This book wasn’t what I expected. The cover promises a story “[that] witnesses the making of history, from the Gunpowder Plot to the accession of King Charles I and the growing animosity between Parliament and court.” OK, this sounds fascinating to me! I haven’t read a really rich historical novel in a while! Well, what the cover forget to mention was that mostly it’s about the protagonist hunting for strange and exotic plants and being an obedient servant to a series of ever more amoral masters. Between the complexities of building a waterfall-like series of goldfish ponds and finding the perfect tulip while trying to help pawn the Crown Jewels, those interesting historical things get short shrift.
John Tradescant begins his career as gardener to Sir Robert Cecil. Even aside from his judgment on the planting and design of his garden, Cecil trusts John to an extraordinary degree. Having walked a very fine line while serving as Queen Elizabeth’s advisor yet preparing her successor, James of Scotland, for the throne, Cecil escapes to his garden – the envy of England – to relax. John is a loyal and devoted servant, keeping Cecil’s confidence so absolutely he’s sent on the most important missions, when Cecil can trust no one else. Cecil is a good master to John, encouraging him to marry and sharing what he’s learned of men and their behavior. Cecil’s gardens draw the interest of the king, who finally pressures the old man into giving them to him. Cecil takes John with him to his new estate, where they again create Eden. When Cecil dies, John becomes gardener to a series of powerful masters (including one position he accepts to learn the resident gardener’s trick of growing melons under glass) until he is summoned to the garden of George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. Buckingham, young, beautiful, and spoiled beloved of the young King Charles, wants his garden to be as gorgeous as the huge new house he’s building in London. John makes beautiful gardens, so Buckingham summons him and John goes, where he ends up providing a multitude of services.
If this depiction of the Stuarts is accurate, it’s no wonder England came to civil war. Vain and wasteful, immersed only in their own pleasures and wants, King James and then King Charles, along with their favorites such as the duke of Buckingham, care nothing for running the well-to-do country they inherited into the ground. Englishmen are starving and dying of plague while the king cordons off vast tracts of land for his gardens and parks and meadows. The king calls Parliament into session only to argue for more taxes to buy art and to finance useless military expeditions, while naval officers and their families starve to death because the king forgets to pay them. John’s son, J, questions his father why this should be so; doesn’t the king have a responsibility to England, he demands. The king is God’s chosen, John stubbornly insists, clinging to his belief in the divine order of God, king, Buckingham, and far down the list, everyone else. He sticks with this belief through thick and thin, through gross incompetence and blatant negligence on the part of those Chosen Ones. It’s partly understandable; only the great lords with wealth and ambition have the resources to create the kind of garden John can grow, so his belief in the rightness of the king’s divine right is parallel to his desire to make a living as a gardener. But it’s partly frustrating, that John, who sees up close his masters’ failings and selfish maneuverings , insists that he must not question the power that put them above him. His son wonders why God gave him eyes and a brain to comprehend the abuses of the king and his court if God meant for the king to be absolutely above the rest of them. John has no answer for this other than it just is that way.
His love for Buckingham was the nadir of his character. Not because it was two men in an intimate, sexual relationship (which is subtly but completely described), but because it was the blind, addictive love of an older, ordinary man for someone younger, more beautiful, and much more powerful. John swears himself Buckingham’s, body and soul, but Buckingham promises nothing; why should he? Buckingham’s loyalty is to the king, whose love comes with more riches than John’s. Buckingham uses John and his love again and again, to the point where it was painful to read. Whatever stature and dignity John had built up to this point was destroyed by the image of him waiting like a dog for the faithless feckless master to return, sure that when the master comes all will be well, that the master loves him as much as he loves the master. His blind devotion to whomever his master happens to be, coupled with his helpless physical love for Buckingham, makes John nothing more than a pawn in the increasingly frivolous and wasteful court of Charles I.
The latter part of the book improved a great deal. The focus shifts from John and his slavish loyalty to Buckingham, to John and his family. His wife and son were far more interesting to me. John might have been the gardener who helped shape history, but he allowed himself to be used and abused, while Elizabeth and J rebel against the godless king and duke by becoming more pious, trying to find their way in their increasingly turbulent times. I liked John when he wasn’t leaving his wife and son behind to wander Europe in search of exotic plants and political intrigue. I liked the tension at home between the Royalist John and his independent son J who wanted no master. I liked the struggle of Elizabeth, who wants to be a good and dutiful wife even though she realizes she will never come first for her husband. If only that had been more of the book.
As a glimpse into history, Earthly Joys is an intriguing view of Stuart England, literally from the ground up. It was a little hard for me to believe great men like Buckingham and Cecil would have put such trust in a gardener, a common working man, but then again John proves himself loyal to death for each of them. I admit, the gardening information got a bit tiresome at times, but some parts were fascinating, such as the tulip mania that wrecked Holland’s economy. John as a character didn’t suit me much, but the story has a compelling quality, like watching a movie you know will end in tragedy, but you just can’t look away. Still, just like with those movies, I was pretty happy to reach the end.