Tenacious as ivy, socialite-gardener remade her life

The Middle Ages

December 09, 2007|By SUSAN REIMER

In 1924, at the age of 51 and with her marriage crumbling and money nearly gone, Norah Lindsay, a beautiful English socialite of the second tier, began a career as a garden designer, working for the aristocrats who were her friends.

She was determined to save her home, the Manor House at Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire, the place she and husband Harry Lindsay had lovingly restored, where they bore two children and where Norah became a tireless and inspired gardener.

A woman who was known for her carefree life and a social calendar filled with the rich, famous and royal was suddenly earning modest wages while toiling alongside the workers employed by her society friends.

Over the next 20 years, Norah Lindsay would earn just enough to keep the Manor House going, although she was required to rent it out for many months at a time to make the money she needed to keep it heated.

Hers is a story of a woman abandoned by her husband at midlife - they would never divorce - who found the courage to remake herself out of the scraps of a passionate hobby.

Though her gardens - many still intact - are innovative, it is her story that captivates the gardeners with whom landscape historian Allyson Hayward regularly speaks about Lindsay.

"These are women in the 50- to 80-year-old range," said Hayward in a interview from her Massachusetts home.

"Every one of them responds to the strength Norah showed as a single woman who had to support herself," said Hayward, author of a new book, Norah Lindsay: The Life and Art of a Garden Designer.

Despite the passage of nearly a century, not much has improved for women who have spent an extended period of time outside of the work force caring for family but who have lost their main source of income through divorce, separation or widowhood.

Only 74 percent succeed in re-entering the work force; only 40 percent make it back to full-time employment; and a disproportionate number works at low-wage jobs, earning less than $20,000 a year, according to statistics gathered by Women Work, a national network for women's employment.

But Norah Lindsay had passion on her side.

"Gardening kept her going. It was an outlet for her creativity, a way to be with her friends," said Hayward, who spent 10 years following the footsteps of her subject to gardens all over England and Europe.

Lindsay, born in India to a British military officer and a social-climbing mother, made the Manor House at Sutton Courtenay the destination for leading political, social and literary figures for the first two decades of her married life, writes Hayward.

And her gardens - she had no formal training and did not employ any more than a couple of handymen to do the heavy work - were a marvel.

It was the early 19th century, just as the structured Victorian age of garden design was giving way to a more naturalistic look - drifts of riotous color in beds overflowing their borders - and Norah displayed a real gift.

But what Norah Lindsay did with her gift took real courage: She went to work at dawn for the people in whose drawing rooms she had been entertained the night before.

"She wanted to maintain her life in that house and her circle of friends. She didn't have the financial reserves to keep it going without working. What she did was very tough to do," said Hayward.

It was tough not only because her friends were lying in their warm beds while she was out in the gardens with the help, but also because she had to take money from them to maintain the illusion that her circumstances had not changed.

Hayward's book is based on diaries and letters kept by Lindsay's family and friends. It describes a time between the wars when life consisted of lawn parties, tennis matches, hunt weekends, race weeks, balls and lots of shopping and travel.

The photos are from the scrapbooks of family, friends and servants tracked down by Hayward over a decade. Most are black and white, but some are early color photos - and they reveal her signature style.

Norah Lindsay's beloved Manor House was ultimately sold to the wealthy publisher David Astor, the son of Waldorf and Nancy Astor, just before she succumbed to cancer in 1948.

She died believing, mistakenly, that the sales agreement would allow her to return to Manor House when her health improved to execute yet another redesign of its gardens.

Said Hayward, "There were times in Norah's life when there was not much joy, but she always had joy in her garden."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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