Nicholson, grandson of the diplomat Harold Nicolson and the poet Vita Sackville-West (Virginia Woolf's erstwhile lover), offers a lyrical account of the history of and current efforts to restore the gardens of his family's legendary estate in Sissinghurst, an Unfinished History.
I was especially moved by how nature and history intertwine in your narrative. Does writing about them affect your own experience of nature and your relationship with history?
My father always used to tell us that nothing is ever experienced until it is written down. He claimed it was something Virginia Woolf had told him as a boy, which gave the idea a little extra oomph. And I both believe and disbelieve it now. Nothing is better to me than the unmediated meeting with the natural world, feeling the reality of a cold stream running around your bare legs or the sharp spots of sun falling on your face in a summer wood. No words can ever match that. But I also know that writing about it, having to make something coherent and real for a reader who isn't there, is a powerful lens turned onto what you think you already know. I know and feel more about Sissinghurst than I ever have. I am mysteriously and powerfully intimate with it in a way I would never have been unless I had written this book.
Has Sissinghurst been brought back to life?
We have started a lot of new things: a 4.5-acre vegetable garden; nearly a mile of new hedges on the old lines, where they had been grubbed out; a 40-acre hay meadow, which was there throughout the Middle Ages but had been ploughed out; an orchard of 2,000 plum, apple, pear, cherry, and greengage trees. We are building a new cow and lambing shed; chicken houses are just arriving this month; the pigs will be coming later this year. All this is rich, deep excitement for me: a re-animating of the landscape in just the way I dreamed of it. It's a long business to reacquire that haze of richness at the heart of any beautiful place, the glow of well-being and self-sufficiency. I can't say all that's there yet. But the seeds are.
How do you think your grandparents would have regarded your efforts?
They never thought of Sissinghurst as some private place reluctantly exposed to public view. It was always an act of display, of theater, and you might say that one of Sissinghurst's essential qualities is to see no conflict or compromise in being made so subtly beautiful and being designed to be on show. I have no doubt that Vita would have held her head in her hands at the razored diminution of the farmed landscape, so I can imagine her now stalking the lanes, welcoming the cattle and the chickens and the flocks of sheep, and chatting to the vegetable gardeners and the farmers and the volunteers and schoolchildren, loving the new orchards and hay meadows and hedges, and saying “Thank God, at last!”