, its Shakespeare Garden. This is a dedicted space that contains a few benches, several labels with quotations and lots of the plants that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. I was in heaven, not so much for the Shakespeare, as for the chance it gave me to pretend I was Emmeline Lucas, or at least one of her minions.
Emmeline Lucas is the titular heroine of ‘Queen Lucia’, the first of E. F. Benson’s ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels, and she is every bit as powerful as the name suggests. Indeed, ‘Riseholm might perhaps according to the crude materialism of maps, be included in the kingdom of Great Britain, but in a more real and inward sense it formed a complete kingdom of its own, and its queen was undoubtedly Mrs Lucas, who ruled it with a secure autocracy pleasant to contemplate at a time when thrones were toppling and imperial crowns whirling like dead leaves down the autumn leaves.’ Lucia (‘pronounced, of course, in the Italian mode – la Lucia, the wife of Lucas) has no time for the crassness of 1920s England and so has transformed the town of Riseholm into a haven of Elizabethan kitch. One of the highlights of her determinedly Elizabethan home (new additions ‘could be detected by the observant eye for they had a markedly older appearance than the rest’) is the Garden:
‘ Here, as was only right and proper, there was not a flower to be found save such as were mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare; indeed it was called Shakespeare’s garden, and the bed that ran below the windows of the dining room was Ophelia’s border, for it consisted solely of those flowers which that distraught maiden distributed to her friends when she should have been in a lunatic asylum. Mrs Lucas often reflected how lucky it was that such institutions were unknown in Elizabeth’s day, or that, if known, Shakespeare artistically ignored their existence. Pansies, naturally, formed the chief decoration – though there were some very flourishing plants of rue. Mrs Lucas always wore a little bunch of them when in flower, to inspire her thoughts, and found them wonderfully efficacious. Round the sundial, which was set in the middle of one of the squares of grass between which a path of broken paving stones led to the front door, was a circular border, now in July, sadly vacant, for it harboured only the spring-flowers enumerated by Perdita. But the first day every year when Perdita’s border put forth its earliest blossoms was a delicious anniversary, and the news of it spread like wild-fire through Mrs Lucas’s kingdom, and her subject were very joyful, and came to salute the violet or daffodil, or whatever it was.’
There was no Perdita’s border at Brooklyn Botanical Garden, but I saw rue, roses and a space for pansies. Best of all, I got to enjoy the quotations and imagine I was in Lucia’s garden. If you’re a Bensen fan BBG is a must visit stop, a wonderful cultural joy.