The Physic Garden
by Catherine Czerkawska (2014)
Catherine Czerkawska is a novelist and playwright based in Scotland. I have previously read (and reviewed on this blog) her novel The Curiosity Cabinet.
The Physic Garden is her most recently published novel (March 2014).
The story is set in Glasgow in Scotland in the early 1800s. The narrator is one William Lang, telling the story from the perspective of old age, but looking back on his life as a young gardener, working in the physic garden of Glasgow University, and also out and about on the moors collecting plants for a botanist and lecturer at that university, Dr Thomas Brown.
William’s father died when he was quite young; and William, as the eldest son, has to work hard to also support his mother and several younger siblings. Dr Brown (not all that many years older than William, but married, and by his profession belonging to a different social class) takes a liking to the young gardener and tries to help him as much as he can. In spite of the vast gap in formal education between them, they have interests in common when it comes to their love of plants, and the Physic Garden. While Thomas Brown realises that learning goes both ways and that William has practical knowledge that goes beyond his own, William finds it harder to accept what he thinks of as charity: like when Thomas lets him sit in on lectures, and also gives him access to his own private library. Nevertheless, in spite of the differences in their circumstances, a friendship slowly comes to grow between the two men.
In looking back and telling his story, William lets us understand already from the start that this friendship did not last forever, though:
"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. 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."
Another important friend in William’s life back then, was Jenny Caddas, a weaver’s daughter whom he met one day when out gathering plants for Thomas Brown. It is also hinted at quite early on in the narrative, that there is a connection here; even if it will take a long time for it to develop. In fact, when the various threads of the story are finally woven together, the pattern comes out a little different than expected (not quite as obvious as one’s first guess might be).
Besides the intricate web of friendship, trust and betrayals involved in this story, we also learn quite a bit along the way about what life was like back then. Quite a few of the names mentioned in this book, were real scientists and authors – attached to Glasgow University, and/or having written important books within their respective fields of research.
A physic garden is a type of herb garden with medicinal plants. One of the background issues in this novel has to do with the clash between traditional herbal medicine and new radical experiments including advanced surgery (and the use of dissection and autopsy to learn more about the human body). The clash between the old ways of life vs the new industrial, mechanical and bookish society is also underlined further by the fact of a type foundry being built on the grounds right next to the physic garden, and the plants in the garden suffering from the air pollution:
The stench of the fumes from the type foundry, which the university had permitted to be built next to the old physic garden, covered all the leaves and flowers in a foul-smelling, oily deposit that few plants were robust enough to resist.
All in all, I found this a most fascinating book, which made not only the main characters but also that whole period of time “come to life” for me.