Now that I live on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, it's a short drive up the Island Highway to Milner Gardens in Qualicum Beach. A recent visit to the woodland gardens and English-style cottage with its breathtaking views of the Strait of Georgia was all the more memorable due to my reading of Margaret Cadwaladr's book, In Veronica's Garden. (The title comes from a book of the same title by poet Alfred Austin published in 1896.)
Whether you can visit the garden in person or not, you can delight in its beauty in the pages of Cadwaladr's book. She has woven a fascinating story around botanical names of flowers, family histories, facts about the ownership of Milner Gardens, its famous visitors and the garden experts who have influenced it. Most of the colour photos that greatly enhance the book were taken by the author. This is an engrossing book, one of those that is difficult to put down.
At the heart of the story is Veronica Milner. In fact, when author and subject met, Veronica said it was important to understand her in order to understand the garden. A garden which features over 500 varieties of rhododendrons contrasting with the majestic Douglas-firs and red-cedars of the West Coast rain forest. To gather information about the garden and its owner, Cadwaladr put many photographs of the garden in an album. As they chatted and looked at the photos, the visual cues would trigger Veronica's memory and keep her focused. Cadwaladr found this tactic to be so useful that she also took picture books from the Edwardian era, for instance, to her visits with Veronica.
Within a week of meeting Veronica in 1996, Cadwaladr took her first trip to Ireland and visited Glin, the castle where Veronica lived during her first marriage to Desmond FitzGerald, the Knight of Glin. Veronica's son Desmond, the current Knight of Glin, allowed Cadwaladr access to his father's detailed diaries, which ended shortly before the elder FitzGerald's death in 1949. The diaries confirmed for the author many details about artists, writers and prominent garden experts who had influenced the development of the gardens in Qualicum Beach.
Veronica Villiers was born in London, England, in 1909 and was descended from the Duke of Marlborough, as was Winston Churchill, her mother's cousin, which meant they were related to the late Diana, Princess of Wales. When Veronica married Desmond FitzGerald in 1929, they moved to Glin, the castle and 500 acre estate near Limerick. The couple had two daughters and a son. From the time Veronica and Desmond began their married life, they began to update the castle (built in the 1780s) and create a magnificent garden.
Cadwaladr gives a candid portrait of Veronica, an imperious woman, who was a gardener as well as a painter of flowers. Apparently, she had dalliances during her first marriage and was known to be a difficult, complex and unusual woman. When Desmond was ill with tuberculosis, he and Veronica travelled to New York and Chicago to visit several doctors. While on a train, they met Canadian businessman Ray Milner. After Desmond died, Veronica, in a crimson satin dress, married Ray Milner in London in 1954.
The home that Veronica moved to in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island had been the summer home of Ray and his first wife Rina. With the help of Ted and Mary Greig, who owned a nursery in Royston, Veronica began to expand the garden. It became not a manicured garden of mowed lawns but rather controlled chaos, as it has been described. Garden writer William Robinson had a profound influence on Veronica and therefore on the style of the garden and the plants chosen for it.
Veronica became a widow again in 1975 when Ray died. She continued to travel and employ servants from India. Winston Churchill's daughter Mary Soames visited her in 1984. Charles and Diana visited in 1986. A photograph of Princess Diana, her feet on the rung of a chair, stirs a poignant memory. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited the garden and stayed at the house in October 1987. Veronica, though, had to stay at a nearby hotel while the royal visitors slept in her room (on a new mattress) and only got to see them in the last hour of their visit.
To preserve the gardens, especially following her demise, Veronica found a benefactor via Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo. The garden was dedicated on May 17, 1996, and Veronica was presented with a honorary certificate in horticulture. The author and her husband, Jim, who was coordinator of the horticulture program at Malaspina, were in attendance. That was the day Cadwaladr met Veronica, a woman who complained about "the decline of the aristocracy." Cadwaladr found her subject to be "both gifted and far-sighted." Veronica "created a Canadian version of a "wild garden" in the rainforest, a teaching tool and living laboratory in a time when conservation was becoming increasingly important." Veronica Milner died in 1998.
This book is a stunning example of the results of dedication to life story, including the research, the interviews, the special relationship formed, the surprises and knowledge gleaned along the way. In Cadwaladr's case, she took on the extra challenge of starting her own publishing company to publish her book. When I last spoke to her, she was getting ready to go into a second printing.
Margaret Cadwaladr has had a long-standing interest in autobiography and life story. She took an interdisciplinary graduate-level course at the University of British Columbia on the topic and gives workshops now on life writing as well as on the subject of self-publishing. She often is asked to speak to gardening clubs in Canada and the U.S.
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