Gemma Alexander – South Cliff Gardens Community Engagement Officer

Finding the time to escape into a book is for many of us one of life’s great pleasures. Books take us on journeys to faraway lands and alien landscapes, they allow us to peer back into history and project into the future, they help us make sense of the world we live in and allow us to dream of other realities.

The Victorians were great champions of the virtue of reading but perhaps not for the reasons we would immediately guess. Far from being a form of art reserved for the middle and upper classes they attempted to use the encouragement of reading as a form of social control, a way of instilling moral values in the working classes and of grounding them with an understanding of their place in a hierarchical society. 

But the appreciation of literature across the social divide would lead to perhaps unforeseen social change. Writers like Charles Dickens and William Blake used their work to shine a highly critical spotlight on the inequalities of Victorian society as did the female authors finally establishing a voice in an extremely patriarchal social order, though often forced into using male pseudonyms to achieve publication.  Amongst them was Yorkshire author Charlotte Bronte who’s second novel “Shirley”, published under the masculine name Currer Bell, was set in the Yorkshire textile industry.

Along with her sisters Emily and Anne, Charlotte was a known visitor to Scarborough though of the three siblings the youngest and arguably least well know Anne had the closet links to the town which would also become her final resting place. For several years Anne visited annually with the Robinson family for whom she was governess.

Whilst she is said to have loved Scarborough and included references to the town in both of her novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell  Hall the wording of her poem The Bluebell most strongly suggests that she may also have been a visitor to South Cliff.

 All carelessly I strayed,
Between two banks where smiling flowers
Their varied hues displayed.
Before me rose a lofty hill,
Behind me lay the sea,
My heart was not so heavy then
As it was wont to be

Some literary historians believe Anna is describing a walk somewhere amidst the gardens due to the description of a large hill with sea behind it whilst other believe she is referring to Olive’s Mount. Either way it’s a bitter sweet poem in which Anne uses flowers as a mechanism to reflect on the loss of childhood and its freedoms. Sadly her adulthood was short lived and she died at the age of just 29.

Gardens are a recurring theme in literature. The classic children’s story The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, also a Yorkshire author, explores the healing and restorative power of gardens as a number of children’s and adult’s lives are transformed by the reclamation of a lost garden.  The book is a beautiful celebration of the positive influence time spent in nature can have on our lives.

However not all fictional gardens are what they seem and some may contain surprises. In Tom’s Midnight Garden when the grandfather clock strikes 13 Tom is magically transported from his gardenless flat to an enchanting Victorian era garden. Alice ends up in Wonderland thanks to an enticing garden and there’s heady and mischievous magic at play amongst the flower beds in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Magical creatures can often be found in gardens as anyone who has posted a letter to the fairies in the Shuttleworth Garden can attest to! They may even teach us something as with Cicely Mary Baker’s Flower Fairy’s series where each fairy is named after a flower and accompanied by a botanically accurate illustration, enchanting generations of children whilst simultaneously educating them.

On the subject of magical creatures this summer as part of our digital family program we welcome some very special visitors to South Cliff as a little creature called Marigold and her friends have an exciting race around the gardens in a brand new story written and narrated by Lee Threadgold. You can find out more by visiting the website of our friends at Animated Objects.

Marigold's Marvellous Minibeast Marathon poster

There is also still plenty of time to take part in our wonderful collaboration with arts charity Invisible Dust and artists Feral Practice and Rob Mackay as they invite families on a bug detecting adventure that can be enjoyed anywhere outdoors, there is also the chance to take part in a fantastic contest to win a very special prize. You can find out all you need to get involved on their website.

And that’s not all, going back to books, in August we will also be holding a week long digital family book festival where you will find storytelling, activities and challenges for all ages to enjoy, keep an eye on our social media for more details.

Book Festival Poster

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