The Physic Garden - A New Novel, a New Departure, an Old Story: Catherine Czerkawska
|Cover by the excellent Michael Doig|
The Physic Garden is the story of a close friendship and a betrayal so shocking that it pervades the whole novel, like the memory of a nightmare. The tale is narrated by William Lang who was once a gardener at the old college of Glasgow University. Now, William is in his seventies and widowed, but living with his family. He has spent most of his life as a cautiously radical printer and bookseller in the growing city of Glasgow, but he has just received a parcel which contains a book called the Scots Gardener, written by John Reid in 1683, as well as a handwritten journal. With these volumes comes a letter saying that they were left to him by Thomas Brown, a gentleman, who has recently died at his country house in Ayrshire. So many years later, the unexpected legacy of the books reminds William of his past, the year 1801 when he was only nineteen and when he and Thomas became friends. The memories come flooding back and he tells us his story.
'What am I afraid of? That a million thoughts, feelings, memories, will come rushing back to overwhelm me? I cannot begin to describe to you the terror - there is no other word for it - engendered by the thought of him, even now, and yet he was as kindly a man as you could wish to meet, one who inspired trust and friendship in equal measure, a man who inspired great love in all those who knew him. I used to think it an unmitigated blessing, used to envy him. I wished that I had been born with such a gift. But now, with the wisdom of my years, I realise that it can be a peculiar curse and a burden, to be a man whom people love. Better by far to be a man who loves unconditionally, for all that such affection may bring sorrow in its wake.’
|The Old College of Glasgow University|
|The Christening Cape which figures in The Physic Garden|
Like so much of my fiction, this began as a stage play: a short play for Glasgow's Oran Mor venue. The Scots Gardener was my original inspiration, followed by an excellent study of the Lost Gardens of Glasgow University, by A D Boney which lead me back to more primary sources. There was a third book, a very old one, but I'm not going to tell you about it here because it may give the game away! The Oran Mor in Glasgow's West End (where the university is now sited, along with the beautiful Victorian Botanical Gardens) produced three of my plays, but not this one. Well, not yet, anyway! I wrote it, rewrote it, decided there was a lot more to the story and proposed it as a longer play. There were plans to stage it in the extraordinary Kibble Palace in the Botanical Gardens but these came to nothing. The story still nagged away at me and at some point I decided that it had to be a novel. There was more to be discovered and the only way for me to discover it was to allow William to tell it in his own words, in his own voice.
By the time it was finished, left a while, rewritten several times over, I thought it was ready to send to my agent. I also thought it was probably the best thing I had written. But a part of me knew that it wasn't at all commercial. Still, I sent it off, with high hopes that she might spot the quality in it, and that a medium sized Scottish publisher might be interested in a Scottish historical novel. She phoned me almost immediately to say that the young reader she had given it to had - as I've written on AE before - said it was 'just an old man, telling his story' and sadly, for various (perfectly good) reasons we would have to part company. I put the novel away and didn't go back to it for a couple of years.
For all that it's a story about profound and heartbreaking betrayal, it isn't all doom and gloom by any means, and I think that's probably down to William himself - he IS an old man, looking back on a long life well lived. But the events he is describing occurred many years previously, when he was young and naive, a little ingenuous - just lovely. I think I'm probably more fond of him than of any character I've ever created. Experience has changed him in all kinds of ways and not always for the worse. Now he is making some attempt to come to terms with past events, resolving them, trying to tease out important truths about his life, about his own humanity and all this from the perspective of maturity and wisdom. It was a tall order. I've loved researching it, writing it,even loved revising it.
I don't think it's much like anything else I've written. I look at it now and wonder where it came from. I don't think everyone will like it. I have to learn to say - to quote the excellent Seth Godin - 'It's not for you' to those who just don't 'get' it.
But if it is for you, I hope you enjoy it!